With violence wreaking havoc across the country, authorities in Mali are now looking for new avenues to reach a settlement with Islamist insurgents operating in the northern part of the West African country.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita recently said that his government was ready to hold talks with the main jihadist leaders in the country.
“Why not try to contact those who we know are pulling the strings,” Keita told French media last week. “The number of deaths in the Sahel is becoming exponential. It’s time for certain avenues to be explored.”
Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist rebellion that erupted in the country in 2012. Since then, thousands of civilians and military personnel have died in the conflict.
Experts say the recent move was motivated by the Malian government’s pragmatism in addressing the rise of violence, albeit certain challenges still lie ahead.
“What will be difficult is disentangling the dedicated Islamists from the indigenous groups seeking an autonomous region in the north,” said Alice Hunt Friend, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“Their long-term goals do not necessarily overlap, and that will affect the details of negotiations in ways that could lead to a stalemate,” she told VOA.
Various jihadist groups
The insurgency in Mali began when a separatist uprising was largely taken over by al-Qaida affiliates. Those groups captured key cities in northern Mali.
The Malian president said that his government representatives have already made contact with two of Mali’s extremist leaders, Amadou Koufa and Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Amadou Koufa is the founder of the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), which is considered the most active extremist group in Mali. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has listed Koufa as a terrorist.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, also listed as a terrorist by the UNSC, is the founder of Ansar al-Dine, a Salafist jihadist group that sought to implement sharia law in Mali.
In 2017, Ansar al-Dine merged with FLM and other extremist groups to form the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.
The U.N. says Koufa and Ghaly have been behind several dozen attacks against Malian military and civilians.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an IS affiliate, is also active in Mali and other countries in the Sahel region such as Burkina Faso and Niger.
The rise of extremist groups prompted France, a former colonial power, to intervene militarily, effectively driving the jihadist fighters from the towns they once held.
France has about 4,500 troops stationed in the Sahel region, who are primarily focused on fighting the insurgency in Mali. But in January, Paris agreed to deploy an additional 220 troops to the Sahel to combat the growing threat of extremism in the volatile region.
Despite the presence of French troops, experts believe extremists will continue to pose a major threat in Mali and the broader Sahel region.
“French efforts will likely be enough to keep Islamist extremists from consolidating real governing power, but they are unlikely to completely eliminate the threat from extremism,” Friend said.
She added that such military efforts “won’t be able to solve the governance crisis that allows extremism to continue.”
In addition to France, the U.N. Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) also has about 14,000 peacekeeping troops in Mali. Some analysts, however, have questioned MINUSMA’s effectiveness in achieving its stabilization objectives.
But U.N. officials say their mission in Mali has become more robust in terms of addressing ongoing challenges in the country.
“We are doing our best to adapt to the security situation, but we are not the only one,” said Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for MINUSMA, who declined to comment on the Malian government’s ongoing efforts to negotiate with jihadists.
“The security situation in Mali is the responsibility of the government,” he told VOA in a phone interview.
That is why Friend of CSIS believes that “Malian internal diplomatic efforts say more about the nature of the challenges to the government and stability in Mali than they say about any particular outsider efforts.”
“Dialogue with dedicated Islamists is unlikely to end in compromise, but dialogue with Malians seeking equitable governance structures within Mali is always worthwhile,” she added.
Rights groups say that violence in central Mali has escalated since 2015, when armed Islamist groups affiliated with al-Qaida began moving from northern into central Mali.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report this month that al-Qaida-linked groups “and groups recently allied with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have attacked government security forces and committed atrocities against civilians.”
Corinne Dufka, the West Africa Director at HRW, says the increase of violence in Mali is not only underscored by armed Islamists and longstanding ethnic tensions, but also by arms proliferation in the country.
“Arms are readily available. There are arms that were stolen from Malian security forces during attacks,” she told VOA in a recent interview via Skype.
“The Sahel has been known for trafficking of cigarettes, drugs, arms and people,” Dufka said, adding that “in many ways, this is a very lawless place. And this is really a factor in the proliferation of arms and the violence we’re seeing.”