Sévaré, Mali — 'We decided intelligently to come to a plan B, to come to a compromise.'
They are four individuals with very different lives: a village chief and peace activist; a long-serving local official; a cattle herder who travels far and wide; and a health worker who finds jobs for disadvantaged youth in his spare time.
But these local leaders from central Mali - the country's epicentre of unrest - share one point in common: they've all forged recent pacts with al-Qaeda-linked jihadists to try and stem violence following a decade of failed counterterrorism operations.
"It all started when we realised we don't have the means to face them with arms," said the health worker, who is from a central Malian district called Douentza. "We decided intelligently to come to a plan B, to come to a compromise."
Jihadists began spreading across Mali in 2012 and have since expanded throughout the central Sahel, which includes neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. The humanitarian crisis in the region is now considered one of the worst in the world by aid groups.
The main response to the violence has been military. Foreign forces - most notably France - Russian mercenaries, and UN peacekeepers are all present alongside local armies. Sahelian civilians have also formed their own self-defence militias.
But since 2020 a significant number of communities have launched dialogues with jihadists to try and halt attacks and find some kind of common ground. We've been examining these grassroots efforts with a series of in-depth reports in recent months.
Our last piece from Mali presented the story of a charismatic, war-weary farmer who sparked a dialogue drive with jihadists in the country's central Koro district. Here, we detail four more accounts of Malians trying to disrupt violence in a similar way.
The stories include efforts to liberate hostages, lift brutal sieges, and wring surprising concessions out of the militants. Though the leaders have past experience mediating local disputes, none are used to addressing conflict on this kind of scale.
The accords being struck have improved security in certain areas and demonstrated a degree of civilian willingness to compromise with militants. That could prove pertinent should Sahelian governments pursue more definitive national talks with jihadists.
Still, the pacts are fragile and require a pledge by communities to follow strict sharia. The efforts have also failed to alter the downward trajectory of the broader conflict, which has worsened in recent weeks with jihadist attacks near the capital city, Bamako.
In the testimonies that follow, pseudonyms are used for security reasons. Some village and commune names, and certain other details, are also obscured to protect identities.
A village chief breaks a blockade: 'It is just a survival story'
Moussa Kodio had no grand plan when he contacted a group of jihadists in central Mali's Koro district in August 2021. He just wanted to stop friends and relatives in a nearby village from starving to death.
For the previous few months, jihadists had put the village under a crushing siege that had captured national headlines. Since youth there had formed a small militia and assisted troops garrisoned in the village, it was a form of collective punishment.
Kodio was well placed to act. The local leader had contacted jihadists a few months earlier to defuse tensions between their fighters and residents of his village. In exchange for accepting harsh sharia, militants halted attacks that had ruined livelihoods.
"We couldn't leave our village before the pact," said Kodio, who acts on behalf of his father, an ageing village chief. "Thanks to the accord, I can now travel. I can go wherever I want."
After gaining permission from the jihadists to intervene in the blockade, Kodio and a group of other local mediators and peace activists travelled to the village with a message for residents: Leave the fighting to the national army.
"We gathered leaders - imams, chiefs, and women's groups - and we said we have come to make peace," Kodio told The New Humanitarian. "We said that this is not your fight."
Residents had little choice but to accept the mediation. Half a dozen had already died trying to break the siege, while jihadists had raped women who had tried to escape. Food stocks were running perilously low; diets were dangerously deficient.
A week later, a meeting was held between jihadists and residents in the bush just outside the blockaded village. The militants told the community not to provide information on their whereabouts to the military, and to respect their view of sharia.
Residents had plenty of grievances to air, but "the militants said peace requires forgetting about people who were killed and cattle that were stolen," said a religious leader who was part of the talks.
Nobody was willing to contest what the jihadists said, added Kodio. "The community asked for nothing in return. They agreed to avoid any altercation; it is just a survival story. We are afraid of them and accept what they ask."
Life was slow to resume after the siege was lifted last August. Residents stayed indoors in case militants were lingering, while "most of those that left during the crisis haven't returned because there is nothing [in the village]," a local business owner said in March.
Yet security did improve significantly after the pact, and sharia law was never actually implemented, said Kodio. "The jihadists never came to [the village] after the agreement because the military are there," he said. "Nothing gets enforced in practice."
Kodio's life, however, has not been easy since he started contacting the militants. Despite "working in the interests of the country", he said soldiers now treat his village with suspicion and have accused some residents of collaborating with the jihadists.
Still, Kodio believes dialogue with jihadists is the best option, both locally and for the government. "You can't educate a human being only through punishment," he said. "Sometimes you need to talk to bring them to reason."
A shepherd's intervention: 'I've always been like this - trying to help people'
It was the abduction of two police officers by a group of jihadists in late 2020 that led Allaye Bah - a cattle-herder and family man from central Mali's Bankass district - into the world of local conflict mediation.
For several years, Bah had shepherded livestock around various jihadist strongholds, developing an enviable contact book. He hoped his network might prove useful in locating the officers, and reaching the militants who had captured them.
Months of effort by Bah led to the release of one officer in exchange for a ransom payment. It also won the shepherd the confidence of the jihadists. "We trust you, because since we started communicating you never lied to us," one fighter told him.
Soon after the officer was released, a village in nearby Djenné district was besieged by jihadists. The militants were trying to crush an anti-jihadist militia entrenched in the area. Thousands of civilians were once again caught in the middle.
After obtaining permission from state security services to intervene in the crisis, Bah spoke with his jihadist contacts. They then asked for a meeting to be set up with residents of the blockaded village, and for Bah to personally mediate.
The mission was dangerous, but Bah said he was compelled to act. "I've always been like this - trying to help people," he said. "As a Muslim I know that if you don't get any benefits on Earth, you will get benefit in the afterlife."
At the meeting, jihadists requested that local residents follow sharia and forgive them for past hurts. They also asked militia fighters to stop wearing traditional uniforms in public and to keep their weapons stored at home.
The 10 community leaders in attendance had no choice but to consent, said Bah. "Half of the village was already dying; people couldn't walk. There was no solution other than to accept the situation."
The siege was lifted once the community leaders consented. "At that same moment, the jihadists started calling their forces around the village and told them to leave their positions," Bah said. "The jihadists said 'your village is now liberated'."
Still, Bah worried that the pact wouldn't stick if militia fighters from other areas found out what it entailed. Given his official mandate, he also worried that it would look like the government was organising sharia for its own population.
To avoid these problems, the shepherd warned residents not to talk about the pact to other communities or to give interviews to journalists: "I said, 'if you start talking about all these details another problem will arise'."
Bah also worried about people's psychological welfare after the embargo. "I sent a letter to the army [asking them to be sensitive towards people], and I also asked the jihadists 'please don't traumatise these people again with your weapons'."
Residents remained skittish, however. A week after the agreement, Bah received a panicked phone call from a friend in Djenné. The friend said jihadists had been spotted encircling the liberated village.
Bah called his jihadist contacts to find out what was happening. The militants replied that they were simply trying to check on the residents' welfare. The following day, the fighters returned - this time with gifts of rice and $1,500 in cash.
Despite the heart-stopping moments, Bah said mediation work beats herding cows every day. "Now I am a mediator, I am helping many more people than I could when I was just sitting with my cattle," he said.
Still, the shepherd wishes the Malian government would provide financial support and formalise his work. "We want the government to give us recognition," he said. "We travel around the country trying to bring people together."
A health worker sets a trend: 'Everyone is part of this logic now'
When jihadists moved into Benjamin Konaré's commune in Douentza district several years ago, residents created a self-defence group to protect themselves. But as attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations increased, another path was deemed necessary.
"When somebody more powerful than you arrives, you need to make an agreement with them," said Konaré, a local community leader and healthcare worker. "We were poorly armed so we preferred to have peace."
Konaré considers himself a trailblazer. Before most other communities had arranged dialogues with jihadists, his commune had already decided it was the best course of action, he said.
Konaré took the lead in negotiations, approaching friends of central Mali's top jihadist leader, Amadou Kouffa. The militant chief had spent a part of his childhood in Konaré's commune and many locals had suggestions for how to reach him.
Eventually Konaré was put in touch with one of Kouffa's Douentza commanders. He happened to be from a village with an ancestral link to the health worker's commune. That historic pact was then used "to calm a hard situation", Konaré said.
The health worker said he was the only person from his commune brave enough to attend an initial meeting with the jihadists. He said he met the militants in the bush, before being blindfolded and driven around for an hour until he became disoriented.
At the meeting, the militants gave Konaré a series of principles to respect - women should wear veils, men should taper their trousers, and the two sexes should sit separately while travelling on public transport. Festive ceremonies were also banned.
Konaré tried to moderate the jihadists' expectations, explaining that his community couldn't follow all these rules at once. "The jihadists said they would give us a chance to try," Konaré said. "We are still in the process of trying."
Other meetings followed, and a familiarity started to settle. Although Konaré often didn't recognise his interlocutors beneath their head wraps, he said they knew a lot about him. "Sometimes they'd ask about my kids," he said. "One called me by my childhood name."
As Konaré's confidence grew, he started requesting concessions from the militants. In a recent round of negotiations, he said he convinced them to stop attending local markets carrying arms, and to move their base 50 kilometres away from his commune.
The sensitive work landed the health worker in plenty of trouble. Konaré said the government once grilled him on his contacts with Kouffa's fighters, while jihadists kidnapped him after a misunderstanding. He said he saw the sun just twice in 45 days of captivity.
Still, Konaré feels that life in his commune has improved significantly since the negotiations began. And he argued that the jihadists rarely show up in local villages, which means sharia isn't enforced as strictly as many had expected.
Some new rules even have benefits, the health worker added. A ban on fancy wedding parties means newlyweds can save money, while payment of zakat or tithes to jihadists is deemed less burdensome than the taxes once levied by the government.
Konaré has, meanwhile, used his experience to help other communities set up dialogues. "From what I know, everyone is part of this logic now," he said. "[They] entered the logic of peace as they realised you can't fight or face the jihadists."
The health worker has also consulted for international NGOs doing peacebuilding work in central Mali. But he feels their impact is pretty limited. "They have all the means, but they haven't achieved what I have," he said.
A public servant: 'Whatever I have to do for my community, I am ready.'
Amadou Sagara said he launched talks with militants because there was "a big need to find a solution". Over a two-year period, dozens of villages had been attacked in his commune in Bandiagara district, where anti-jihadist militias had set up bases.
The presence of jihadists had also poisoned ties between local Fulani herders - who had joined the militants in large numbers across central Mali - and members of Sagara's Dogon group who had joined the self-defence militias.
Sagara first made contact with jihadists in mid-2020 when they kidnapped one of his nephews in neighbouring Koro district. The public servant decided to call the phone number of the nephew, who picked up and put him through to his captors.
The jihadists told Sagara they wouldn't normally speak to a public official but would make an exception in his case. They cited Sagara's past efforts to protect Fulani civilians in his predominantly Dogon commune.
"In 2018, I gathered my community and said, 'either protect your neighbours or let them go'," Sagara said. "My car was used to take Fulani to safety. The jihadists were aware of what had happened."
Sagara encouraged the jihadists to make a similar peace gesture. "I said, 'if you release my nephew, it will give me the strength to tell my community that you have the will to make peace too'."
Though the conversation went well, Sagara ceded negotiations to a Koro-based peace group better placed to fix the issue. The group contacted the jihadists and arranged a hostage trade that saw Sagara's nephew swapped for a Fulani held by Dogon fighters.
The Koro collective - who hadn't previously made contact with jihadists - then launched their own broader dialogue drive. After dozens of villages in the district forged pacts with jihadists, Sagara asked the group to arrange the same for his commune.
To kickstart the process, Sagara sent the Koro group a list of the 109 villages that make up his commune and would be part of the agreement. The association then sent the document to the jihadists, who suggested a time and place to meet.
Talks almost collapsed, however, when jihadists raided three villages in Sagara's commune, killing two and stealing cattle. Sagara demanded an explanation, before realising that he'd made a costly mistake: The three villages had been left off the list.
As word spread of a possible agreement, anger also grew among the leaders of the anti-jihadist militias. Death threats on the radio and social media forced the public servant to leave his village and pilot talks from a distance.
Being forced from home was hard to take for Sagara - who has served his community for the past three decades - but he said it was a price worth paying to give dialogue a chance. "Whatever I have to do for my community, I am ready," he said.
Finally, a deal was struck that saw the commune agree to various terms and conditions. Individuals present at the dialogue said that included pledges to stop resisting the jihadists, to follow strict sharia, and to give up on certain cultural practices.
Attacks soon ended and farmers moved back into their fields, planting crops after years of missed harvests. And though militants occasionally entered the commune after the deal, sharia hasn't really been enforced, according to Sagara.
He said the experience shows what communities can achieve without outside intervention. "People have solutions to their own problems. There is a general issue, but every community has its own reality."
Edited by Andrew Gully.
Philip Kleinfeld, Correspondent and Editor, Africa
Mamadou Tapily, Malian journalist and videographer
Editor’s note: As Sahelian governments struggle to contain the spread of al-Qaeda and jihadist groups linked to so-called Islamic State, some local communities have taken a radical step: talking to the militants themselves. Based on months of reporting in Burkina Faso and Mali, this is the sixth in a series of stories examining those efforts. Read the first five here, here, here, here, and here.