Mali’s interim prime minister has said the country’s transitional government is open to pursuing talks with armed groups to help end a years-long conflict that has killed thousands of people, disagreeing with France’s foreign minister, who rejected the idea.
The bloodshed began in 2012 as a separatist movement in the north but soon devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control and rendering vast swathes of the country ungovernable. The escalating violence has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, with groups including some linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
Several missions in the region, including France’s 5,100-strong Operation Barkhane and a 15,000-member United Nations peacekeeping force known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), have failed to help authorities to regain their foothold in the restive areas.
Former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was overthrown by the military in August, had said earlier this year that his government was prepared to negotiate with armed groups. National talks in the aftermath of the coup endorsed that policy.
Malian officials have provided few specifics about what kinds of compromises could emerge, but some proponents of negotiations have said they could include recognition of a greater role for Islam in public life.
Moctar Ouane, who was appointed Mali’s interim prime minister last month to manage an 18-month transition after the August 18 coup, said on Monday that his government was prepared to pursue talks.
“The conclusions of the inclusive national talks … very clearly indicated the necessity of an offer of dialogue with these armed groups,” Ouane said at a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who is in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on a two-day visit.
“We need to see in that an opportunity to engage in far-reaching discussions with the communities in order to redefine the contours of a new governance of the areas that are concerned,” Ouane added.
Le Drian, however, indicated he was opposed, noting that the hardline groups had not signed a 2015 peace deal that France considers a framework for restoring peace to northern Mali.
“Let’s say things very clearly: there are peace accords … and then there are terrorist groups that have not signed the peace accords,” Le Drian said. “It is simple.”
Le Drian said his position against dialogue was shared by the United Nations Security Council and the countries in the G5 Sahel group – a regional force that includes Mali.
The French government in January pledged to step up its military engagement in the Sahel and designated ISIL as the “number one” enemy in the region south of the Sahara.
Shortly afterwards, Keita’s government, under domestic pressure to resolve the conflict, said it was prepared to talk to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, which are at odds with ISIL. It is unclear to what extent the government engaged al-Qaeda-linked fighters before the army overthrew Keita in following months-long protests calling for his departure.
Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said the Sahel fighters are “rooted in their communities, which are sometimes sympathetic to them”.
They are also increasingly involved in local affairs, which is why many “are trying to explore the path of dialogue,” he said.
Informal contacts between the new government in Bamako and armed groups are apparently already under way.
This month, the government swapped some 200 detainees – many of them thought to be fighters – for four captives held by armed groups, including veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse.
Le Drian’s visit to the Malian capital also comes at a time when world leaders appear to be considering the possibility of talks with armed groups.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told French daily Le Monde in September “there will be groups with which we can talk, and which will have an interest in engaging in dialogue to become political actors in the future”.