The current crisis in Mali begs for a strategic peacebuilding solution. The complex situation in the rebel-controlled north requires multilateral, international negotiations and strategic post-conflict peacebuilding. The Malian government is currently not strong enough to handle the situation on their own. Moreover, ECOWAS military intervention, or by other powers, will create further chaos and result in many civilian casualties in the north. African Union leaders and Western mentors need to prioritize solving the Mali crisis without waging war, to get Mali functioning again, and to prevent spillover from destabilizing neighboring states. Leaders from Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger should play key roles in negotiations and strategic planning as they share Saharan borders with Mali and will be instrumental in securing the Saharan region against further rebel incursions.
Many factors need to be considered when attempting to understand the rebel situation, before we can transform it; the current situation in northern Mali did not arise suddenly. Tuaregs have had five major rebellions since 1916, and AQIM has been actively using the Malian Sahara as a base since 2002. Saharan borders are porous with laissez-faire government monitoring, so AQIM has been able to between Algeria, Mali, Morocco, and Mauritania with relative impunity – as long as they stayed out-of-sight out-of-mind in the Sahara. However, a series of higher profile kidnappings including the kidnapping of two Frenchmen near the Mali-Niger border led to the north of Mali being classified as a ‘no go zone’ for foreigners in July 2010. Northern civilian populations have been suffering the economic repercussions ever since. The Algerian company Sonatrach announced in October 2011 that it was planning to be the first to start drilling for oil in the Malian Sahara mid-2012, but due to the circumstances this hasn’t begun.
At the time of the rebel takeover of northern Mali in March, all economic indicators pointed to failure. Macro-economic growth was declining because of the travel restrictions. The recognition of the northern issues in the southern-based government were ignored. Investments in the north were overlooked in favor of centralized development. Public investments and infrastructure in the north were bare minimal, and security and property rights are known to be unstable in the ‘lawless’ north. Also, investment in creating a better policy environment and government strategy for the north was ignored by southern politicians. The north has traditionally followed the “community resilience archetype,” where the strong sense of inner-community stability has maintained their survival, however, it led the northern Songhai and Tuareg to marginalization within the greater nation. These populations have been historically misunderstood, and pitted against the southern ethnic groups, creating grievances.
Strategic peacebuilding needs to be enacted to stop the destructive cycle and build a sustainable, co-desired future for Mali. The first step is to ‘listen to the system.’ Civilians in northern Mali are calling for negotiations, not intervention. They know ECOWAS would not be able to distinguish the ‘enemy’ from the civilians, and that intervention would kill many innocents and completely decimate their already acutely impoverished towns. MUJAO rebels have already tried and are still willing to negotiate, but the Malian government’s plea for intervention might ruin their chance at a settlement without full-blow war. The crisis in the north not only effects Mali, it effects the security and future handlings of safeguarding the Sahara, thus the fragile Malian government should not be left to its own (often corrupt) devices.
The Malian government is feeble, doing a light-footed political dance by grabbing at straws wherever they chance to find a means to boost their power. Sending military aid and/or training is not a viable option, as the Malian military has been receiving specialized international military training and support for over a decade. The military retreated in the coup and they fled at first sight of the MNLA forces, thus abandoning all their internationally gifted vehicles and supplies to the rebels. It would be foolhardy to further support the dysfunctional military without a complete structural transformation of it and the societal needs. The call for elections first followed by intervention is also nonsensical, because the heart of the northern grievances is that they are unrepresented and unsupported by government. The north constitutes half of Mali’s territory. If there were elections now with the majority of northerners either stranded under rebel control or stuck as refugees in neighboring countries, the election without their presence would be officially denying their citizenship.
Earnest negotiations have been undervalued, and this is the first step international leaders should endeavor to create a positive change in the situation. Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine is known for switching to greener pastures – he was fighting for AZAWAD with the MNLA, and has been bought out before in past Tuareg rebellion – which is a leverage point for negotiations. He shifted his character to align with the hard-lined Islamic stance as soon as he befriended the Islamic rebel factions, which appeared to be more a means to gain support and financial backing than a status quo. His latest change-of-face has been to denounce the Islamists and is attempting to act as power broker in the region between Ansar Dine, MNLA and the Malian government in a potential coalition to oust the rebels. The MUJAO in control of Gao have made the point of saying they are occupying in effect to keep the MNLA out, because they are averse to a separate AZAWAD (and on November 16th fought MNLA fighters based in Meneka to further prove their point). At the outset of their control of Gao, the MUJAO leaders, who are predominantly non-Malian, admitted to their lack of governance skills and asked for officials from Bamako to come up to help them run the city. Essentially, the changing nature of these groups and power-vying leaders points to opportunities for discourse, not unfounded attack.
The rebels currently are occupying the north, not attacking the civilians. The rebels have imposed Sharia, but this is not so dissimilar from how Malians enact law; and the same Sharia is practiced in Saudi Arabia without such a media outcry. The most acute problems are the civilian crises, with hundreds of thousands suffering from starvation, loss of livelihood, and displaced internally and across neighboring borders. The northerners are dealing with more than seven months of a nonfunctioning economy and a complete collapse of the social system – the civilian grievances are unceasing. Negotiations would be to save civilian lives and create minimal resistance for the post-conflict restructuring.
Once terms of negotiations are settled, Mali needs a strategic peacebuilding team to shepherd holistic dialogue and sustainable development in order to maintain the peace. Creating a policy of zero tolerance for criminal groups hiding in the north is crucial, and also for corruption in the capital. A security force to maintain the borders and patrol the Sahara will need to be prioritized. Northerners have habitually banned together in the Gonda Koy local militia to fill the gap in national security, so this energy and initiative should be factored into the security initiative, and could also provide needed jobs to the men of the north. Sustainable economic development initiatives will be necessary to rejuvenate the north and rebuild what was destroyed. Infrastructure development like roads, more access to electricity, water, and communication could usher in a new phase of opportunities economic livelihood for northerners. A southern-northern Malian dialogue initiative and education program would be instrumental in promoting trust, understanding and friendship amongst Mali’s ethnic groups, and help to overcome stereotypes and fear. Instead of a tragedy, Mali can arise as a peaceful, sustainable model for the region.
In this strategic peace process, international actors need to avoid linear thinking and be prepared to invest time and effort. The crisis of the north of Mali should not be merely directed to ‘take out the rebels.’ Mali’s problems are complexly intertwined with longstanding unbalanced attitudes, broken structures, and biased and corrupt civil transactions. This crisis situation can be used to transform how Malians envision their nation, and how West African states come to terms with their fragile democratic structures, porous borders, and ethnically overlapping terrains.