On November 6, two meetings – one in Ouagadougou, one in Bamako – brought developments that could portend changes for the situation in Mali. If taken at face value (and there are reasons to do so), the results of these meetings point toward two very different paths the crisis in northern Mali could take. Those paths are negotiation or war. If the meetings themselves are viewed as gambits in a deeper, less explicit sort of negotiation, then they communicate something different about the positions of the key players who will shape the future of northern Mali.
The meeting in Ouagadougou was between representatives from the Islamist movement Ansar al Din, which controls part of northern Mali, and regional mediators led by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore. Following talks on Tuesday, Ansar al Din’s delegation “agreed to commit to peace talks with Mali’s government and observe a ceasefire,” and also pledged to allow aid agencies into territory the movement controls. As AFP has reported, mediators have urged Ansar al Din to cut its ties to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is part of Ansar al Din’s Islamist coalition in northern Mali, and Ansar al Din’s actions on that front could determine the viability of negotiations. While the delegates in Ouagadougou made no commitments regarding AQIM, they did stress their group’s “independent” nature, which AFP calls “a signal” of their potential willingness to abandon AQIM. As AFP notes in a separate article, Ansar al Din also has envoys in Algeria for talks.
Ansar al Din has offered to negotiate with authorities in Bamako before (French), but the movement’s demand for the country-wide application of shari’a seemed to make the idea a non-starter. Malian Foreign Minister Tiéman Coulibaly (French) has said that “the territorial integrity, secularism/laicite, and republican character of Mali are not negotiable.” Shari’a has, from what I have read, not come up yet in this round of talks, except perhaps through veiled references.
The Tuareg-led, ostensibly secular rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) has a presence in Ouagadougou, and welcomed Ansar al Din’s willingness to negotiate.
In Bamako, meanwhile, military commanders from member states within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have developed a “military blueprint” for retaking northern Mali by force. The plan goes next to presidents from ECOWAS members, and then to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on November 26. On October 12, the UNSC “held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.”
As AP notes, however, any military offensive in northern Mali is unlikely to happen before 2013. The deployment of troops may be contingent on the completion of new elections for a national Malian government – a process that will pose its own severe logistical difficulties.
So who is serious, and who is bluffing? Is everyone bluffing? And who speaks for whom?
If we take things at face value, Ansar al Din is ready to talk, and ECOWAS is ready to fight. Perhaps ECOWAS’ threats have scared Ansar al Din into coming to the negotiating table, and perhaps ECOWAS doubts Ansar al Din’s sincerity. ECOWAS leaders such as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan have expressed their preference for talking rather than fighting. But perhaps ECOWAS’ leaders hold little hope that Ansar al Din will repudiate AQIM, or that talks will materialize, or that talks will get past Ansar al Din’s insistence on shari’a – and so ECOWAS continues to mobilize, or give the appearance of mobilizing.
One can read the whole process, then, as a form of negotiation. In this view, all parties expect the conflict to end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. And so ECOWAS mobilizes in order to strengthen its hand at the table, and Ansar al Din hints at future concessions while the Islamist coalition still makes sure to demonstrate its capacity to strike at “border” towns like Douentza, all more or less as a form of positioning. I’ve even heard the theory that the war as a whole started off as a bid for a strong negotiating position – ie, that the MNLA never expected matters to go this far, but rather hoped to win concessions from the new president of a post-Amadou Toumani Toure Mali.
Ansar al Din, of course, does not demand the break-up of Mali, but its (deeper) Islamization. Are the cooler heads in the Islamist coalition, then, looking toward a future, reunited Mali, and angling for a) a say in determining the role Islam plays in government at the national and local levels and b) continued political influence, official and unofficial, in northern Mali, even beyond religious affairs?
The danger with all the levels of negotiation taking place, or potentially taking place, is that the various sides may well misread each other’s signals, with the result that more blood is shed. Even if all sides proclaim a desire for peace and a willingness to talk, there are so many sticking points – shari’a, elections, etc. – that the conflict seems likely to endure for quite some time.