Mali: Amadou Kouffa’s Opening Bid for Negotiations

Mali’s “Conference of National Understanding,” which concluded in April, recommended that the Malian government open negotiations with two prominent Malian jihadists, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. Both men are part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which is formally part of al-Qaida. After the conference floated the suggestion to negotiate, the French and Malian governments quickly rejected the idea. The suggestion, however, continues to evoke debate in Mali.

Apparently the jihadists are, at least theoretically, willing to consider the idea of negotiating. Recently, two emissaries from Kouffa (who is ethnically Fulani/Peul) approached (French) a prominent Peul politician, Alioune Nouhoum Diallo. Kouffa’s men outlined three preconditions for negotiations:

  1. The withdrawal from Mali of France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane;
  2. The withdrawal from Mali of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA
  3. The appointment of Diallo as mediator.

Needless to say, the first two preconditions are extremely unlikely to happen. Neither the government of France, nor the government of Mali, would agree – indeed, many would see those demands as a trap that the jihadists are attempting to lay.

But the very fact that Kouffa’s people approached Diallo bespeaks a willingness to negotiate, I think. Moreover, I think it bespeaks willingness not only on Kouffa’s part but on Iyad Ag Ghali’s, who is reportedly very close to Kouffa and who is, in a formal sense, Kouffa’s superior in the jihadist hierarchy.

Is there anything that could be negotiated? At the level of ideals, no – Mali will not become an Islamic state, Mali will not formally allow the creation of an autonomous jihadist emirate within its territory, Mali will not expel the international community, etc. But more pragmatically, perhaps Ag Ghali and Kouffa could be swayed by the offer of a path back to normalcy: a deal whereby they renounce al-Qaida in return for a seat at the main negotiating table, or whereby they could enjoy a comfortable exile somewhere far away from Mali (exile beats dying in the desert).

To me, the reason to start talking is to allow some room for creativity – the talking itself, I think, could uncover an area where genuine negotiations are possible. You can’t necessarily determine in advance exactly how the talks would go, or what the areas of compromise would be. You have to hear at least a little bit of what the other side thinks.

The counter-arguments to negotiations are, of course, serious and compelling. Some observers and players justifiably worry that opening negotiations could empower the jihadists politically or even militarily. But I don’t see negotiations and military pressure as mutually exclusive. You can still hunt these people even as you talk to them through intermediaries.

Finally, a bit on Diallo: he is a major figure, both within the Peul community (where he heads an umbrella body of Peul associations) and nationally. He was president of Mali’s National Assembly from 1992-2002, i.e. during the first decade of Malian democracy.

Last month, he gave a fascinating interview (French) where he discussed, among other things, the roots of Kouffa’s appeal – in Diallo’s view, Kouffa has benefited from his own eloquence, but also from broader socioeconomic problems such as unemployment among people educated in Arabic, rather than in French. In that interview, Diallo explained why he favors negotiations with jihadists:

Every time that the State really put itself forward, the State succeeded in halting the rebellions. So I think that a State that decides to talk straight, to speak the truth to all who are rebelling, and to speak with them, cards on the table, and to only commit itself to doing what it can do, that State can totally recover authority in central Mali, in eastern Mali. And that’s why you heard that heartfelt cry from hundreds of participants at the Conference of National Understanding who are sorry that the Peace Accord is not able to stop the bloodshed.

So, let’s talk with those who are presumed to be responsible for the bloodshed today. Let’s talk with Iyad Ag Ghali, let’s talk with Amadou Kouffa. Let’s try to know what’s necessary to do, without losing sight of the fact that the former president of the National Assembly, which I am, can only wish for a secular State, a democratic State, a State that will commit to the path of being just, being upright.

 

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Opposition to Mali’s Proposed Referendum Continues

Reuters:

Thousands of Malians took to the streets on Saturday to protest against a planned referendum on constitutional changes that would give extra powers to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, create new regions and recognise the Tuareg’s ethnic homeland.

Mali’s government has delayed the vote, which was originally planned for last week, but still plans to go ahead with it this year. Activists are unsettled by provisions that would enable the president to nominate a quarter of the Senate and remove the prime minister at will.

I’ve been following the referendum here on the blog – the opposition and protests it evoked last month, the decision to delay it, and the new court order to rewrite it and remove certain ambiguities. The latest protests underscore two things – the way in which the referendum fight is becoming a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, and the current of opposition against the idea of going much further in the direction of giving the north a special status.

For a government, pro-referendum perspective, it’s worth reading this interview (French) with Minister of Justice Mamadou Ismaël Konaté. In one exchange, he gives three reasons for supporting the referendum. Here are two (the third has to do with public accounts and decentralization):

First of all, this Constitution is running out of steam and it showed obvious signs of “non-performance” when, after the overthrow of the regime in 2012, it was not capable to make a clear distinction between the interim period and that of transition…Next, the two-term presidential limit was not very precise with regard to the possibility for a president of the Republic, having undertaken two consecutive terms, or even alternating ones, to come back, at a later time, to ask for a third term.

I don’t know the mind of the opposition, but I doubt they will be swayed by such arguments – the minister’s points do not touch on the most hotly contested issues, namely those having to do with presidential powers, the creation of a senate, and autonomy for the north. The minister goes on to make a case that the referendum can and should be held as a democratic exercise, and that there is something anti-democratic in the opposition’s choice of protests, sit-ins at the Constitutional Court, etc. I doubt the opposition would be swayed by such arguments either – they might respond that such actions are part of democracy writ large, part of the exercise of free assembly and protest. At the same time, one could read the opposition’s protests as a signal that they fear they would/will lose the vote, once it is held, and so they are seeking to block it from ever coming to a vote.

Mali: New Developments Around the Referendum

The Malian government hopes to hold a constitutional referendum that would increase presidential powers and would create a Senate. Initially, the referendum’s path ran smooth: on June 3 (French), the National Assembly voted 111-35 approving the proposed text, and on June 6 (French), the Constitutional Court affirmed the constitutionality of the text. But then opposition parties and civil society activists mounted significant protests against the idea – enough to prompt the Malian government to postpone the referendum indefinitely.

Now, it looks like the referendum will re-travel the same circuit. With the opposition formally challenging the constitutionality of the referendum, the Constitutional Court weighed in again (French). This time, once more, the court upheld the basic constitutionality of the proposed referendum. The court rejected the opposition’s argument that because of widespread insecurity in northern and central Mali, the country lacks the territorial integrity that the 1992 constitution makes a necessary condition for holding any such vote. However, the court did accept the opposition’s arguments on other points – noting, for example (French), that the proposed referendum text does not state the tenure of certain senators. Two-thirds of the proposed senators will be elected and will serve five years, but the text does not currently say how long the one-third who are appointed by the president will serve. To rectify the omission, the court has returned the text to the National Assembly for redrafting. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has said he is committed to the passage of the referendum.

If the legal issues are partly resolved, the political conflict is not. The opposition remains committed to defeating the referendum – preferably, for the opposition, by preventing it from coming to a vote at all. To that effect, the anti-referendum coalition is planning (French) “a national march, a sit-in in front of the Constitutional Court, a series of meetings with the accredited diplomatic corps in Mali, ‘dead city days’ [i.e., general strikes], and civil disobedience.”

Mali’s Delayed Referendum: A Victory for the Opposition?

About two weeks ago I wrote about Mali’s constitutional referendum, which was originally scheduled for July 9. The referendum, backed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, would expand presidential powers and create a Senate.

At a cabinet meeting on June 21, however, Keita’s government postponed the referendum to a date as yet undetermined. (A video summary of the cabinet’s decisions can be found here, with reference to the postponement around the 2:00 mark.)

The government gave no reasons for the delay, but some Malian observers (French) are calling the postponement a “victory for the opposition” – an opposition that opposes not just Keita but also the referendum. Worth noting is that pushback against the referendum came not just from Keita’s enemies but also from some of his allies, including three parties (French) that asked for a delay and a rethinking of the proposed changes. These parties are l’Alliance pour la démocratie au Mali (The Alliance for Democracy in Mali, Adema), le Congrès national d’initiative démocratique (The National Congress of Democratic Initiative, Cnid), and le Yelema (meaning “change” in Bambara, a widely spoken language in Mali). The referendum had also evoked street demonstrations and a significant civil society mobilization.

Faced with all that, IBK may have begun to fear that his side might lose the referendum or that it would too close to risk going forward. It seems now that the proposed text will be reworked so as to garner broader support – or, more drastically, perhaps it will be shelved altogether.

It’s also possible that the June 18 attack outside the capital Bamako played a role in the government’s decision. With renewed international focus on insecurity throughout much of the country, and with renewed questions about whether it is even possible to hold a fair referendum under current security conditions, it makes sense to postpone the vote.

Three Recent, Compelling Pieces on Mali

Recently I’ve read three new pieces on Mali, all of which were very strong and which readers may find of interest:

  • Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” for International Peace Institute;
  • Ferdaous Bouhlel, Yvan Guichaoua and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters,” for African Arguments; and
  • Niagalé Bagayoko, Boubacar Ba, Boukary Sangaré, and Kalilou Sidibé, “Masters of the land: Competing customary and legal systems for resource management in the conflicting environment of the Mopti region, Central Mali” for The Broker.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Stoning That Didn’t Happen”:

The episode stresses how complicated it is to gather information about northern Mali. AFP and RFI work from Bamako and Paris, respectively 1,500 km and 4,500 km away from the town of Kidal, where the reported events unfolded. Researchers operate from similar distances for the same security reasons.

The consequence of this is that journalists and researchers rely on indirect sources of information that are far from perfect and then do their best to triangulate them. It can often be difficult to tell whether two accounts are distinct or if they derive from the same source of information, since the same story can circulate through networks under multiple guises.

[…]

The timing of the stoning story is also important. It came as some civil society activists and politicians were calling for negotiations with Islamist leaders – calls that were abruptly rejected by authorities. It also immediately preceded French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mali in which he met with French troops and re-affirmed France’s pledge to fight terrorism.

And here’s an excerpt from “Masters of the Land”:

Customary institutions are still highly relevant – and legitimate – in Central Mali today. Local communities often find it hard to grasp the role of the government in resource management. Decentralization provided a national framework for resource management in Mali by establishing regions, cercles, and communes as units of local government. Governance units are entitled to manage their own natural resources, while electing assemblies or councils to manage these collectively. This decentralization process, which was accompanied by the adoption of a number of new laws for resource management, has deeply affected agro-pastoral management principles.

This overlap and competition between customary and legal institutions (and laws) for the management of resources often triggers tensions between communities and networks involved in farming, livestock breeding and fisheries, fuelling century-old conflicts between the different communities in the Mopti region. Furthermore, the priority given by most development programmes to agriculture-oriented policies, at the expense of pastoralism, has triggered intra- and inter-communal tension, resulting in the emergence of new power relations within communities involved in resource exploitation. This is especially the case within the Fulani community, where domination between pastoral and farming populations has changed since the colonial period due to the enforced settlement imposed on nomadic populations. These upheavals have upset historical balances.

“Masters of the Land” provides an important corrective to the alarmist narrative of “Fulani radicalization” that various irresponsible people are pushing. True, the piece points to a trend where Fulani pastoralists join jihadist groups in order to gain weapons with which to fight local rivals, as well as a trend where some Fulanis are nostalgic for past Islamic empires, but the piece also shows that central Mali has witnessed a growth in (non-jihadist) “politico-military militia” and “self-defence groups.” The authors note, “These groups are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other and their followers do not fit neatly into one sociological category.” The authors conclude, “The complexity of the recurrent and violent crises, as well as the overlapping and competing customary and legal institutions involved in the management of resources, calls for security and development activities to be better grounded on the socio-cultural context in Central Mali.” Endorsing a shallow, region-wide narrative of “Fulani radicalization” would undermine, rather than advance, such an effort to better ground security and development activities.

Mali: A Few Details on the June 18 Attack on the Kangaba Resort

On Sunday, June 18, an estimated nine gunmen attacked the Kangaba tourist resort in Dougourakoro, which is east of Mali’s capital Bamako (map). The resort is popular with expatriates. According to Reuters, four of the attackers were killed, five were arrested, and at least five guests at the resort were killed (“a French-Malian, a French-Gabonese, a Chinese, a Portuguese and a Malian soldier”). The attack ended when Malian, French, and United Nations forces mounted a hostage rescue – and in contrast to previous incidents, this time there was praise from various quarters for the speedy response by authorities. (Read more on the response here, in French.)

A claim of responsibility (Arabic) soon came from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). JNIM, an umbrella group for Malian and Saharan jihadists, formed in March of this year. It is part of al-Qaida’s northwest African affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. JNIM’s statement emphasizes the idea that the attack targeted “the Crusaders occupying our homes and violating our security and our identity.” JNIM added that the attack was meant “to announce…once again to the Crusaders that there is no safety for them on our land.” Not much subtlety there: JNIM wants to weaken the will of Western expatriates to live in Mali, work with the Malian government, train Mali’s armed forces, etc. The attack is in keeping with the strategy laid out this spring by JNIM’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who hopes in part “to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present.”

Several analysts have also pointed out that JNIM identified three of its fighters and explicitly identified them as part of the Fulani/Peul, a widespread ethnic group in the Sahel. One key component of JNIM is the central Malian jihadist group the Macina Liberation Front, which is Fulani-led and heavily Fulani in composition. (Read some background on central Malian jihadism here.) The statement’s ethnic emphasis also hearkens backs to Ag Ghali’s articulated strategy, where he speaks of the necessity of building popular support.

Finally, in related news, the United Nations Security Council is expected to approve the deployment of a “G-5” (Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania) counter-terrorism force in the Sahel. The United States and France have reached an agreement that softened the original text of the resolution as proposed by France.

 

Details on Mali’s July 9 Constitutional Referendum

On July 9, Malians will vote “yes” or “no” on a referendum that would, if passed, modify the 1992 Constitution. The referendum would create a Senate, allow the President to appoint some “traditional leaders” to the Senate, and provide the president with additional authorities to implement the 2015 Algiers Accord that is meant to create a lasting peace in northern Mali. (More details on the referendum here, in French.) The referendum has been in the works for at least several months (French).

The formal campaign period begins June 23, but the informal campaign has already begun. The campaign and the composition of the “yes” and “no” sides could offer something of a preview of the 2018 presidential elections, when incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will likely seek a second term.

In terms of the legal process, the referendum has already cleared two hurdles: it was approved by the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it has been cleared by the Constitutional Court (French, .pdf). Some Malian commentators (French) have disagreed with the Court, arguing that the referendum cannot legally be held because of constitutional requirements that Mali enjoy territorial integrity before it proceeds with such a vote. In the eyes of those commentators, what the Court calls “residual insecurity” in northern Mali (p. 3) is something much more serious, namely a state of affairs that will prevent many central and northern Malians from voting, and will prevent politicians from effectively campaigning. Personally, I don’t see how a representative referendum could be held under the present circumstances.

In terms of the politics of the referendum, important opposition figures declared at a June 8 press conference (French) that they will be campaigning for a “no” vote. The opposition objects to both the timing and the content of the referendum; in particular, they denounce the expansion of presidential powers that the constitutional changes would bring.

Political opposition to the referendum has been expressed not just in press conferences, but also in street demonstrations. According to one account (French), demonstrators at an attempted protest on Saturday were “roughed up” and “confined like sheep” by the security forces.

In sum, signs of opposition to the referendum are quite visible, but given the uncertainties of who will get to vote (geographically speaking) and the lack of opinion polls, it’s very unclear to me what the likely result is. I will say that historically speaking, incumbents often do have considerable influence over such referenda in West Africa and the Sahel.

As a final note, it’s interesting to put Mali in regional perspective when it comes to the question of creating a Senate. Leaders in several of Mali’s neighbors moved to abolish Senates in recent years: Senegal closed its Senate in 2012. Mauritania‘s president wants to scrap the Senate there, although the Senate rejected plans for its own demise and now the issue is set to be decided in a referendum (French) to be held July 15, just six days after Mali’s. In Burkina Faso, longtime ruler Blaise Compaore’s plans to recreate that country’s upper house were quashed (French) after a popular revolution overthrew him in 2014. Niger and Guinea lack Senates, and the recently created Senate in Cote d’Ivoire is something of an exception (French) to the continental rule. The last of Mali’s neighbors, Algeria, does have a Senate, so perhaps we’ll say that Mali is not a total outlier, but its government is in a minority of African governments that actively want to add a new chamber to their parliaments.