A recent spate of extremist attacks in Mali has once again underlined the need to rethink the hard security approach that dominates the response to terrorism in the Sahel.
The end of June saw attacks in Mali on French forces as well as the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a security force made up of five regional countries to combat jihadist insurgents and criminal groups. The attacks overshadowed the African Union (AU) summit in Mauritania, which also hosted French president Emmanuel Macron, keen to discuss the region’s burning security problems.
Over the first four months of this year, more people were killed in terrorist attacks in Mali than the whole of last year. The country has been plagued by violence since 2012, when an armed rebellion by Tuareg-led jihadists with links to al-Qaeda broke out in the north. A peace agreement negotiated in 2015 remains extremely difficult to implement. The U.N.’s peacekeeping mission established in 2013, known as MINUSMA, has the highest rate of casualties of such missions in the world.
So we desperately need to talk about security in Mali. But equally urgently, and indeed to get successfully to stability, we need to talk about why people join armed groups in the first place. Efforts to build peace in Mali will not be possible without addressing the root causes of conflict.
Mali has long struggled with weak governance, poverty, youth unemployment, droughts and food insecurity. Ethnic tensions have been exacerbated through lawlessness and marginalisation. With more and more schools being shut in some areas by Jihadis, children face an uncertain future. Porous borders – over which arms, drugs and people are trafficked – create a major security headache that is felt not just in the region but globally.
In an effort to understand what is happening and why, International Alert went to a number of communities that are struggling with violent extremism in the Sahel region, and asked young people from Fulani (herder) communities why they may or may not choose to join armed groups.
The answers had little to do with religious ideology. A great majority of those we interviewed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso strongly blamed the state’s inability to provide security and services.
They said state abuse and corruption with impunity drives some young people to join armed groups. Last week, the U.N. mission in Mali said that Malian troops from the G5 Sahel had “executed 12 civilians” at a market after a soldier was killed in May.
Such incidents provoke grievances which violent extremist groups use to incite communities to embrace an alternative political and social model inspired by the Sharia.
Our research also found a complete lack of trust in the defense and security forces among the communities we work with. This lack of trust runs across all sections of society, both feeding off and exacerbating ethnic tensions.
Therefore it is important to rebuild trust between communities and security forces. Dialogue is one way to achieve this. Over the past few years, International Alert has established and supported community-based forums that for the first time, bring together women, men and young people with some of those they fear the most: the Malian military.
I attended one of these forums during a recent visit to Mali. Around the table were representatives of farmers and foresters, and different religious communities. One participant told me that after his Fulani friend was killed by the security forces, he was so angry that he went to join the armed groups. He didn’t, in the end, as he felt their vision did not represent the Islam he believed in. He is now one of a brave group of community leaders that regularly discuss local issues with the security forces.
A female participant told me she had never sat in a room with the military before. “This has transformed my opinion of them and their role in protecting us. I now understand that they have problems too,” she said.
This initiative is successful locally, but as the participants told me, such trust building needs to be undertaken more widely. International military support in Mali is driven by a desire to stabilise the region, push back the armed groups, reopen schools and restore the State. But to succeed in any of these areas in the long-term these forces need to win the trust and support of the communities they wish to serve.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force is without a doubt a core pillar of stabilization in the region, but it has to be accountable or risk undermining its aim to reduce violence, and could instead weaken regional stability. The European Union and the U.K. government need to ensure that their support for the Force goes beyond providing funds and training, to insist on assurances that it interacts with the local population in non-abusive ways that can build trust over time.
There also needs to be much more investment in addressing the root causes of the conflict. The international community needs to support Mali’s government to improve access to justice, reduce inequality and create job opportunities for young people. Without these long-term solutions, peace will prove elusive.
International Alert’s latest report “If victims become perpetrators” is available to download here.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Peacebuilding Deeply.