Peace Talks With Sahelian Jihadists? It’s Worth a Shot

Cincinnati, United States — After years of failed military efforts, the path forward has to include some kind of accommodation with the militants.

Since at least 2017, when Mali’s government organised a peace forum called the Conference of National Understanding, prominent voices in the country and the wider Sahel region have explored the possibility of dialogue with jihadists.

After years of failed counterterrorism campaigns by France and local armed forces, any possible conclusion of the Sahel crisis – which has killed thousands and uprooted millions – will inevitably include a negotiated settlement with militants.

Yet, while different kinds of local and national-level deals have been struck with jihadists in recent years, a definitive accord – national, permanent, and multi-issue – has remained elusive in the central Sahel, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

All three countries are in bad shape, and trend lines suggest things could deteriorate further. That’s why dialogue is worth trying, though the path forward is uncertain and a settlement might fit poorly with standard Western liberal peacemaking frameworks.

Unanswered questions

The idea of public negotiations with Sahelian jihadists has received tentative but growing attention from major research NGOs. Yet there are many questions that remain unanswered.

Would jihadists, despite their occasional proclamations of openness to dialogue, meaningfully engage for something other than tactical gains? Would they renounce their ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and what would such a renunciation be worth?

Does the international environment – especially overt French hostility to dialogue with jihadists – constrain what is politically possible? And what do local populations – in conflict zones, areas facing encroaching attacks, and national capitals – really want?

Available polling data in Mali – which includes research on Muslims’ religious attitudes, surveys of people’s political stances, and investigations into local experiences with the justice system – suggests the picture is mixed.

The majority of Malians support both democracy and a role for Islamic law in public life. And Malians who support shari’a in the abstract don’t necessarily want jihadists to define shari’a for them, nor see accused adulterers stoned or apostates executed.

Efforts to negotiate with jihadists also pose challenges to governments, academics, and NGOs, which increasingly emphasise the importance of “local voices” in setting peacebuilding agendas.

What if some “locals” are willing to compromise on liberal values, such as secularism, gender equality, or universal access to education, in order to save lives? Are local voices to be elevated only when they serve liberal peacebuilding goals?

Prisoner swaps and a cleric’s offer

The efforts of other African countries show that non-military measures can reduce jihadist violence. In Algeria, amnesties contributed to the conclusion of an extraordinarily violent civil war while prison dialogues in Mauritania became part of a package of policy changes that helped bring an end to a wave of terrorism.

But both countries made substantial trade-offs, essentially prioritising peace over accountability, and neither provides a blueprint that Burkina Faso, Mali, or Niger could easily replicate. The Sahelian states are weaker than Algeria, and face insurgencies that are broader and more severe than the cell-based terrorism that once troubled Mauritania.

Still, while permanent, national-level peace deals between Sahelian governments and jihadist groups may currently be out of reach, other kinds of ad hoc and fragile settlements have abounded at both the local and national level.

Mali engaged diplomatically with jihadists in a 2020 prisoner exchange; Burkina Faso negotiated a tempoary pact that allowed elections to occur the same year; and Niger’s president has been trying to contact hardline jihadists, though without a breakthrough.

Local communities in the Sahel have also negotiated their own deals with jihadists (see The New Humanitarian’s in-depth series), often at disadvantageous terms to the communities, but in ways that reduce violence.

In a recent academic journal article, I explored the efforts of a set of Malian elites – including the former National Assembly President Aliou Nouhoum Diallo – who contacted Amadou Kouffa, the main jihadist leader in central Mali, in 2017.

Kouffa and his Bamako-based interlocutors shared a common ethnicity as Fulani. Ethnicity had become interwoven with the conflict: stereotypes of the Fulani as jihadists triggered collective punishment of the group by Malian security forces and local militias.

During the 2017 discussions, Kouffa disavowed any political decision-making authority – referring his interlocutors to the jihadist leader Iyad ag Ghali. Yet he showed openness to discussing religion with selected Malian clerics, an inherently political act.

Responding on behalf of the Bamako group, a Malian cleric articulated a fascinating offer: If Kouffa renounced violence, the cleric said, he and the country’s elites could cooperate to expel French forces and build a more thoroughly Islamic Mali.

The reality of ‘local solutions’

Kouffa did not accept, obviously – violence continues. Yet this could be the kind of bargain that might ultimately attract jihadists: Amnesty, and Islamisation that goes beyond dropping formal references to French-style secularism (laïcité) from the Malian constitution.

However, what would this then mean for the status of Malian women, for access to education, for the country’s Christians and other non-Muslims, for Muslims who did not accept a “jihadist-lite” kind of rule, for Mali’s traditions of free assembly, music, art, and literature?

Though some Malian elites and citizens appear open to settlements with jihadists, it is difficult to tell what would be acceptable to the wider public, where questions of secularism, law, justice, and Islam are far from settled.

In the end, the Bamako group’s experiment offered a potential solution to conflict – yet one so fraught that it might prove unworkable or unacceptable to a critical mass of stakeholders.

The dialogue also highlighted that any ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding might take international peacebuilders far beyond what they are comfortable with. If international actors really want to empower local actors, then they might have to seriously consider illiberal perspectives and illiberal rhetoric.

A ‘local solution’ is not necessarily about finding traditional elders, women’s groups, or youth movements who favour peace and oppose extremism – a ‘local solution’ could involve significantly greater Islamisation of the Malian state and society, and serious trade-offs in the service of peace.

It seems unlikely that international peacebuilders would accept that. Recent political science literature has shown that the sector is frequently insularinattentive to local concerns, and more attuned to global rather than local stakeholders.

As conflict escalates in Mali and beyond, saving lives is of paramount importance. Though national-level pacts with jihadists would be hard to pull off, for all the reasons I outline above, I still believe they are worth attempting.

Alex Thurston, Assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, and author of three books including Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel

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