Expert Opinion

Why long-term solutions for Malian IDPs hinge on more inclusive peace talks

Ongoing peace talks, but not everyone is at the table

Marginalisation has historically been a cause of conflict and displacement in Mali. Even before independence in the 1960s, there have been episodes of unrest as marginalised groups have taken up arms against what they have seen as exclusionary practices of the government in power at that time.

2012 bore witness to the most recent of such movements. Here, what started as a rebellion by the Tuareg community, led by the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), soon led to a coup d’état, ousting the president and descending the country into  chaos.  As a consequence, Islamic militants - taking advantage of the security vacuum following the coup - moved in to take over much of the north.

This led to the most widespread episode of instability in the country in recent years. More than 350,000 people were displaced within Mali’s borders, over 175,000 fled to neighbouring countries and the crisis continues to strain Mali’s social fabric. In addition, the crisis – including a takeover of the north by Islamic forces, who subjected the population to a brutal interpretation of Islamic law - has traumatised the population and drained the resources of host communities in the south, exacerbating north-south tensions. 

Despite their obvious stake in rebuilding the country’s future, Mali’s civil society - which includes internally displaced people (IDPs), returning IDPs and others affected by the crisis - have been excluded from the latest peace negotiations which took place in Algiers in July. Women’s groups and other civil society representatives have denounced the peace process, highlighting the lack of inclusiveness and social representation as a core concern.  

The exclusion of displaced people and others affected by the crisis from recent negotiations means that real community concerns are at risk of being overlooked. Notwithstanding the humanitarian needs and ongoing insecurity; inter-communal mistrust needs particular attention so as to rebuild social cohesion, a fundamental issue that must be addressed in the peace process. 

Furthermore, the exclusion of civil society undermines their leverage, and therefore their ability to support national reconciliation efforts. Without their valuable input in the talks, the viability of any deal brokered during the second round in August and September of this year is at real risk. The population’s confidence in the government may also be further degraded, precisely when national unity is most needed to support reconstruction and building of a sustainable peace, and they only need look to neighbouring Liberia to find out why.

Lessons from Liberia 

The pitfalls of holding non-inclusive peace talks were exemplified in Liberia.  As in Mali, Liberian civil society groups were excluded from the 1996 Abuja Accords, which sought to negotiate a peace settlement between factional armies. The exclusion of civil society in these talks contributed to their ultimate downfall; in short it was an elite-struck deal rather than one that achieved national buy-in.  

The unravelling of the Abuja Accords arguably led to the emergence of Charles Taylor as president and the resumption of civil war across Liberia a few years later. In contrast, the subsequent peace process in 2003 included strong civil society representation and participation, notably through the role of civil society representatives as witnesses to the final agreement. Legitimate elections in 2006 followed bringing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power. She has since governed a relatively stable and peaceful country with ongoing and active civil society input.

Excluding armed actors risks proliferating arms and insecurity 

It’s not just the exclusion of civil society that threatens the current peace process however, as the numerous armed groups who are partly responsible for the current instability are also worryingly not being represented.  

The proliferation and splintering of armed groups pose a clear threat to any peaceful resolution to the conflict, as exemplified by the recent clashes which displaced over 18,500 people in May - just before the negotiations that took place in Algiers. These ongoing clashes, suicide bombings, and increased attacks by Jihadist militants against international targets – including humanitarian actors - continue to cause new displacement, back-and-forth movements and secondary displacements. 

If talks in Mali are to lead to durable solutions for displaced populations, it is imperative that all parties to the conflict are invited to the table so as to restore confidence, precipitate the disarmament and demobilisation of armed groups and, crucially, provide an environment conducive to political dialogue with and between these groups, and the government. 

Yet while the MNLA, the High Council of the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) are at the negotiating table, other factions are engaged in separate dialogues, while Islamist groups with ties to al-Qaeda remain entirely excluded. This exclusion of already-discontented actors undermines future demobilisation efforts, and may even go so far as to further exacerbate the proliferation of arms and armed actors in the region.

In short, the likelihood of recurrent conflict and displacement is increased if a “peace” agreement is brokered without a meaningful involvement from opposition groups and Malian society at large. In light of a second round of negotiations that will take place in the next few months, the Malian government and others at the negotiating table should seize the opportunity to break this cycle of marginalisation.

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