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The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality
The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 189 / Africa

Mali: Avoiding Escalation

Calls for military intervention in Mali are increasing but it could sink the state, which is already on the brink of dissolution, further into chaos.

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Executive Summary

In a little more than two months, Mali’s political regime has been demolished. An armed rebellion launched on 17 January 2012 expelled the army from the north while a coup deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) on 22 March. These two episodes ushered Mali into an unprecedented crisis that also threatens regional political stability and security. An external armed intervention would nevertheless involve considerable risks. The international community must support dialogue between the armed and unarmed actors in the north and south that favours a political solution to the crisis. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must readjust its mediation efforts to avoid aggravating the already deep fault lines in Malian society. Strengthening the credibility of transitional institutions to restore the state and its security forces is an absolute priority. Finally, coordinated regional security measures must be taken to prevent once foreign groups from turning northern Mali into a new front in the “war on terror”.

In Bamako, the capital, the transitional framework agreed by ECOWAS and the junta, composed of junior officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, has failed to establish undisputed political arrangements. The junta has rallied grassroots support by capitalising on the anger of a significant minority of the population towards ATT’s government, with which it associates the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, former head of the National Assembly. Traoré was physically attacked, and could have been killed, by supporters of the coup leaders in the presidential palace on 21 May 2012. Flown to France for treatment, he had still not returned to Bamako in mid-July. The destruction of the military apparatus and the weakness of the transitional authorities, notably the government of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, soon to be reshuffled, impede the Malian forces’ ability to restore territorial integrity in the short term and avoid serious collapse.

In the north, the Tuareg group that launched the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, MNLA) has been outflanked by an armed Islamist group, Ansar Dine (Ançar Eddine), led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg chief initially sidelined during the discussions that led to the creation of the MNLA. By taking control of the north, Ansar Dine has established a modus vivendi, if not a pact, with a range of armed actors, including former regime-backed Arab and Tuareg militias and, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The latter is responsible for kidnappings and killings of many Westerners in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, attacks against the armies of the region and involved in criminal transborder trafficking. Northern Mali could easily become a safe haven for jihadi fighters from multiple backgrounds.

Considered for twenty years a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is now on the brink of sheer dissolution. The prospects of a negotiated solution to the crisis are receding with the consolidation of hardline Islamist power in the north and a continued political, institutional and security vacuum in Bamako. Although ECOWAS initially sent out positive signals, the credibility of its diplomatic action was seriously compromised by a lack of transparency in the attempts at mediation led by Burkina Faso, which was bitterly criticised in the Malian capital and beyond. Pressure is mounting in favour of an external armed intervention as specific security and political interests of foreign actors – neighbouring states and others – prevail over those of the Malian population in both the north and south.

It would be wise to ignore calls for war and instead to continue with existing initiatives to promote a political settlement of the conflict, while ensuring that security issues are not neglected. ECOWAS countries willing to send troops do not appear to fully grasp the complex social situation in northern Mali, and underestimate the high risk of inter-tribal settling of scores that would result from external military intervention. Such an intervention would turn Mali into a new front of the “war on terror”, at the expense of longstanding political demands in the north, and rule out any chance of peaceful coexistence between the different communities. Finally, it would expose West Africa to reprisals in the form of terrorist activity to which it is not equipped to respond. AQIM’s logistical links with southern Libya and northern Nigeria (through Niger) make it perfectly feasible for it to carry out terrorist operations far from its Malian bases.

This series of events in Mali is the result of a weak political system despite democratic practices, disillusionment in the lack of economic and social development in the north and south, government laxity in state management and the unprecedented external shock of the Libyan crisis. Under the ATT government, relations between the centre of power in Bamako and the periphery rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances with regional elites with reversible loyalties rather than on robust democratic institutions. This low-cost system of governance was able to contain the actions of the opposition, including armed groups, given their limited military ambitions and capacities. It disintegrated when faced with a rebellion that was quickly transformed into a well-armed group by the effects of the Libyan crisis and the opportunism of Islamist groups that have in recent years accumulated an abundance of arms using profits from lucrative trans-Saharan trafficking of illicit goods and Western hostages.

The perpetuation of a power struggle in Bamako, during a transition period whose end is impossible to predict, and the confused overlapping of armed groups in the north mean the future is very uncertain. A solution to the crisis depends, first, on how to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and, second, on whether the jihadi movements manage to consolidate their position of strength in the north. The decisions of Mali’s neighbours (Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso), regional organisations (ECOWAS, African Union) and Western and multilateral actors (France, U.S., UN, European Union) will also have some influence. It is urgent and necessary to restore the political, institutional and security foundations of the central state prior to working towards the north’s reintegration into the republic. It is also essential to increase humanitarian aid to the civilian population in the Sahel-Sahara region, already facing a food crisis, and quickly resume foreign aid to prevent an economic collapse.

Recommendations

To ensure security and strengthen the legitimacy of transitional institutions and the state 

To the Interim President and the Current Prime Minister: 

  1. Consolidate the legitimacy of the transitional authorities by urgently forming a genuine government of national unity after broad consultations with the main political parties and civil society organisations.
     
  2. Ensure the effective establishment of the special unit composed of gendarmes and police officers dedicated to the protection of transitional institutions representatives and request, if necessary, the deployment of a small, external armed contingent to support the force. 
     
  3. Guarantee proceedings of the judicial investigation into the assault on 21 May 2012 against the interim president, and if progress stalls, request international assistance to help identify and punish those who were directly and indirectly responsible for the assault.

To the Malian Defence and Security Forces:

  1. Guarantee the security and free exercise of their duties to the prime minister, members of the government and the National Assembly and other state officials.
     
  2. Put an end to arbitrary arrests of civilian and military individuals and the settling of scores within the army.
     
  3. Restructure and restore discipline in the armed forces, under the authority of the government and the official hierarchy of the different corps. 

To Members of the Former Junta and to Leaders of Civil Society Organisations that support them:

  1. Stop the manipulation of public opinion through divisive discourses that expose representatives of transitional institutions and politicians in general to violence. 

To Mali’s Bilateral and Multilateral Partners:

  1. Contribute to the reorganisation of the Malian armed forces and provide necessary support to the effective establishment of a force to protect the transitional institutions.
     
  2. Help stabilise the Malian economy through a rapid resumption of foreign aid as soon as a national unity government is formed; and answer the urgent humanitarian needs of the civilian populations severely affected by the crisis, whether internally displaced persons or Malian refugees in neighbouring countries.

To encourage a political settlement of the conflict in the North and neutralise the terrorist threat

To the Malian Government: 

  1. Refrain from launching a military offensive to regain control of the north prior to the creation of conditions for negotiation with non-terrorist armed actors and community representatives, including those forced out of the country by violence. 
     
  2. Seek the effective support of neighbouring countries, particularly Algeria, for a strategy to regain sovereignty over the north and neutralise the terrorist armed groups that threaten regional security.

To the Leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine:

  1. Formulate publicly clear agendas and commit to:
    1. respecting human rights and the principles of democratic and plural governance, especially with regard to religion;
       
    2. guaranteeing security and equal access of the population to basic public services and facilitating the access of humanitarian organisations to the population; 
       
    3. helping to establish the facts regarding the atrocities at Aguelhoc as well as all other atrocities perpetrated during the military conquest of the north;
       
    4. combatting the criminal trafficking activities that thrive in the territory they control;
       
    5. joining immediately the fight against AQIM and its armed offshoots; and
       
    6. exploring with the Malian government how to reach a rapprochement to avoid a lasting partition of the country and an internecine war.

To the Governments of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania:

  1. Revive regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism and transborder crime and open up participation to Nigeria and the Arab Maghreb Union, notably Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

To the Algerian Government:

  1. End the ambiguity about how serious a threat it believes armed groups in northern Mali are to regional security and show clear support for the restoration, even gradual, of Mali’s sovereignty over its entire territory. 

To the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the UN: 

  1. Continue to provide humanitarian support to the civilian populations who are the direct victims of the crisis in the three northern regions as well as to displaced people and refugees. 
     
  2. Adopt a joint strategy, together with the Malian authorities, that combines the establishment of a formal framework for negotiations with the armed groups in the north, restoration of the Malian armed forces and the mobilisation of as many resources as possible, including military, to neutralise AQIM and other criminal groups in northern Mali.

To the UN Security Council:

  1. Support attempts to reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis within the framework of Resolution 2056 of 5 July 2012 by:
    1. providing the Secretary-General’s special representative in West Africa with the necessary means to use his good offices to support ECOWAS mediation; 
       
    2. adopting targeted sanctions against all those who are identified as hampering normal operation of the transitional institutions in Bamako and attempts at resolving the crisis in the north, and against all those responsible for serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the north and south;
       
    3. establishing an independent group of experts to investigate the origin of the financial and material resources of the armed groups in northern Mali, as well as their arms supply lines, and collate information allowing the identification of Malian and foreign persons who should face targeted sanctions; and
       
    4. requesting the creation of an independent UN commission of inquiry into the human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed throughout Malian territory since the beginning of the armed rebellion in January 2012, which should report to the Security Council as quickly as possible. 

To Mali’s Bilateral and Multilateral Partners, particularly the European Union, France and the U.S.: 

  1. Provide political and financial support to Malian political and social initiatives that seek to resolve the crisis by uniting all communities, in the north and the south, through promotion of respect for the republic’s fundamental principles and society’s traditional religious tolerance. 
     
  2. Support efforts to reconstitute the defence and security forces, with a view to strengthening their cohesion, discipline and effectiveness so they can ensure security in the south, constitute a credible threat of last resort to protect the populations trapped in the north and be capable of participating, if necessary, in regional actions against terrorist groups.
     
  3. Provide intelligence support to the armed forces of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria to help them locate terrorist groups and their arms caches.

Dakar/Brussels, 18 July 2012

Malians attend Friday prayers at the Djinguereber mosque in the center of Timbuktu February 1, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Report 249 / Africa

The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality

Settling the place of Islam in Mali’s society and politics is a less visible but longer-term challenge to the state than its rebellious north and stalled peace process. The government should work toward a partnership with religious authorities to enable them to play a stabilising role.

Executive Summary

The 2012 crisis, during which self-proclaimed jihadi armed groups took centre stage, intensified the debate on the role of Islam in Malian society and politics. Although religious leaders have become powerful lobbyists, public perceptions of their influence are often exaggerated. The government faces a dilemma: many Malians want to see greater regulation of religious affairs, but intervention by a weak and discredited state could be counterproductive. The answer lies in a more constructive partnership between political and religious authorities, maintaining the important distinction between the two while accepting that religious leaders have a say in both political matters and conflict resolution and that the government has a role in limiting intolerant and hateful speech, both in sermons and in the media, as well as in regulating the training received by imams.

The 2012 crisis, when armed groups claiming to represent Islam occupied part of northern Mali, exacerbated the concerns of some Malians and Western partners about the role of religion in society. They fear that Islam will become the main source of social norms, threatening their way of life. This concern is heightened by the conflation of two very distinct phenomena: the politicisation of Muslim leaders and the expansion of armed groups in the north, or in other words, the link between religion and violence. Muslim leaders are increasingly and more openly affirming that they have the right and even the duty to intervene in major public debates and to get involved in politics, including by supporting candidates or standing for office themselves.

It is important to distinguish myth from reality and cool down an overheated debate. Religious leaders now undeniably have greater influence over political life and, much like other lobbyists, will advance their point of view by using their important role within society and their capacity to mobilise. However, they have not gained the upper hand in Malian politics. Voters do not systematically follow their instructions and political decisions are sometimes falsely attributed to their influence. Although the religious affairs ministry was created at their request in 2012, it is now seeking to exert some control over a disorganised religious field, to the great displeasure of some Muslim leaders.

Most religious leaders, politicians and civil society representatives deplore problems within the religious sphere and want to see better regulation.

Most religious leaders, politicians and civil society representatives deplore problems within the religious sphere and want to see better regulation. However, opinions differ about the degree of regulation necessary and about who should lead the process. While leaders of the so-called “Malekite” tradition of Islam are calling on the government to take responsibility, those from the so-called “Wahhabi” tradition (a historically inaccurate term but one which Malians use to describe all strands of Islam perceived to be fundamentalist) warn against intrusive government involvement in religious affairs.

A weak and discredited Malian state lacks the legitimacy to intervene constructively in religious affairs. Nor does it have the resources. Regulation could provoke precisely the outcome that the government wants to avoid: association with a state perceived as being in the pay of the West could discredit the official religion and thus contribute to the emergence of informal religions that could contradict official discourse.

A weak and discredited Malian state lacks the legitimacy to intervene constructively in religious affairs.

Should the government nonetheless wish to regulate religious activities, as requested by the religious affairs ministry and many other political and social actors, regulation should be kept to a minimum and religious leaders should play a central role. In other words, the priority should be establishing a partnership between government officials and religious leaders. They could start by working on two areas of consensus: the need to restrict hateful and intolerant speech and improve the training of imams.

Religion is a fact of life in Mali. The aim now should be to ensure it serves as a stabilising force. Religious leaders can help fight extremist ideas, as they did in 2012 when they denounced terrorism as contrary to Islam’s basic values. They can do better than the government or security forces in combatting those who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam. The challenge is how to define and delimit religion’s place in society so that it can play a positive role, especially regarding social regulation and conflict resolution.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 18 July 2017

 

Map of Mali International Crisis Group/KO/Dec2015. Based on UN map no 4231 Rev 3 (March 2013).