reconciliation in mali
Hard start for Mali’s new leader
See the version of this article published on the IRIN site on September 19, 2013
GAO, Mali — World leaders and others who have pledged to help Mali recover from nearly two years of conflict will gather in the Mali capital, Bamako, today for the official inauguration of the newly elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
“I want to reconcile hearts and minds, restore true brotherhood between us,” said President Keita, echoing his campaign speech after taking the oath of office on 4 September. “So that all the different people can play their part harmoniously in the national symphony.”
This came days after protesters jeered and threw stones at government officials visiting the northeastern city of Kidal – a Tuareg-rebel stronghold and the base of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seized the north of the country with the help of various Islamic factions last year. The delegation from the newly formed Department of National Reconciliation and Northern Development came to meet with the local leadership ahead of negotiations to restore national unity.
Thanks in part to his reputation as a strongman, IBK, as the president is known, was elected with over 70 percent of the vote over his second-round opponent, Soumaïla Cissé. He was touted as the candidate who could bring order back to Mali and enjoyed widespread support at home and abroad – including thinly-veiled favoritism from France, which remains a presence in Mali after leading the push to liberate the north nine months ago. But analysts say the current situation requires more than strength.
“People want credibility, but the president is aware that any unilateral move on his part will be dangerous,” said Gilles Yabi, the West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “This is a time for dialogue. This is a time for compromises. But it’s also a time to signal important principles.”
UN, French and Malian forces are maintaining stability as the government forms a reconciliation plan, but there is distrust on all sides. Some in the capital talk nervously about negotiations between MNLA and Malian officials and the possibility of a pardon for rebels, saying that would only re-start conflict in places like Timbuktu, Bourem and Gao, capital of the short-lived and unrecognized Islamic Republic of Azawad.
“Impunity is not an option,” said Abdoulaye Boncana Maïga, the pacific leader of the Young Patriots Movement in Gao, guitar in hand after strumming a song about love. “Without justice, there can be no reconciliation. Each community must bring its offenders to be judged.”
Gao was the site of the occupation’s greatest resistance, as well as some of its gravest crimes. When local teacher Idrissa Omorou was killed in June 2012 by MNLA members, the Young Patriots’ Movement, along with other youth groups, confronted the rebel group in the streets of Gao and dispersed only when they were fired upon, leaving 15 wounded and two dead. There were three marches of this kind over the course of the occupation.
“There were those of us who did not protest for fear of being shot by the MNLA and MUJAO,” says Maïga. “We do not fear the government and protests will be much larger if they do not listen to us.”
Despite its revolutionary beginnings, the Young Patriots Movement insists it only wants peace – though the kind of peace that will last in the complex nation. For that, says Mr. Boncana Maïga, all sides must be heard.
The exodus of government officials and the military in the spring of 2012 left a power vacuum in the city, which was filled by civil society. Despite the liberation of the north by French-led forces in January, Gao’s leaders remain influential for the roles they assumed during and after the occupation.
In lieu of paid sanitation workers, the women’s group “Don’t Sit, Work” currently cleans streets, schools and riverbanks in broad daylight. But its activities took on a more clandestine approach during the occupation – when members were forced to cover themselves if it was necessary to leave their homes. The group often met in secret to council the normally-headstrong women of Gao to comply with the new morality laws in order to avoid the Islamic prison. And if women were taken into custody, they would mobilize to prevent punishments prescribed by the Islamists’ interpretation of Sharia law – or treatment condemned by it.
There were an estimated 3,000 instances of sexual violence in the north, perpetrated mostly by MNLA members, though the abuse continued – mostly in the form of forced marriage – after Islamist groups took total control of Gao under the banner of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Aminata Touré (not her real name) was on her way to her uncle’s house in June 2012 when she was stopped by two men on a motorbike. “I had no choice. They were armed and threatened to kill me,” she said. While one of the men held her baby, the other took her to a nearby bush. “They took me and they did everything they could do, they raped me. Afterwards, they left me in the bush.”
Aminata Idrissa Maïga encourages forgiveness and reconciliation during her semiweekly radio show on 86.8 FM. But, she says, some crimes are unforgivable and she hopes the new government will consider the women who were victimized before making any decisions on impunity.
In fulfilling its mandate, the Department of National Reconciliation and Northern Development will first have to reconcile the spectrum of positions on how to handle Malians who joined, abetted or were complicit with occupying forces — which range from immediate pardon to immediate death.
Most, however, are somewhere in the middle. Even Mrs. Idrissa Maïga says that many of the crimes committed are, indeed, unforgivable, but that the “sons of Gao” who would dare come back should get the benefit of the doubt.
“We can pardon them because they didn’t have a choice. Someone who doesn’t even have anything to eat, if you offer them $100 or $200 a month, they will go with you,” she says. “They joined in spite of themselves.”
Though fellow broadcaster Malick Aliou Maïga disagrees. After repeated arrests and detentions for refusing to change his anti-occupation message on Gao’s private AADAR FM station, he was taken from the studio after the start of his program, beaten with chains and pipes, and left for dead in a soccer field on August 5, 2012.
“Nobody is rich here. Everyone is poor,” says Mr. Aliou Maïga, who was found and brought to a hospital by a search party that heard the start of his broadcast. “But there are people who didn’t join. Did they not need anything? There are people who were forced, but they quit because they would rather die than oppress their population.”
“Everyone who took up arms or financed must be judged.”
Although he was beaten by the MUJAO after they wrested control of the city from the MNLA, Maïga says the blame lies with those who brought the foreign fighters, and their stockpile of cash and weapons, into the country.
With jihadist support, the MNLA claimed nearly 2/3 of the country as a homeland for Tuaregs, who compose 10% of Mali’s population. Mohamed Ahmed Ag Alhassane says that, even among Tuaregs, MNLA members and sympathizers are a minority of a minority. He maintains that his community in the region of Gao holds the tradition of Al-Kawal, an ancient peace accord between the light-skinned Berber populations and the black Songhay people.
“We need them and they need us, since before French colonization,” says Mr. Ag Alhassane. “But now we’re afraid that there are people who want to divide us by color.”
Kidal is the birthplace of the MNLA and, thanks to a last-minute deal signed between the Malian and MNLA leaderships that allowed elections to take place in all of Mali’s eight regions, the present sanctuary for many Tuareg militants who took part in the rebellion and subsequent occupation. Any Tuareg outside of Kidal, according to Mr. Ag Alhassane, is a true Malian with nothing to hide.