No-one had expected such an outcome. For three days they sat on mats under canvas tents in Gargando, a small town near the Malian desert city of Timbuktu, talking and talking. Many of those present had long since stopped regarding Mali as their country. After all, the capital Bamako had hardly ever bothered about the northern regions with lots of sand and few inhabitants. But with the government and military representatives standing there, actually listening, they decided they wanted to give their shared homeland another chance.
On a hot day in March 2016, they stood solemnly together in billowing robes and military uniforms. The flag of the armed rebel group that had ruled in the area was lowered and the Malian flag raised. The national anthem was even played.
“That was one of those moments that give you goosebumps,” says Rebekka Rust, project manager of the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in Mali. Rebekka Rust organises forums like the one in Gargando on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance. The dialogue produced a dynamic which no-one could have planned for or foreseen, she says. “With the help of traditional leaders, we managed to get people talking to each other who had had absolutely no contact since the crisis erupted.”
Working on the roots of the conflict
The peace dialogue in Gargando is just one of several dozen organised by GIZ. Sometimes they need months of preparation. In order to show that rapprochement and reconciliation are worthwhile, the talks are accompanied by small-scale stabilisation projects: perhaps the rebuilding of a children’s basketball court destroyed by the jihadists, or the construction of a new road or repair of a well.
Every individual peace dialogue is a small step in a large conflict, but if the people of the north and south cannot move closer to each other, then you can send as many MINUSMA soldiers to Mali as you like – the violence threatens to erupt in waves again and again. To achieve lasting stabilisation, you have to tackle the causes. That is why the Federal Foreign Office has provided a total of 5.5 million euros since 2013 to support reconciliation work in Mali. An additional 9.12 million are earmarked for 2017 and 2018.
The root conflict in Mali is already several generations old. It is a classic conflict between herdsmen and farmers for land and water, scarce resources. In the north of the country live the traditionally nomadic desert tribes of the Tuareg and Fula, who have been Islamicised for a very long time and whose history and culture are strongly influenced by North Africa and the Arab culture. The south, by contrast, is dominated by the Bambara ethnic group, lives on agriculture and in cultural terms belongs to sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of southern Malians only converted to Islam in response to colonisation by the French.
The peoples of the south dominate the Government and have neglected the north for decades. Ever since the foundation of Mali, there have been repeated violent confrontations, involving serious human rights violations, even massacres. “There’s never been anything done to work through all that,” says GIZ project manager Rust. “This conflict is also about equal opportunities, participation and recognition.”
Microprojects: peace should be worthwhile for the people
Anger and frustration at the Government were part of the reason why the Tuareg wanted to secede in 2012, some of them becoming radicalised and allying themselves with Arab jihadist groups seeking to use northern Mali as a safe haven. Before the French army’s intervention, the west African state was in danger of falling into the hands of international jihadists and disintegrating.
If the population is to withdraw its support from the extremist groups, then it has to be convinced that peace is worthwhile for the people. In order to stabilise the fragile situation, the Federal Foreign Office is expanding the microprojects that accompany the peace dialogues – projects like a grain silo for a multiethnic women’s cooperative in Gao, where Bundeswehr soldiers are also stationed. In the dialogue forums people decide together what their community needs. “Projects like this are of more use for peace than a thousand speeches,” says Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed, Mali’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Reconciliation, who is now chairman of the disarmament commission.
“If we are to be reconciled, we need to know the truth,” he stresses. So a truth commission has been set up with German support. Together with the Ministry of National Reconciliation, GIZ has set up seven regional offices and trained staff members to document human rights violations. Interviews are to be conducted all across the country this year. “What’s special is that we are not only addressing the latest crisis, we’re going right back to 1960,” says Rust. Germany, she feels, is predestined for this task. Firstly, because it is regarded as neutral. But also because “given our history, we come across as very credible when we say that it is important to confront the past”.
Germany’s example, adds Mohamed, can also give the Malian people courage. He says he often tells his compatriots “If the Germans and French managed to become close partners and friends despite all the millions of dead in the two World Wars, then so can we.”