Several missions in the region, including the French Operation Barkhane, composed of 5,100 men and a United Nations peacekeeping force of 15,000 members known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), have failed. failed to help the authorities regain a foothold in troubled areas.
Former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, overthrown by the army in August, said earlier this year that his government was ready to negotiate with armed groups. National talks following the coup endorsed this policy.
Malian officials have provided few details on the types of compromises that could emerge, but some supporters of the negotiations said they could include recognition of a greater role for Islam in public life.
Moctar Ouane, who was appointed interim Prime Minister of Mali last month to manage an 18-month transition after the August 18 coup, said on Monday his government was ready to continue talks.
“The conclusions of the inclusive national talks … have very clearly indicated the need for an offer of dialogue with these armed groups”, declared Ouane during a joint press conference with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, which is in the capital of Mali, Bamako, on a two-day visit.
“This should be seen as an opportunity to engage in in-depth discussions with the communities in order to redefine the contours of a new governance of the territories concerned”, added Ouane.
Le Drian, however, said he was opposed, noting that hardline groups had not signed a 2015 peace accord that France sees as a framework for restoring peace in northern Mali.
“Let’s say it very clearly: there are peace agreements … and then there are terrorist groups that have not signed the peace agreements,” said Le Drian. ” It’s simple. ”
Le Drian said his stance against dialogue was shared by the United Nations Security Council and the countries of the G5 Sahel group – a regional force that includes Mali.
The French government pledged in January to intensify its military engagement in the Sahel and designated ISIL as the “number one” enemy in the region south of the Sahara.
Shortly thereafter, Keita’s government, under internal pressure to resolve the conflict, said it was ready to speak to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups who disagree with ISIL. It is not known to what extent the government hired fighters linked to Al Qaeda before the military overthrew Keita in protests lasting several months calling for his departure.
Jean-Hervé Jezequel, analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said Sahel fighters are “rooted in their communities, which are sometimes sympathetic to them”.
They are also increasingly involved in local affairs, which is why many “try to explore the path of dialogue,” he said.
Informal contacts between the new government in Bamako and armed groups are apparently already underway.
This month the government exchanged some 200 detainees – many of whom believed to be combatants – for four captives held by armed groups, including opposition veteran Soumaila Cissé.
Le Drian’s visit to the Malian capital also comes at a time when world leaders appear to be considering the possibility of talks with armed groups.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the French daily Le Monde in September “there will be groups with whom we can talk and who will have an interest in engaging in dialogue to become political actors in the future”.