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Islamic insurgency: Are talks with Sahel extremists a path to peace?


The Sahel is awash in jihadi insurgencies. From Nigeria to Mali, the stakes are high. About a million people have been displaced by conflict in Burkina Faso alone, where hundreds of people have died.

But is negotiating with militants part of the answer, or a serious misstep? A short-lived truce in Burkina Faso and a handful of other local talks highlight a debate about whether government officials or local leaders should pursue talks for peace. 

Why We Wrote This

What costs are acceptable to pay for peace? A handful of local negotiations with insurgents in the Sahel puts a spotlight on a debate about whether to talk with militants.

In Burkina Faso, some critics firmly oppose negotiations on principle – including Albert Ouedraogo, a former minister of education. “The government’s line is to refuse any dialogue with those who sow death – I stick to this posture,” he writes over a WhatsApp interview. “Who will compensate the victims and [punish those who] have sown terror?”

Others say dialogue could sow seeds of stability across the region. Boubacar Ba, of the Bamako-based Analysis Centre on Governance and Security in the Sahel, harbors hope. He saw for himself how much a negotiated peace meant to Malian locals, even if no one was held to account for the violence perpetrated. 

“They also recognize that the road to peace is long and difficult,” he says. “It is a beginning and we must believe in it.”

Lagos, Nigeria

In once-peaceful Burkina Faso, it was Djibo that first fell.

The jihadi insurgency currently engulfing the country originally spread from neighboring Mali, where groups backed by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have operated for almost a decade. But homegrown Islamist movements soon sprung up.

And the provincial capital of Djibo itself, near the border, was home to one Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a radical preacher calling on the region to rise up against the government, which he accused of neglecting the north.

Why We Wrote This

What costs are acceptable to pay for peace? A handful of local negotiations with insurgents in the Sahel puts a spotlight on a debate about whether to talk with militants.

So last November, after five years of bloodshed, Djibo’s residents welcomed an odd development. The number of jihadi attacks was falling considerably, and some of the town’s men who had joined Islamist groups returned – the result of secret peace talks between jihadis and government officials, as reported by the New Humanitarian. 

Today, the fragile cease-fire appears to have broken down. Attacks are creeping back up in Djibo, the capital of northern Soum province. The violence has been like a wave, according to Oumar Zombre, a journalist with Radio Télévision du Burkina in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou. “There are sporadic attacks,” he says. “It gets calm and then it gets hot again.”

But the short-lived truce highlights a broader debate in West Africa’s troubled Sahel, where local and foreign troops are battling Islamic insurgencies. Can these types of negotiations lead to more permanent cease-fires? Should government officials or local leaders negotiate with insurrectionary Islamists for peace in the first place – and if so, how?

The stakes are high. In Burkina Faso alone, jihadi violence has left hundreds of people dead since 2016, and about a million displaced – that number multiplying tenfold from 2019 to 2020. France has deployed troops to the region, as has United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA, and the G5 Sahel, an alliance of security forces from Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

Burkinabé conflict analyst Mahamoudou Savadogo, of Senegal’s Université Gaston Berger, says the shaky peace in Soum likely failed because the government did not initiate a clear reintegration plan for fighters. But “negotiating does not mean freeing terrorists,” he says. “Rather, it could facilitate the provision of justice for victims and punishment for terrorists.”

Burkina Faso troops provide security in Ouagadougou, Jan. 18, 2016, after militants led an attack on a hotel and a cafe popular with foreigners.

The truce

Last fall, as Burkina Faso’s general elections neared, all sides in the conflict seemed to have had enough. WhatsApp videos surfaced showing what looked like negotiations in Sollé, not far from Djibo, between local volunteer fighters and jihadis, according to local and international reports.

“We don’t know what groups these alleged jihadists were aligned with, but in the video, there was talk about peace,” Mr. Zombre says.

Mutually initiated talks also took place between local representatives of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, an Al Qaeda-backed group originally from Mali, and community leaders in Soum, according to Mr. Savadogo.

But the terms of most talks remain unclear. In Djibo, for example, some accounts from analysts and reporters say that it was local traditional leaders who negotiated for a cease-fire and free movement for civilians, while others assert that the jihadis themselves may have initiated the peace, seeking to recuperate after suffering major losses.

Whatever the case, the results were evident. Between November and January, there were almost five times fewer attacks in Djibo compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the New Humanitarian’s monthslong investigation. In areas controlled by extremists, travel restrictions were lifted, although women were still forced to wear a full veil, and men, trousers hemmed above their ankles in Islamic tradition.

But local leaders were confused, reporters and analysts say, with the central government failing to communicate a clear deradicalization and reintegration pathway for the returning fighters.

“The truce is over [and] we are heading in a bad direction,” says Andrew Lebovich, a researcher with the European Council of Foreign Relations. “It’s likely that what led to the truce was the jihadists needing a break to recuperate. There are still attacks in Djibo and incidents are ticking back up.”

In neighboring Mali, meanwhile, militant Islamic group Katiba Macina struck a deal in March with local farmers along the border with Mauritania, according to French radio station RFI. One month later, the cease-fire, though shaky, appears to be holding. Representatives from High Islamic Council of Mali – whose former leader, the influential religious figure Mahmoud Dicko, has pushed for negotiations – are currently working to extend the peace. 

To talk, or not to talk?

Not everyone is on board with the talks, however. In Burkina Faso, some critics firmly oppose negotiations on principle – including Albert Ouedraogo, a former minister of education and professor at the University of Ouagadougou. “The government’s line is to refuse any dialogue with those who sow death – I stick to this posture,” he writes to the Monitor over a WhatsApp interview. “Who will compensate the victims and [punish those who] have sown terror?”

Others say dialogue could sow seeds of stability across the region. In January, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré appointed a national reconciliation minister to address ethnic divisions, which have exacerbated the insurgency. Across the border in Mali, the country’s transitional government has signaled openness to dialogue with insurgents.

Analyst Boubacar Ba, of the Bamako-based Analysis Centre on Governance and Security in the Sahel, harbors hope for such initiatives. He saw for himself how much the negotiated peace meant to Malian locals, even if no one was held to account for the violence perpetrated. “People were in tears,” he says. He recalls seeing nomadic herders (many of whom have been accused of having ties to jihadi groups) and sedentary farmers, who have traditionally been pitted against each other, “grouped together, holding hands and talking to each other.”

“Others hurriedly took their carts to reach their villages that had been abandoned for many months,” he adds. “All believe that this [agreement] is the beginning of a new era. They also recognize that the road to peace is long and difficult. It is a beginning and we must believe in it.”

In both countries, analysts emphasize, local groups are crucial in advancing dialogue. “The growing number of peace-building efforts shows that the crisis is producing new spaces of local governance outside the realm of state control and authority [and filling] the gaps left by state-led diplomatic efforts,” Niagalé Bagayoko, chair of the African Security Sector Network, a think tank, wrote in The Africa Report in February, after a G5 Sahel summit in Chad.

Questions remain, however. What would justice look like, once victims live side by side with their aggressors? Will larger groups like Al Qaeda continue to wield influence over local militants? And can national governments in the Sahel align their military tactics with this bottom-up approach?

Across the region, negotiations hold hope, Mr. Savadogo insists, if they are conducted with smaller, local insurgent factions rather than with hard-liners leading transnational networks. “There are local groups with whom we can negotiate because they are insurgents forced to take up arms to demand good governance,” he argues. “This will isolate the larger groups … and make it possible to win the fight.”



Source | csmonitor

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