from Africa in Transition

Mediating Mali’s Future by Returning to Its Past

March 25, 2013

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This is a guest post by Kyle Benjamin Schneps; a dual master’s degree candidate at Columbia University specializing in international security policy and global health initiatives. He is currently completing a graduate internship with the Africa Studies program at Council on Foreign Relations.

On March 27, 1996, Malian leaders and citizens from both the northern and southern regions of the country gathered in Timbuktu to burn publicly more than 3,000 small arms. The burned munitions had been voluntarily relinquished by northern Tuareg insurgents in a show of peace following five years of civil conflict with the newly democratic centralized government in Bamako. The ceremony, called the “Flame of Peace,” is commemorated to this day by a monument at the very site of the conflagration nearly two decades ago—yet the fundamental issues of Tuareg disaffection persist in today’s Mali crisis.

The Tuareg rebellion of the 1990’s was a consequence of long authoritarian rule by France and subsequently by the post-independence Traoré dictatorship. Kare Lode, a Mali researcher, has interpreted the major grievances of the Tuareg at that time as (1) a lack of proper representation at high levels of government and military, (2) the absence of a policy of decentralization in support of local Tuareg business and customs, (3) a lack of Tuareg civil servants, and (4) the extensive, and often oppressive, Malian army presence in northern territories. These same issues remain fundamental to Tuareg insurgent activity since March 2012. However, unlike the rebellion of the 1990s, the issues that face Malian reconciliation today are further complicated by the flourishing of Islamic extremism and transnational organized crime in the region.

In applying lessons learned from the 1990s, Peter J. Schraeder of Loyola University believes that Mali will only be able to retain a meaningful and lasting democratic peace by dealing with Tuareg grievances through “traditional conflict medicine,” a term coined by Africanists referring to precolonial mediation practices. Such mediation strategies include the understanding and promotion of economic interdependence among sedentary and nomadic populations, the use of representative intermediaries, and the strengthening of ethnic alliances through marital ties or third party mediation.

Such traditional mediation tactics might be instrumental in forging a meaningful peace in Mali’s current crisis. But it is important to remember the role of the United Nations in helping to end the 1990s Tuareg rebellion. The UN demonstrated its leadership by establishing a Trust Fund which served as a demobilization and disarmament piggy bank, paying around U.S. $200 for each relinquished weapon (some of which were later burned at the Flame of Peace ceremony) and around $700 to each combatant willing to reintegrate peacefully into society. A cash infusion might be a relatively small price to pay for peace, and it might kick-start a reconciliation process such as Professor Schraeder proposes.