Jihadist crisis puts Mali's political class under pressure

Bamako (AFP) –


As Mali's gruelling jihadist conflict grinds on, many say military forces cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting, and the country's fractured political class has to help.

The country's problems are as much about poverty, ethnic divisions and weak institutions -- which require political solutions -- as they are about Islamist violence, they argue.

Jihadists, capitalising on underlying grievances, seized much of northern Mali in 2012, triggering a security crisis that some say now poses an existential threat.

Despite a peace agreement reached in 2015 and an attempt at a so-called national dialogue, violence has spread from the north to the centre of Mali, claiming thousands of lives.

The 2015 Algiers accords, meant to disarm rebel groups and integrate them into the national army, are mostly gathering dust. Talks on implementing the agreement ended three months ago.

The stagnation is irking France, which on Tuesday lost 13 troops in a force that it deployed to Mali to shore up the fragile country.

"What seems the most important thing now is more political action," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Paris.

"More political action in Mali to ensure that commitments are upheld, so that so-called DDR (for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of rebels) is truly carried out, that the Algiers agreements, including the decentralisation part, be truly carried out, and that there be a show of common will to fight terrorism."

- 'Political' conflict -

Some politicians in Mali agree that talks are the way forward.

"The war is first and foremost political," Boulan Barro, an opposition MP, told AFP.

Cheickna Camara, from the presidential majority, said that "dialogue is necessary and the political class needs to play its part".

He added that talks would "allow us to leave this infernal cycle of killings".

But there is also an uncomfortable truth: Mali's battered army remains chronically underfunded and poorly equipped.

Soldiers have paid a heavy price -- more than 140 Malian troops have died since September.

Questioned by MPs on Thursday about the state of the army, Malian Defence Minister Dahirou Dembele agreed it was a problem.

"You're right to be afraid, I'm afraid," he said. "When I see my army, I'm afraid."

Dembele said he wanted to see Mali's army "reach the level of other armies, so that they are no longer saying there's such and such a (foreign) force (in Mali), but that Mali is taking charge of its own defence."

France intervened in Mali in 2013 to stop the jihadist advance and has some 4,500 troops deployed across the region to help local forces. A new unit of European special forces is also due to deploy in Mali in 2020.

On Tuesday, 13 French soldiers died in a mid-air helicopter collision while pursuing jihadists in Mali. It was France's worst single-day military loss of life in 36 years.

- Intrigue -

Appeals to national unity, a recurring government refrain, have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The main opposition party has declined an invitation to join talks meant to bring diverse sections of society around the table, complaining that they are not really inclusive.

The government is nonetheless undertaking country-wide consultations.

"We're trying to progress toward a common understanding of the problems related to state authority," Foreign Minister Tiebile Drame said Monday.

A variety of experts and prominent Malians are pleading for talks with the jihadists -- so far ruled out by both Bamako and Paris, although Mali has agreed to prisoner swaps with militants in the past.

The debate flared again this month when Malian intelligence detained a former government minister, Hassan Barry, suspected of acting as a secret go-between with Amadou Koufa, a radical Fulani preacher.

Videos circulated on social media showing the well-known lawyer meeting the jihadist leader in June.

A security officer who declined to be named said the meeting occurred with the blessing of some government officials. Mali has denied the claim.

The government issued a statement on Monday saying that Barry's arrest was unrelated to diplomatic missions that "he claims to have previously undertaken". Barry has since been released.