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Understanding local perceptions of security in Mali: The White Book

Studio Tamani (Bamako) broadcast a debate on the White Book
Studio Tamani (Bamako) broadcast a debate on the White Book

The English summary of the Civil Society White Book on Peace and Security in Mali (White Book) is now available. In the White Book, Malian civil society organizations (CSO) advocate for the inclusion of local security needs in response to the deteriorating security situation in the country. Malian CSOs also propose policy recommendations designed to improve the effectiveness of current international and domestic interventions.

The White Book looks beyond the macro level and examines the daily realities of Malian’s across ten country regions. It questions the dominant security discourse and provides a platform for local security narratives to be presented.  The data used in the White Book has been collected over three years and originates from both quantitative and qualitative research conducted by SIPRI and its Malian partner the National Civil Society Coalition for Peace and the Fight Against Proliferation of Small Arms (CONASCIPAL).  The White Book was originally published in French and launched at an event to a range of national and international stakeholders and policymakers in Bamako on 31 January 2019.


Questioning the ‘all-military’ response: A need for a paradigm shift

In recent years, Mali has witnessed an unprecedented number of security interventions and a plethora of different strategies aimed to provide security and maintain peace. The main security actors are national political elites and foreign partners including France, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the G5 Sahel joint force. These actors have tended to define the security crisis in Mali—and the Sahel region in general—through the lens of terrorism, crime, illicit trafficking and irregular migration. These policy priorities depict the nature of Mali’s security problems as being predominantly military and correspondingly, require ‘all-military’ responses. These responses emphasize military means such as interventions and ‘train-and-equip’ programmes in which foreign partners provide training and equipment to the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA). However, history shows that excessive military actions may act to further destabilize the region. One example is the Malian Special Programme for Peace, Security and Development of Northern Mali, launched in 2010 to tackle both security and development issues through strengthening the military presence in northern Mali. However, the programme precipitated the crisis by reinforcing historical north–south mistrust and generating tension between northern communities.


Intensifying violence

The security responses from Mali’s national political elites and foreign partners have so far failed to deliver. Indeed the root causes of Mali’s crisis, such as the lack of public services and a weak presence of the Malian government in northern and central Mali are yet to be addressed. Initially, violence was limited to the northern regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Now new fronts have emerged. Insecurity has spread via the central Mopti and Ségou regions to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso and threatens the northern regions of Benin, Ghana and Togo. Armed groups and local militias have proliferated, sometimes with the indirect or direct support of the Malian state. Violent activity targets civilians and ethnic divides fuels intercommunity conflicts. Particularly in central Mali, the deadly cycle of intercommunal violence is intensifying: The Ogossagou massacre on 23 March left 162 dead, armed men killed 35 people in Sobane Da (9 June) and over 40 people died in an attack on Gangafani and Yoro (17 June). Forthcoming SIPRI research on central Mali demonstrates that the incapability to stop the killings and the widespread human rights abuses has diminished trust in the armed forces in general and specifically in the FAMA.

This unprecedented pattern of escalating violence is alarming. It highlights the necessity to rethink the methodology of current intervention strategies in order to pave the way for long-standing and sustainable regional stabilization. The impasse of ‘all-military’ responses to local and regional dynamics of insecurity calls for reflection upon what responses are required alongside military investment. Moreover, there is a need for a paradigm shift—and herein lies the responsibility of the SIPRI Sahel/West Africa Programme—to challenge the status quo and provide an alternative security logic that promotes security-related reforms that directly benefit threatened populations.  


Towards evidence-based dialogue, advocacy and policy: SIPRI’s methodology in the Sahel

The SIPRI Sahel/West Africa Programme uses a mixed-method approach that makes it possible to overcome the limits of the dominant perspective of terrorism, crime, illicit trafficking and irregular migration. The programme’s methodology is based on the concept that a bottom-up, evidence-based approach—as opposed to a top-down opinion-based approach—to knowledge production and policymaking produces more effective security interventions that meet local expectations and needs

The Sahel’s volatile security environment contains multiple interacting conflicts that continuously spread to new areas in the region. This complexity can only be understood by listening to the local population. Due to insecurity and a lack of infrastructure, there is however a lack of high-quality, unbiased data from the conflict-affected zones. It can be difficult to gain access to vulnerable groups including youth, women, minorities and remote populations. 

To generate inclusive and valid data, the SIPRI Sahel/West Africa Programme combines quantitative and qualitative techniques to (a) better understand security and development issues at the micro-local level and; (b) measure the relevance and impact of national and international responses in the Sahel countries.  The quantitative survey data that results from perception studies are supplemented by in-depth qualitative studies that explore policy-relevant issues. Access to all parts of the country and to all groups of the population is ensured by maintaining a network of local partners, researchers and facilitators. Local validation workshops then present findings and translate data into solutions-oriented policies and policy programming. The emphasis on involving local stakeholders and populations and the promotion of dialogue is a major achievement of this methodology. It stimulates bottom-up communication, contributes to the creation of trust and maximizes the population’s ownership. 

The SIPRI Sahel/West Africa Programme’s approach is adaptable to a variety of themes and replicable in other parts of the Sahel (and beyond). It offers the possibility of monitoring developments in perceptions of human security over time while thematic studies provide an in-depth understanding of a certain topic. Moreover, the data, analysis and policy recommendations form a sound foundation for both horizontal and vertical dialogue. 


The White Book: An evidence-based analysis and policy programming tool for Mali

Based on this approach, the White Book presents a bottom-up analysis of Mali’s most urgent security challenges. In turn, the White Book translates the local research findings into practical, solutions-oriented policy recommendations and calls for political solutions to curb the spread of insecurity and violence.

Through an inclusive network of 15 facilitators and 36 Monitoring Groups for Peace and Security (MGPS) in selected localities across Mali’s 10 regions, SIPRI and CONASCIPAL conducted a quantitative mapping analysis of perspectives on security. Each MGPS is composed of a youth representative, a women’s representative and a local community leader to ensure the representation of the variety of views within Malian civil society. To compare data, three geographical zones were identified: (a) northern (the regions of Gao, Kidal, Ménaka and Timbuktu); (b) central (Mopti and Ségou); and (c) southern (Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso and the district of Bamako).  Quantitative mappings were complemented with qualitative studies by Malian academics and all results were validated at a series of workshops in Bamako. The inclusion of local partners strengthens the capacity of local peace research initiatives and enables local partners to open dialogue platforms with stakeholders. A White Book Commission made up of representatives from five major national civil society organizations; five main research centres on peace and security; three former Malian prime ministers; and the media, steered the compilation of the White Book. 

To increase the likelihood that policymakers will implement recommendations from the White Book, civil society actors aim to transition the White Book from a grass-roots advocacy tool into a public programming tool owned by local, national and international decision makers. The publication of a summary of the White Book in English will help to reach more stakeholders and promote further international dialogue.


Annelies Hickendorff was a Research Assistant with SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme.