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The role of civil society in building peace in Mali

On 19 September Mali celebrated the inauguration of its newly elected President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. By that time most of the armed violence in the country had been quelled by the French military intervention, and the United Nations peace mission in northern Mali was underway. While some level of security and government legitimacy has therefore been achieved in Mali, much remains to be done. Civil society has an important role to play in restoring sustainable peace and security. SIPRI's Mali Civil Society and Peacebuilding Project was developed to support civil society in fulfilling this role.

Since the eruption of armed violence in northern Mali in January 2012, the military coup in March 2012 and the subsequent political crisis, including armed groups taking control of most of northern Mali in April 2012, the situation in Mali has been described primarily in terms of a range of security threats. These threats are perceived as being directed against the Malian population, Mali as a country, the Sahara–Sahel region, and European and international security interests more broadly. In the international security discourse the main focus is on the transnational challenges of the trafficking in drugs and people, and other types of organized crime, often framed as terrorism.


The root causes of the conflict in Mali

While it is true that Mali continues to face serious security challenges, these cannot be addressed in isolation or through narrowly framed policies and strategies. The current crisis must be understood from a broad perspective, recognizing its deep historical and political roots, its complex web of many interlinked issues and, hence, the necessity of long-term strategies, involving all sections of the population.

One of the root causes of the current crisis is the long-standing lack of economic development in the northern part of Mali—beginning with the failure to include northern Mali in the modernization and development processes undertaken during the period of French colonization—which has continued since Mali gained independence in 1960. This has contributed to the marginalization of the northern communities and a reduction of their opportunities for legal sources of income.

This provided a context for the series of Tuareg-led rebellions since the early 1900s, and for the more recent emergence of violent armed groups with different political agendas—Islamist, jihadist, Salafist—along with the agents of national and transnational organized crime.


The failure of governance directly affects communities in northern Mali

The lack of political authority, government institutions and internal security in northern Mali has led to the re-emergence of alternative governance structures, often linked to various ethnic groups, and this has further increased the gap between local communities and the Malian state.

The violent armed groups providing alternative governance structures profit from various types of banditry, organized crime and illegal trade, including the trafficking of drugs, fuel and human beings. These illegal activities, which in some areas dominate the local economy, clearly have a negative impact on the economic development of northern Mali, not least by causing a deterioration of security and thus scaring off investors.

In some places it has also created an informal financial system, which circulates huge amounts of money, reportedly exceeding those in the official financial sector. Problematically, illegal activities feed a large part of the local population, through payments for various types of logistical support services and intermediary functions, thus drawing them into the illegal economy.


A nationwide peacebuilding process is required

The solution to the crisis in Mali requires a nationwide peacebuilding process that addresses a broad range of issues, including issues relevant to the entire Sahara–Sahel region. While external actors can provide various types of support, the process of identifying the main issues needs to be designed, developed and led from within Mali. Furthermore, while the crisis mainly affects northern Mali, it has not been caused by conflict among northern communities but, instead, is a symptom of broader national and subregional issues that have not been adequately addressed.

The process must also be bottom-up and must involve civil society groups at every stage. The development of peaceful relations and democratic governance systems requires the active participation of the population including, importantly, women. The natural role of civil society in such a process has been demonstrated by experiences in other countries but is also the logical consequence of any democratically based perspective.


Civil society organizations are crucial to resolving the current crisis in Mali

Mali has a vibrant civil society that has been engaged in several peacebuilding processes in the country. During the peace process in the 1990s, civil society took the lead in working out a solution. Women’s organizations, especially in northern Mali, have also played a key role in reconciliation processes between the Tuareg movement and the Malian Government, for example by participating in the process leading up to the 1996 Flame of Peace ceremony in which decommissioned weapons were destroyed in a huge fire.

Civil society groups can also help prevent conflict from becoming violent, promote intra-community dialogue to reframe perceptions of the conflict, mobilize constituencies for peace, contribute to reaching sustainable peace agreements, and help address the structural causes and consequences of violent conflict.

Civil society is well placed to gather knowledge about the manifestation of the crisis in affected communities in northern Mali, the local population’s experience and assessments of the crisis, and the local, national and international dynamics of the crisis. However, in order to be effective, civil society’s contribution must be made on the basis of well-developed context-specific analysis and a strategic vision based on an in-depth and evidence-based understanding of the many factors underlying the current crisis.

SIPRI’s Mali project aims to support the contribution of civil society to the peacebuilding process in Mali. In order to firmly ground the project in the realities of the situation in Mali, it includes a strong element of field research, conducted by Malian civil society groups, and a consultative process for analysis and understanding of the nature of the current crisis. The project’s overall aim is for civil society groups to develop a strategic vision for their contributions to the peacebuilding process.

A sustainable peace cannot be achieved through quick fixes. It is hoped that the current project will support civil society’s contributions to peace, security and development in Mali.



Dr Elisabeth Sköns is an Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI and the former Head of the Mali civil society and peacebuilding project.