Advocating for inclusive security in Mali “Top-down approaches have failed. It’s high time to turn things around.”

For the past couple of years, as part of the Just Future Alliance, and in close collaboration with Cordaid, three civil society organisation have jointly campaigned for more inclusive security governance in Mali. In an increasingly militarised context, they continue to push for a human and bottom-up approach to security. What have they done in 2022? How do they work and what difference does it make?

written by Ellen Lammers and Frank van Lierde

Mali’s multidimensional crisis

Since 2012, when jihadist and separatist insurgencies broke out in the North of the country, Mali is gripped by a multidimensional political and security crisis. Armed conflict has been ongoing, jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida and Islamic State escalated their operations in central Mali and unrest spread to Niger and Burkina Faso.

Since 2020, the country is ruled by a military regime that has forced France to remove its troops, deployed since 2013 on an anti-jihadist mission. The country’s legislative power, the Conseil National de Transition, is also headed by a military leader, as are many other governmental bodies. Supposedly, Russian private security company the Wagner Group has been brought in to train and boost Malian armed forces.

As government control is weak, particularly in the North and Central parts of Mali, kidnappings and banditry have become common. Thousands of civilians have been killed across the country. More than 2 million people have fled their homes.

Collaborative civil society action in Gao

In this volatile and increasingly shrinking civic space context, in 2022 Just Future’s civil society allies operating in Mali have continued to take collaborative action to address Mali’s crisis. They did so by promoting, amongst others, a security system and security governance that is more responsive to people’s needs, more accountable, and people-centred. Their research and advocacy are geared, in short, toward a more democratically governed and inclusive security sector, against all odds. Most of their research and fieldwork took place in one of the country’s most insecure and troubled areas, the region of Gao, the millennia-old trans-Saharan multicultural trade centre and also the largest city in eastern Mali.

The Just Future alliance has three civil society partners working in or on the Gao region in operating in Mali. The ASSN (African Security Sector Network) is a pan-African network of security sector reform practitioners, academics and researchers, headquartered in Accra and with regional nodes across the African continent. It is headed by political researcher Niagalé Bagayoko. The RENEDEP (Réseau National pour l’Éveil Démocratique et Patriotique, (national network for democratic and patriotic awakening) is a leading Malian civil society organisation, promoting the inclusion of youth and women in governance and decision-making, access to justice and the rule of law. Its secretary general is Ibrahima Amadou Maïga. ADD (Aide au Développement Durable/Support for sustainable development) focuses on access to justice, peacebuilding, and people-centred security. It has a community-based approach and pays particular attention to the inclusion of youth and women in efforts to solve crises in conflict-affected communities. Its president is Hamzata Ag Didi.

Addressing insecurity starts with knowledge of on-the-ground realities

Thorough and in-depth collaborative research of these three actors, both in 2021 and 2022, has paved the way for community dialogue processes and further advocacy efforts towards security actors and authorities, on local, regional, and national levels. The overall rationale of this work is, in the words of Niagalé Bagayoko, “to give more prominence to on-the-ground experts and on-the-ground realities, and to pursue a bottom-up approach in addressing and solving conflicts”.

Top-down security governance and conflict management approaches, including international military and security missions, haven’t been successful, to say the least. “As we have amply seen in Mali, elsewhere on the African continent, but also in Afghanistan,” Niagalé adds.

In fact, these top-down approaches have tightened the knot of the country’s complex crisis. It’s high time to turn things around. Hence the importance, in the eyes of Just Future’s allies in Mali, of a bottom-up conflict-solving dynamic. “Top-down approaches have failed. They haven’t been able to address human suffering, as civilians remain the main victims of all violent actors. It is high time to turn things around. Bottom-up approaches, whereby the realities of local communities are the starting point, are the only way to make security governance more effective and responsive to people’s security needs,” Niagalé claims.

Two ASSN-RENEDEP and two ASSN-ADD research papers have intricately analysed and mapped conflict realities of the Gao area. One of the 2022 ASSN-ADD papers presents an overview of all the non-jihadist armed groups in the area, their history, organisation, administration, and financing. Why is it so important to map this? “Because very often, people from the outside involved in conflict-solving and peacebuilding efforts, even in the capital of Bamako, do not know the realities on the ground. How can peacebuilding and security missions be successful, if they are not in tune with reality?” says Hamzata Ag Didi. The research he contributed to provides knowledge of the history, culture, and causes for grievance of the Touareg, Songhay, Arab and Fulani (Peulh) people in multicultural Gao, of the armed groups affiliated with these communities, and of the role of the Malian armed forces. Addressing the intra- and inter-communal conflict in Gao, and in any part of Mali for that matter, starts with acquiring in-depth knowledge. Even addressing Jihadist insurgencies, requires this historical and sociological knowledge, as these post-2012 extremist movements often capitalize on existing communal frictions.

A 2022 ASSN-RENEDEP research paper analyses how, throughout the ages, traditional and customary leaders and institutions have played a major role in preventing, addressing, and solving conflicts in the ethnically diverse Gao region. It also shows how, by armed force and asymmetric rule, Jihadists have disturbed these intricate conflict-solving mechanisms. It comes with a strong recommendation towards current military authorities, to give back conflict-solving prominence to local customary institutions, as a means to increase stability, enhance trust and heal the social fabric.

Out of the shade of men

Capitalizing on this 2021 research, and also as part of the Just Future programme in Mali, further research investigations were carried out in 2022. One ASSN-ADD report details the mechanisms and motives of recruitment of youth in armed groups and self-defence structures. Knowing that is the first step in designing measures to stop this from happening. A consecutive ASSN-RENEDEP research effort focused on the role and importance of women in addressing and solving conflicts in Gao. Too often, in patriarchal contexts such as Gao, women are considered or stereotyped as living in the shade of men. Without in any way minimizing existing gender imbalances, this does not do justice to the powerful, subtle, and intricate ways women have always intervened as conflict-solvers in Gao society. Acknowledging that is crucial, not only to give more prominence to women-led and women’s rights networks in Mali but also to involve women more meaningfully in current processes to address Mali’s multidimensional crisis.

A victory in itself

Research by these Just Future partners in Mali was and is not a stand-alone effort. It is a first step and serves as a benchmark in longer-term advocacy strategies, and paves the way, under difficult circumstances, for community consultations, dialogue, and security sector reform.

“As in other African countries, civic space in Mali is shrinking. It has become more difficult for international researchers to conduct research on the ground due to the security and political situation. But from the inside, civil society actors such as Ibrahima and Hamzata from RENEDEP and ADD, keep pushing for dialogue. The fact that they manage to do that, and to involve the authorities in their efforts, is a victory in itself,” says Niagalé Bagayoko.

“The research papers, and sharing them with authorities up to the highest levels, have allowed us to set the stage for further advocacy action. We, both RENEDEP and ADD, are now involved in setting up security consultation committees in Gao,” adds Ibrahima Maïga from RENEDEP. “We train them, and support them in developing and implementing security action plans that address the security needs of communities. We use these community action plans, in turn, in our advocacy towards state security actors and authorities. This is how the chain works, bottom-up.”

For Hamzata Ag Didi “the research amply showed there is an inclusivity problem, or rather a lack of inclusivity problem. Instead of directly criticising authorities, which doesn’t work, the answer to that problem is to start processes of community dialogue. What is the essence of these dialogue or consultation committees? It’s creating a setting where all concerned parties, civil as well as military, with formal and informal leadership positions, all of them dealing with the severe impact of insecurity, can sit together and openly and frankly speak about security issues and take collective decisions. We are now in the phase of creating and supporting these committees in Gao.”

Dialogue is organised in a way that favours a trickle-up effect, taking community realities and security needs to higher decision-making levels. “Security-related recommendations that came out of the research are integrated into the security action plans of the community committees. Committee dialogue starts at the local level. The outcomes of that will be used for similar sessions at regional and national levels,” Hamzata adds.

Complementary collaboration

The key element of collaboration between ASSN, RENEDEP, and ADD, in research as well as in advocacy activities, is complementarity. “For ASSN, from a pan-African and international perspective,” explains Dr. Bagayoko, “everything we do in the field of security sector reform needs to be based on the intimate knowledge of actors who perfectly know realities on the ground, their cities, villages, region. Not only the security and conflict realities but also the underlying historical, cultural, and social codes and subtleties. People like Ibrahima and Hamzata possess this expertise. It is inconceivable that external so-called experts should and can define what security governance should look like in Gao, or in Mali for that matter. From our side, ASSN can support local experts to become more effective in bringing their messages across, to national and international audiences. We support and train them in setting up and carrying out scientific research, applying academic methodologies, and presenting robust, accessible, and accurate research data. ASSN comes with methodological expertise, ADD and RENEDEP provide content and substance.”

Social media arena

Dr. Bagayoko, being the reputable political scientist and security sector expert she is and as ASSN representative, is often invited to share her analyses and viewpoints on French and Anglophone national and international media. Doing that, she brings bottom-up research outcomes and security realities like the ones from Gao to even wider audiences.

This too, has become more challenging. “As researchers, it becomes more and more difficult to express ourselves on what goes on in the Sahel region,” she furthers, referring to the name-calling and abuse in the social media arena.

Under these increasingly restrictive circumstances, civil society actors constantly have to adapt approaches and strategies in order to continue their advocacy and reform efforts. “We have also decided to work more closely in line with the current authorities and seek whatever opportunity there is to promote security governance reforms within their parameters. This is what ADD and RENEDEP are doing on the ground. The fact that they manage to include military and security authorities in their community dialogue efforts, shows that they keep civil-military collaboration and inclusivity efforts alive in very dire circumstances,” says Dr. Bagayoko.

Ibrahima Maïga comes with another example of on-the-ground advocacy results. “We met several times with MINUSMA [the United Nations stabilisation mission in Mali] as well as with the CNT (Conseil national de transition), the CNDH (Human Rights Commission) and the Economic, Social and Environmental Council. After this, one of our people was asked to join a committee that, under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, prepares a law that will give more prominence to customary authorities in conflict management. Recently, the national security sector reform office commissioned RENEDEP with two research and training assignments, which also come with community consultations. Only to show that civil society continues to create and grab opportunities to promote human and community-based approaches in Mali’s security governance reform.”

Stone by stone

“What Ibrahima is saying”, adds Dr. Bagayoko, “means that we can still collaborate with the institutions. It means that they need us, they need our expertise.”

Advocacy efforts do have an impact. But like slow cooking, change takes time. Especially if you can’t openly voice criticism and have to act as cautiously as you can. And especially in sensitive matters of security. “The will to change things is not something you can impose or enforce. It is something that can only be built, stone by stone, progressively, and methodically,” explains Ibrahima Maïga.

ADD and RENEDEP’s efforts to train people and set up and strengthen community committees are also a matter of trying to safeguard the perennity of their efforts. And a way to cover security risks. As Hamzata explains: “Security systems and security situations constantly change. We do whatever we can, but we run risks. Because of the simple fact that tomorrow we might not be there anymore, we try to set up structures, like the security consultation committees in Gao, that can continue to exist and function without our support.”

Energy and synergy

The Malian Just Future alliance in the Gao region, consisting of ASSN, ADD, and RENEDEP, is more than just a programmatic collaboration. “Alone, we can’t do anything. By joining hands, we create energy and synergy. ASSN’s support made us stronger. Our voice now reaches further. Which is a good thing. Because by only listening to international leaders, and not hearing what Malian communities have to say, nothing will be solved,” Ibrahima Maïga concludes.

To pick up on that, Hamzata Ag Didi has a specific plea: “We, civil society activists for change from Mali, need to be present in these international conferences, where Mali’s future is discussed. We are the ones who know the ins and outs of what is going on here. We run the risks on a daily basis. We adapt to whatever comes our way, be it military coups, severe instability and insecurity, jihadists, periods of transition. We deal with that. And we refuse to give in or to give up our mission. Which is to improve the living conditions of our fellow people and to defend their rights. For that, we should be heard, in Gao, in Bamako, and in the big cities of the world where important people talk about Mali, about us.”

From local to a bigger scale

Can bottom-up approaches and local advocacy and reform efforts, such as the ones by the Just Future alliance in Gao, make a difference on a bigger scale? Can they be the way to solve Mali’s multidimensional crisis, Mali’s gordian knot? “They certainly can,” says Ibrahima Maïga. “The state hasn’t been able to solve the crises, international forces haven’t solved it. Local communities need to take charge of their own security-solving solutions. We, civil society actors, take it upon ourselves to feed this local knowledge into national plans of action. Everything we do is geared towards making governance in Mali, whether it be of security, or justice, more inclusive, and more responsive to people’s needs and risks. More democratic.”

And to conclude, he adds: “Even if our vision and approach differs from those of the military, the state authorities do not reject us. And we don’t reject them. Things will change over time. Because in the meantime people like ourselves do all we can to strengthen civil society throughout the country. And this will, almost naturally, cause change for the better.”

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