Peace in Mali needs more than more troops

This opinion piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on 5 April 2013 The 11,000 peacekeeping troops that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for in Mali will not be enough to bring stability. Not even if they are supported by the unspecified number of combat troops that might be called on to back the peacekeepers up. That's not because they're not enough in military terms but because securing stability in Mali for the long-term is a much more than military task. The French military intervention in Mali since mid-January and much of the official discussion of Mali in the UN and among western governments seem to have been driven by a quite narrow and short-term view of the issues the country faces. As in anything, if the problem is mis-diagnosed, the solution will probably mis-fire. Most of the current discussion about Mali tends to focus on the capture of the north by radicals and the ungovernability of the area. These are seen as resulting from the weakness of the government and especially of the army. In this discourse, it was the army's surprising inability to withstand an insurgent offensive at the turn of the year that upturned the diplomatic applecart and, after months of discussing peaceful intervention, triggered France's military action. Apart from any surprise at the army's incapacity, this analysis is not far off the mark but only scrapes the surface. To understand what is happening, what might happen and what is needed, you have to go a step deeper. Since independence in 1960, Mali has seen four Tuareg uprisings. The Malian army has never defeated these insurgencies but nor have the rebels' political goals ever been met. Further, the Tuaregs themselves do not form the majority of the population in the northern part of Mali. On the one hand then, the Tuareg issue goes deeper than the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown and the emergence in Mali of radical and violent groups - notably al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and the salafist group Ansar Dine (approximately, 'defenders of the faith'). And on the other hand, the Tuareg issue is not the whole story. Mali has chronically inadequate governance by a state that has never succeeded in creating a national post-colonial identity that feels inclusive to all the different population groups in the country. Many communities, especially in rural areas, have local governance traditions that operate relatively effectively, independently of the central state. At the same time, highly effective civil society networks provide people and their communities with mutual support, in a context where the state struggles to provide basic services. In each area, these networks are often dominated by one ethnic or caste group; other groups are and/or perceive themselves to be marginalised. Multiple layers of resentment, feelings of exclusion and competition for scarce resources feed and build upon each other. In the north, these networks have functioned to one side of the local leadership provided by clan leaders, joined and challenged more recently by organised criminal groups and jihadist organisations. Taken together, all these groups have done something to substitute for the functions of a largely absent state. They have provided a degree of security and order and have regulated access to opportunity. Meanwhile in Bamako, a state that did not care much about the north largely tolerated these alternative power structures. Indeed, earlier peace agreements between northern rebels and Bamako have implicitly accepted them. In this sense, the common description of northern Mali an 'ungoverned space' is misleading; it's simply been governed by somebody other than the internationally recognised government. So in this context, how would it be possible to build peace, how even to start out on that long slog? To begin with, the process has to be Malian-led; the internationals can support it, they can try to protect it, but they cannot do it. If such a process does emerge, it will build on the precious Malian tradition for negotiations and will almost certainly look beyond quick elections. The interim civilian government that the military junta installed has promised elections for the middle of this year; Ban Ki-moon was quite right to warn that in current circumstances holding elections would be highly risky. The current reality of Mali on which peace must be built is that of a strong society and a weak state. The informal governance structures matter and reformers in Bamako and their international supporters need to engage with them. In time, this effort needs to be directed at establishing legitimate state structures, ones that earn legitimacy in the eyes of most of the population and do not exclude any ethnic, clan or caste groups. Arguably, exclusion of important groups is a core reason for the failure of previous peace agreements between Tuareg leaders and Bamako. A key part of this process will be the delicate task of finding incentives to bring traditional leaders, jihadists and salafists into a peacebuilding and state-building process. If legitimate structures are not built and if these alternative providers of government are not brought into the process, there is little chance of long-term peace and stability in the country. To get there, it may be that outside military interventions can hold the ring while the core work of building peace and stability unfolds. But the West will go wrong, the UN will be mis-used and the people of the country will suffer if the military are asked to do the whole job and provide solutions to problems that are not military and have deeper roots than short-term security needs. For more on this argument, read International Alert's report Crisis in Mali: A peacebuilding approach.