Bridging deep divisions in Mali

The Timbuktu region of northern Mali, where Aminatou lives, has suffered six years of insecurity and violence between secessionist and Islamist militant groups and the central government, backed by French troops and United Nations peacekeepers.

There are reports by Human Rights Watch of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture and arbitrary arrests of those suspected of sympathising with the jihadists – which Islamist groups have in turn used as a recruiting tool.

A close up of Aminatou wearing a purple shawl standing in front of a beige-coloured wall.

Aminatou reflects of her experience in the local dialogue forum in Borem-Inaly.

We have seen a change in ourselves, in our own abilities to accept others and hear what they say.

Trust in the state and its security forces has therefore totally broken down, especially among more marginalised groups. There is also fear and suspicion within and across communities, with deep divisions along ethnic lines.

A dusty orange street scene in Mali with people walking.

“These divisions became normal, because we didn’t have a space to talk about what was happening,” explains Aminatou. Her dialogue forum is one of six supported by International Alert and our partner Association Malienne pour la Survie au Sahel (AMSS) – one in Timbuktu city, five in rural areas.

Community members, local authorities and security forces come together in the groups to improve trust and strengthen accountability around security issues locally. Elmedhi Ag Wakina, Director of AMSS, describes the importance of this:

What we are creating is a permanent framework of local dialogue that allows community members to deal with conflicts as they arise, and to learn about resolving local conflicts at the community level through their own skills.

Word has gotten around of the forums’ success. In Timbuktu city, when there was a recent assassination of a customs official and calls for people to take up arms, the local forum brought calm to the situation by organising a debate on security issues with local leaders.

Three men on seats with bicycle wheels.

In Borem-Inaly, when a conflict broke out between two men vying to be chief of a nearby village, a women’s mediation commission supported by the dialogue forum were asked to intervene and settle the dispute. Now, the two men participate in the forum themselves.

A crowd of people in Mali

As Aminatou explains:

We get phone calls from people wanting help from us, because now they know we are here and what we are capable of. They are learning to understand each other better and accept each other, and this is helping our whole community.

Including women in the forums demonstrates the active role they can play in strengthening peace and security in their communities. “Local men are now seeing local women managing a conflict that they were not able to change,” explains Aminatou.

Women at a market stall with potatoes.

For the security forces, the forums have helped them begin to see the value of establishing better relationships with communities. People are even starting to call on the security forces again when in need.

“The fact that they [communities] can express their fears is really supporting them to confront these difficulties, and to work towards trusting and collaborating with security forces,” says Oumou (pictured above), who coordinates AMSS’s work in Timbuktu.

A woman wearing a pale yellow and maroon embroidery.

That is what makes the forums so important, says Oumou:

Because if we can really address the causes of this crisis, then we can overcome it and we can prevent future conflicts growing into crises that confront us all.

A man at his workshop with tools.

The forums also run small community projects, such as cultural events, debates and trainings, as another way to bring people together and rebuild trust and dialogue.

Already the forums have become bigger than the sum of their parts. “Together we are beginning to bring back trust and the ability to dialogue over complex issues to the people of this region,” enthuses Elmedhi.

This project is funded by the Canadian government through Global Affairs Canada. It is part of our global work on improving community and citizen–state relations in conflict-affected countries.


International Alert is grateful for the kind support of our donors.
Government of Canada logo