Mali: Enabling Dialogue with the Jihadist Coalition JNIM

Both Mali’s government and the country’s largest jihadist grouping, Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), say they want to talk about ending their bloody conflict. Yet neither party has taken steps to make dialogue happen. After eight years of fighting, the government and its external partners lack a convincing military strategy for concluding the war. Talks could allow the government to cut deals with jihadists that would save lives. But officials face major obstacles, not least their own division over the notion of such negotiations. France, Mali’s most important ally, opposes dialogue. JNIM, meanwhile, says foreign forces must withdraw before it will talk, deepening the other side’s reluctance to engage. But with rural militias proliferating and elite squabbles prompting two coups in 2021 to date, the demoralised public is swinging behind dialogue. So as not to rush into talks unprepared, the government and JNIM should first unify their ranks and think through their positions on key issues, particularly the role of Islam in state and society. They should also name negotiation teams and agree upon a mediator. Dialogue is worth pursuing, notwithstanding enormous challenges. The gap between the two sides’ positions is yawning, and the task of negotiating a comprehensive settlement may seem impossible. Just talking to militants may seem a tall order, politically speaking, given some of their stated goals and their al-Qaeda connection. Even if JNIM has shown some pragmatism while fighting an insurgency, it is unclear whether that would extend to compromises off the battlefield. Many Malians oppose its draconian interpretation of Islam. But the present approach is clearly not working: without a change in tack, civilians in much of the country will remain caught up in a violent struggle between militants and security forces.