When last year the 900 participants of a "Conference of National Understanding" also called for an attempt at dialogue, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had his reconciliation minister announce: "Mali is ready to negotiate with all its sons." Just a few days later, he withdrew his offer under pressure from France. On a visit to Mali, the foreign minister at the time Jean-Marc Ayrault said categorically that in the fight against terrorism, there was "only one way, not two" and the Malian President promised obedience.

"It was shocking to see how limited our room for manoeuver is," says opposition member and ex-foreign minister Sy Kadiatou Sow. "Mali is de facto under guardianship. But we must have the courage to debate what's good for us, for our nation," she says. The politician is known as a champion of women's rights; no one is suggesting she has any sympathy for a radicalised Islam.

Both the northern Irish IRA and Palestine’s PLO were previously regarded as ultra-terrorists with whom talks would never be possible. The extent of the crimes committed should not be a barrier to engagement, writes Jonathan Powell in his book "Terrorists at the Table". Tony Blair's former chief of staff, an expert in international conflict mediation, proposed talks with al-Qaida 10 years ago.

French troops in Mali in 2013 (photo: Reuters/Francois Rihouay)
Questionable military intervention: When France intervened in Mali in 2013, the comparison with Afghanistan ("Sahelistan") still appeared absurd, but after five years of international intervention, Mali is marked by a complex grid of violence. Barely a day goes by without attacks, most of them aimed at foreign troops

Nevertheless, the idea still persists that no rational dialogue can take place with jihadists because these are religious fanatics with crazy Caliphate fantasies, without regard for current local social circumstances. Yet this hardly applies to Africa. ­

Jihadism in reaction to state despotism and social injustice

Leonhard Harding, emeritus professor of African history at the University of Hamburg, writes on the Sahel jihadists:  "A joint concept for the creation of an Islamic state or the declaration of a new Caliphate is nowhere in sight." The fighters are primarily interested in local reform and wanted to win the support of the people, he continues. On the subject of Boko Haram, the French political scientist Jean-François Bayart says this is "the religious expression of a social phenomenon."

Even in 18th and 19th century West Africa, so-called jihadists battled against unjust rulers using religious slogans. In a similar way, today's jihadism in central Mali presents itself as a response to state despotism and social injustice. The region is wracked by a movement that identifies terrorism as social rebellion.

Recruits are often found among young Fulba shepherds; they expel representatives of a state that they only know as the repressor, execute tax collectors and mayors. When a judge was abducted in broad daylight, the local population reacted with "satisfaction", reports a film director from the region. "When things like this happen, I hear the same thing each time: 'the civil servants had it coming to them!"

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