In a prevailing mood such as this, the head of Mali's High Islamic Council is now seeking ways to instigate dialogue. Mahmoud Dicko, a politically agile and religiously moderate Wahhabist Muslim, initially invited the heads of Koran schools and traditional authorities in the region to several large-scale gatherings; 800 responded to his call. They exert their greatest influence in the places where the state is no longer present and they can therefore establish contact with key figures in the jihadist movement for Dicko.

"I aim to open paths to dialogue by asking what we can do for the region." Where possible, he continues, beyond the parameters of the official justice system which is so corrupt it affects the poorest members of society in particular, the appointment of traditional Islamic judges (Kadis) could have a positive effect.

Others send killer drones

"We must encourage the population to exit the vortex of violence," says Dicko. "But where is the red line that a republic cannot cross? That's something that the nation, the people must decide." He has no official mandate for his efforts.

A retired Malian general well-disposed to the West, with good memories of his training at the Military Academy of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg, describes a possible scenario following the withdrawal of foreign troops thus: "Then we would negotiate with the jihadists and if they want to introduce Islamic law, then we will see exactly what this might look like. Maybe it's not that bad. The jihadists want a clean jurisdiction and on some questions they are right."

Malian Imam Mahmoud Dicko (photo: Getty Images/AFP/H. Kouyate)
Paths to dialogue with militant Islamists: Mahmoud Dicko, a politically agile and religiously moderate Wahhabist Muslim, initially invited the heads of Koran schools and traditional authorities in the region to several large-scale gatherings; 800 responded to his call. They exert their greatest influence in the places where the state is no longer present and they can therefore establish contact with key figures in the jihadist movement for Dicko

Whether and how negotiations can take place must be determined separately according to the specific location. And no one wants to predict the chances of success. But many experts say it is at least worth a try.

"You can't kill all the jihadists. In Mali too, there is no alternative but to negotiate," says the head of the Berlin Centre for International Peace Operations, Almut Wieland-Karimi. Even the German Foreign Ministry is now saying that this is first and foremost a decision made by Malians.

The choice is dialogue or war

Twelve researchers from Mali, Senegal, the US and France recently warned the French government that by blocking attempts to initiate dialogue, it was running the risk of standing "on the wrong side of history". The military approach should be subordinate to a political goal that must be determined by the societies of the Sahel, they said.

To regain national sovereignty in the fight against terror is something intellectuals in the region are also calling for, individuals such as Moussa Tchangari, who heads the "Alternative Espaces Citoyens" in the capital of Niger, Niamey. In Mali, Niger and Nigeria negotiations with jihadists were always permitted whenever they served to secure the release of western hostages, he says.

This shows, he continues, to what extent "the decision on whether to enter dialogue or war is dominated by the interests of the major powers of the West." Indeed: in a situation of this sort, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian once issued a delicate reply to the question of whether the notorious Iyad Ag Ghali was a terrorist, saying: "It's up to him to say what he perceives himself to be."

Citizens' calls for greater national autonomy in Mali and Niger have so far gone unheeded by governments there: because foreign military presence bolsters their power and bloated defence budgets secure income from corruption.

Poverty-stricken Niger devotes 15 percent of its budget to its military – and is now, for the first time, allowing the U.S. to send killer drones to the Sahara from a new base.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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