Restitching Mali’s delicate fabric

By Isabel Martins, Oxfam’s EU Policy Advisor

After two years of violent conflict, Mali is approaching a turning point.

The European Union, who has worked alongside Mali throughout the turbulent period, is continuing to support the local authorities in stabilising the North of Mali, where tensions between and within communities have caused instability throughout the country. The EU has helped sustain policies of peace and reconciliation with the hope of mobilizing means to support the National Dialogue Commission, implementing a conflict resolution and peace promotion project.

It is vital now that both the EU and Malian authorities acknowledge that a lasting peace cannot be achieved unless concrete efforts are made to improve understanding of the impact of the conflict on the country’s social fabric, as well as of its root causes, such as corruption, poverty and feelings of marginalization.

A new report by Oxfam and regional women’s network WILDAF, “Piecing together the jigsaw: prospects for improved social relations after the armed conflict in northern Mali”, explores the profound effect the armed conflict has had on relationships between individuals and communities in the north of the country. However, despite these troubling outcomes, the report explains that this split between these communities is neither radical nor irreparable.

According to the report, no previous conflict has been so destructive for social relationships. Almost all those who took part in the study described this crisis as “unrivalled”, “unequalled” and “scandalous”.

“This crisis is a nightmare for me. I lost my father and younger brother in previous crises. They were rounded up and executed here in our home because we didn’t flee. I forgave them because it was a mistake. But this crisis hasn’t spared anyone. It’s turned everything upside down”, male interviewee from a village in the region of Timbuktu.

Fear and mistrust have exacerbated older divisions in the communities interviewed. The statistics speak for themselves: of those interviewed who believe social relations are either average or poor, six out of ten professed to having a problem with a whole ethnic group rather than with individuals.

Economic relations have not been spared. Over half of the discussion groups (89 of 168) thought that economic relations have been negatively impacted too. According to them, the loss of trust between individuals and communities – and to a lesser extent the displacement of populations – is the main cause of this.

Listening to the voices of close to 2000 people affected by the conflict, reconciliation between communities in the north still seems possible; although major challenges await all of the parties involved.

The first challenge is that of dialogue. Over half of the discussion groups (96 of 168) declared that the solutions for improving social relations must be anchored at local level and need to be based on an inclusive and participative dialogue involving all Malians, without distinction. Taking into account dissenting voices that may express more radical views and bringing them into the reconciliation process is also an important challenge.

“We need to sit down together, talk, shake hands and look in the same direction. We don’t need to hate any more”, female interviewee from a village in the region of Timbuktu.

Poverty, corruption and the perception of underdevelopment in northern Mali, accompanied by feelings of injustice and marginalization, are also seen as factors undermining harmonious social relations. The right to justice, the need to tackle impunity and establish the truth about crimes committed are still widely demanded.

The issue of displaced and refugee populations also requires special attention. Some have already started to return, but there is still a risk of tension and conflict with those who remained. Whilst almost all displaced people surveyed said they want to return home, almost half of them said they fear that they will not be welcomed.

Finally, the study revealed that the Malian government is seen both as part of the problem and solution. The government needs to strengthen the judicial system to guarantee the rights of all Malians and be able to fairly and transparently judge those who have committed abuses.

By tackling these key issues, the authors of the report believe that the jigsaw that makes up the social fabric of Mali can be put back together.

When supporting reconciliationinitiatives, the EU needs to make sure that it considers the solutions offered by the communities and takes into account new power dynamics and local actors that have emerged from the conflict. Reconciliation efforts should build on lessons learnt from the past andon mechanisms already in place at community level.

 

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