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Reconciliation Challenges Ahead for Mali President

  • Anne Look

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita speaks during inauguration ceremony, Bamako, Sept. 19, 2013.

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita speaks during inauguration ceremony, Bamako, Sept. 19, 2013.

After Mali's nearly two-year crisis tore the country in half and deepened divisions in both the north and the south, newly elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita says reuniting his nation is a top priority.

Comparing the job ahead to "stitching back together" what he has called Mali's shredded social fabric, Keita has said he is aiming to get Malians to harmonize as a "national symphony."

For many Malians, however, dialogue and justice must precede reconciliation.

"First, we need to look at all that has happened, who did what and why," said a man on the streets of Bamako who withheld his name. "Only then will we be able to forgive and start fresh."

In a country where decades of government corruption and mismanagement with impunity have undermined development, many Malians are bitter and distrustful of politicians. Ever since January 2012, when Tuareg separatist group MNLA launched a rebellion in the north — followed by a mutiny in the south that led to the government's overthrow — Mali's military has remained dysfunctional and divided.

The army, rebels and Islamist militants have all been accused of human rights abuses.

For Aminata Idrissa Maiga, a radio presenter in the northern town of Gao, not everything is forgivable.

"Some young people joined up with the Islamists because they had to, and they can be forgiven," she said
But, she added, they are the exception.

"[There are others] who committed very serious crimes," she said. "For them, for the ones who killed people and cut off people's hands and feet, justice must be done."

But exactly how to deliver justice remains an open question: Fighting damaged courthouses, police stations and other administrative buildings in the north, and prisons and other judicial resources are already strained in the south.

While Malian, French and regional troops retook the north from militants earlier this year, the vast desert region is far from secure and hundreds of thousands of northerners remain displaced.

The government also signed a temporary ceasefire deal with MNLA in June to allow elections to go ahead, but tensions continue to run high in the far northeastern region of Kidal, the Tuareg rebel stronghold.

MNLA external affairs director Ibrahim ag Asseleh says reconciliation will be possible only when they get what successive Tuareg rebel groups have been seeking for decades.

"Mali needs to accept a large autonomy for Azawad," he said, referring to Mali's three northern regions. "That is the lasting solution to this problem."

Following a preliminary meeting between northern armed groups on Tuesday, however, Keita said he will not consider independence or a system of federalism in upcoming, regionally-mediated negotiations.

"I have taken an oath to protect Mali's territorial integrity and I will not negotiate on this point," Keita said. "Everything else is possible, but not independence or autonomy."

In Mali’s north, where the Tuareg are a minority, previous peace accords involving only rebels and the government have failed. Keita’s government is vowing will hold regional assemblies starting in October, followed by a national assembly to gather up the grievances of all Malians, not just the rebels, before peace talks begin.

Cheikh Oumar Diarrah, head of Mali's new Ministry of Reconciliation and Northern Development, has also pledged to revamp the truth-telling commission, which was created in April and has so far been largely inactive.

"We will confront the truth. We are going to listen to everyone," he said. "Each person's story is important for Mali."

Amadou Maiga contributed reporting from Bamako; Nick Loom contributed reporting from Gao.