A unity conference began in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to kick-start reconciliation as mandated by a peace accord signed in 2015. It's a step towards stabilizing the whole country. But what do Malians in the north hope for?
Under the scorching heat, young people gather in a backyard in the center of the northern Malian town of Gao. A small television set on mute is airing a Brazilian soap-opera. Some of the youth have their eyes on the screen. Others nap in the afternoon heat. One of them is Issa Boncana. He is a member of the Civilian Resistance Movement, formed in the middle of the crisis in 2012. Instead of fleeing the region, its members tried to help the population and resisted the bandits with peaceful means, he told DW.
But now these young adults have nothing to do anymore: "There are no factories. Nobody can find any work," Boncana said, pointing to his friends. The man in the red t-shirt still hoped that his government would be able to start a few projects to create jobs. But he was very skeptical.
International military presence
Even before the crisis in northern Mali, which was started with a revolt of the Tuareg at the end of 2011 and culminated in the occupation by fundamentalist Islamic groups, tourism in the area had broken down. It was the most important source of revenue for the people in Gao.
In 2013, the French launched Operation Serval, which managed to push back the jihadists. Today, a couple of thousands of soldiers tasked with keeping security are stationed on the periphery of Gao. The German army alone has 727 soldiers on site, integrated in the United Nations' peace keeping mission MINUSMA. The French are present with Mission Barkhane, the successor to Operation Serval. The Malian army and the so-called MOC, an alliance of regular Malian soldiers, pro-Malian militias and former rebels, also have camps on the town's outskirts.
In the afternoon heat, with the dusty roads nearly deserted, a couple of heavily armed soldiers stood around in the center of Gao. There were regular patrols too.
"We cannot move around freely"
Nevertheless, the situation remains tense, said Moussa Souma Miaga, the traditional leader of the Songhai in Gao. "Security just isn't working here. We cannot move freely around", he told DW.
The streets beyond the city center are not sufficiently secured and have no military posts. They are used as shortcuts by smugglers and bandits. Rumors are going around that jihadists are still in Gao. It's a sensitive subject, said Souma Maiga. "Yes, there are jihadists stil herel. Recently they attacked the MOC," he added.
Maiga was referring to aserious attack in Januarythat left 70 soldiers dead. Two months later, the attack keeps cropping up in conversations and has not been forgotten yet. Since then, the protection of entrance to the MOC base has been improved. But attempted attacks keep on occurring.
Mali's difficult peace process
The situation is having an impact on the peace process. In May 2015, the Malian government signed a peace agreement with several Tuareg rebel groups, which is now being gradually implemented. The next step in the accord is the national unity conference in Bamako that was expected to bring together 300 participants. But the opposition and several former rebel groups announced over the weekend that they would not be attending the peace, national unity and reconciliation conference. They feel that it's not inclusive enough. Until the last minute, the government was scrambling to convince the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) to attend.
In the backyard in Gao, talk of the conference caused Issa Boncana to grimace ironically. "Neither us nor other youth groups have been contacted, let alone invited," he told DW.
The fact reinforced the perception Boncana shares with many Malians: Bamako is not really interested in the north. "Is this the unity of Bamako?" Boncana asked sarcastically. The conference also proved that only those who made a lot of noise with weapons were being listened to, while quiet and peaceful movements were being ignored, he added. In his opinion, pacifist groups should be included in a significant way in the current peace process, since this was not just about how the crisis should be handled, but relevant to the future of the whole country.
Patience and compromise
Concerning the conference, traditional leader Moussa Souma Maiga was more optimistic. He said that it was evident that all sides should be sensitive and ready to compromise. "You have to understand that this fragile situation can be quickly destroyed, but is not easy to build up again," Maiga said.
Maiga added that he didn't know whether by the end of the conference, which is scheduled for April 2, his town would be getting ay kind of concrete assistance. Like many other Gao inhabitants, he remains skeptical. Mali's north and its problems have always been far away from the government in Bamako, he said.