Global Viewpoint

Dr. Maimouna Barro discusses the recent conference on West Africa at Illinois

3/27/2013  8:00 am

Maimouna Barro is associate director for the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include issues of women, education, and social change in West Africa. Here she discusses themes covered in the conference “Peace building in West Africa: Looking for Answers,” which took place on the Urbana-Champaign campus March 11.

Session one was called "The Case of Mali." It has become apparent that al-Qaida linked rebels have infiltrated north Mali, bringing instability there. What has made that West African nation attractive to these terrorist cells? What steps are being taken to return the northern part of Mali to governmental control?

Between April 2012 and January 2013 two-thirds of the West African nation of Mali was under the control of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and Tuareg separatists. Northern Mali has now become a sanctuary for AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). However, the country was not a political vacuum before its territorial disintegration. I think that to limit ourselves to the view that such an infiltration is the sole cause of the current crisis in the country is a very simplistic way of looking at the situation. Such an assumption would only lead to an easy explanation and would miss the social and political realities of Mali. We need to pay more attention to the country’s political environment before the separatist Tuareg insurgency in January 2012 and subsequent formation of a coalition of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Mali's long road to democracy has not led to sustained good governance. In addition, when placed within a broader regional perspective, we also cannot dismiss the role both Algeria and Libya have played in the Malian crisis.

Many factors contributed to recent events: the disintegration of the Malian state; the inability of its army to prevent the fall of the capital, Bamako; as well as the inability of Mali’s regional partners to take quick action. As a result, France’s Operation Serval seemed to provide a short-term and emergency solution to the crisis. However, the question is whether the French-led operation stands any chance of long-term success. What comes next? An African solution to the Malian crisis would have been the best way to deal with the crisis in the long term. There is an immediate need for a united African backing of French-led efforts which also includes Algeria's active support. The crisis in Mali from its very beginning was multifaceted and involved countries beyond Mali and beyond the Sahel region. A long-term solution to the conflict would also require giving considerable attention to its regional and trans-Saharan dimension.

"Lessons from Senegal and Rwanda and Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)”: What can we learn from these countries?

These three countries have experienced wars at different times, on a different scale, and have different post-conflict political conditions. However, the main lesson to take form these cases is that sustainable and inclusive peace and statebuilding processes can best be attained by involving local actors as well as national, and international stakeholders and by paying careful attention to underlying problems. The example of Cote D’Ivoire captures this very well. Although the spirit of reconciliation is very widespread, in the face of economic disparities, conflicts have the potential to emerge again. In other words, the conflict has ended, but peace has not been achieved. This is mainly because the Ivorian conflict ended with an externally driven military intervention instead of internally negotiated peace. For a lasting peace, UN peacekeepers or African Union troops are not enough. Local people need to participate in the process.

What are some of the overall conclusions about the region that came out of the greater discussion?

While our conference did speak about the conflict in Mali, one of its major points was to put this into context: although the Mali conflict is serious, overall, conflicts in Africa are declining. The stereotype of long unending wars is just not at all in sync with reality. We pay very little attention to the fact that conflicts are declining in frequency in Africa. They are also often mis-characterized as long, unending, and large-scale, while in reality, they are decreasing in scale. They are no longer related to the Cold War, but rather to wars against terrorism, or sometimes triggered by ethnic tensions, struggles over political power, and battles over access to resources.

One of the most important conclusions that came out of this conference is that there needs to be creative institutional designs to deal with the structural causes of conflicts in Africa. A good number of peace agreements were lost opportunities to redesign the institutional frame of the state and the mechanisms of democracy. Overall, there is consensus on the need for more critical studies dealing with the structural causes of conflicts, the possibilities of institutional designs, and ways in which partnerships with state and non-state actors in Africa can be forged. Several papers also emphasized the importance of local peacebuilding processes as well as carefully planned national political transitions. This is the first conference the Center for African Studies at Illinois organized on peacebuilding in Africa. We intend to follow up on questions raised at this first encounter.