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Mali’s Bellah: an entry point for reconciliation and reconstruction

Julie Duval | 12 February 2018

Insecurity and the quasi-absence of the State in Northern Mali, especially since the beginning of the Mali War in January 2012, have had a devastating impact on the lives of the Bellah. These people are now seeking inclusion in the peace efforts led by the international community. In the midst of this deadly conflict1, groups such as the Bellah can provide an alternative entry point for reconciliation and reconstruction.

The Bellah are an indigenous people of the Sahel/Sahara area and constitute one of the largest communities in Mali. They are spread throughout the territory, although they represent a majority in some areas of Northern Mali. Despite their demographic weight, they suffer from slavery, poverty and discrimination. Unfortunately, despite their involvement in the country’s socio-economic life, they have never been officially considered a community, thereby limiting their involvement in public affairs.

Lack of involvement of the Bellah in the peace process

With the Mali War and the government’s progressive loss of control over half of its territory, the situation has worsened for the Bellah, who have become victims of assassinations, rapes, kidnappings, the destruction of property and theft3. While they constitute one of the most vulnerable communities in Mali, the various organs managing the peace accord4 have failed to make room for them in negotiations. In fact, only three parties took part in the discussions by the committee following the Algiers Accord: the Coordination for Azawad Movements, the Algiers Platform of the 14 June 2014 Movements, composed of pro-government armed groups, and international mediators5.

In the framework of a press conference held on 12 July 2017 in Bamako, the Malian Association for the Preservation of Bellah Culture (AMASCB-IKEWAN) denounced the systematic exclusion of the community. It called upon the Malian State to “rehabilitate this community by integrating it in discourses […] national gatherings and commissions”. Simultaneously, the Association demanded official recognition of the community and its inclusion in the implementation of the Algiers Accord6. The Bellah, through AMASCB-IKEWAN, are now promoting their recognition and inclusion, not by using violence, but rather through cultural activities, awareness raising and claiming respect for the fundamental rights to which they are entitled. The Association believes that it is “the law [rather than arms that] will oblige the State to recognise [the community]”7.

Giving voice to a non-violent, marginalized population

It should be underlined that one of the reasons why the Mali War broke out is the lack of control by the government and its inability provide basic services and opportunities to its Northern population8. Social exclusion and issues such as discrimination are known to be feeding extremism and violence.

Therefore, the question that should be raised is how it is possible for Mali to hope for national reconciliation and development, as well as regain control over its North, if the most vulnerable are left out of the process. This question is especially relevant, as the Bellah constitute one of Mali’s most marginalized populations and, due to their commitment to nonviolence, special attention should be paid to addressing their needs to regain stability in the country and the region. The needs of the Bellah are numerous and encompass, among others, their recognition as a community by the Malian State, increased access to basic services including for health and education, more security for their communities, and better social integration in Southern-Mali, to which numerous Bellah have fled in search of stability.

The question of finding an alternative entry point for reconciliation and reconstruction is timely, as at least 26 people were killed in an attack targeting the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali on 25 January 20189, raising international observers’ concerns about the peace process being challenged.

In 2013, one of the European Parliament’s political groups released a paper recommending that an inclusive conference uniting nonviolent actors from Northern Mali, including the Tuaregs, the Songhai, the Fula, the Moors and the Bellah, be held10. In the short term, a forum where stakeholders could share grievances and formulate recommendations could be instrumental in implementing the Algiers Accord, by fostering the involvement of non-armed stakeholders in the peacebuilding process. In the long term, addressing the grievances of Mali’s most vulnerable is crucial to rebuild a more stable society, allowing for the respect of human rights, socio-economic development and open dialogue between communities.

1. Reliable estimates of the number of deaths are difficult to find, but, according to French newspaper Libération, 332 people were killed in this conflict in the year 2016: Libération (2017), Au Mali, les chiffres inquiétants de la guerre invisible, available here.
2. Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) (2017), Bellah People, available here.
3. Malian Association for the Preservation of Bellah Culture (AMASCB-IKEWAN) (2017).
4. The Accord for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, or the Algiers Accord, was signed on 15 and 20 June 2015 in Algiers, Algeria. You can read it here.
5. United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) (2017), Comité de suivi de l’accord pour la paix et la réconciliation au Mali (CSA) : les travaux se sont déroulés sous de bons auspices, available here.
6. Maliweb.net (2017), Accord de paix au Mali: La communauté Bellah dénonce son exclusion dans les organes de gestion, available here.
7. Ibid.
8. Le Dessous des cartes (2015), Des nouvelles du Mali, available here.
9. Okello, C (2018), Fresh attacks challenge Mali’s peace deal, Radio France International, available here.
10. EFA/Greens (2013), Mali: comment gagner la paix?, available here.

Photo by: Michael Panse, january 2010 via Flickr.com.

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Julie Duval

Julie Duval works at Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) in Brussels. She focus...

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