The five community leaders squeezed into a rattletrap Mercedes-Benz and braced themselves for a daunting mission. They were going to meet the jihadist militants who had made their lives unbearable.
The purpose of the meeting was to secure the release of a well-known teacher, snatched by jihadists in a village beneath the sandstone cliffs that cut through central Mali – the country’s epicentre of violence and displacement.
But when the leader of the five – a village chief and farmer fed up with years of conflict in his district of Koro – stepped forward to take back the teacher at a gathering point in the bush, he found himself unable to hold back tears.
“Why are we doing this to each other?” the farmer, Amadou Guindo*, asked the jihadists, many of whom he recognised from local towns and villages. “We are brothers,” Guindo said. “We have lived together for generations.”
The leader of the jihadists responded that they wouldn’t put down their guns because a farmer was crying. But then they offered an unexpected olive branch: “We are fighting against the state, not against you,” the jihadist said.
The five men left shortly after with more than just the teacher. They had the phone number of their jihadist counterpart and plans to meet him again – this time with community leaders from across their district. Reconciliation was on the cards.
Talking to the ‘sons of Mali’
Jihadists took root in central Mali in 2015, having previously been based in the desert north. While some communities accepted their rule, people in districts like Guindo’s – which are religiously mixed – picked up arms and joined self-defence militias.
As UN peacekeepers, local troops, and occasional French airstrikes failed to reverse the spiralling violence, community leaders trailblazed a different approach: dialogue with the jihadists.
Guindo, who is in his 50s, was one of the first leaders to try it. After the hostage release, which took place mid-2020, he convinced others from his commune in Koro to meet the al-Qaeda-linked militants, referred to by locals as yimbe ladde or bushmen.
That meeting then led to one of the first pacts of its kind in central Mali. Villagers pledged to stop fighting and follow strict sharia law, while the jihadists promised to let people farm and travel freely. Other concessions were eked out of them later on too.
Guindo described the accord as a “survival pact”, necessary because the state is absent. He regrets requirements to follow sharia yet said the talks achieved what military forces and cash-flush international peace groups didn’t: a semblance of security.
As life improved in Guindo’s commune, word spread. Community leaders from across Koro asked the farmer for appointments with the militants, as did parts of the neighbouring districts of Bankass and Bandiagara.
Overwhelmed with demand, the farmer set up a system. “When four or more villages contacted me, I’d write a list and send it by WhatsApp and SMS to the jihadists,” Guindo said. “After they’d chosen a day to meet, I’d gather people to make a pact.”
Though limited in scope, these talks carry weight beyond central Mali. They show a space for conciliation between conflict parties and an appetite for dialogue that may support the case for national negotiations with militants.
Such talks were long constrained by the War on Terror posture of France, which sent thousands of troops to Mali since 2013. But as the former colonial power here withdraws – having fallen out with the county’s ruling junta – a political opening has emerged.
Given the failure of successive military campaigns, many hope the government seizes it. “If the jihadists are sons of Mali, then we don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t sit and negotiate,” said Guindo, who hadn’t spoken to journalists about his work before meeting The New Humanitarian.
A bottle of liquor and five long meetings
As dialogue efforts spread in central Mali, so did an army of mediators: schoolteachers and shepherds thrashed out ceasefires between jihadists and militias; bus drivers and businessman formed associations that brokered hyper-local truces.
Still, few have exhausted as much time and effort as Guindo. His story highlights the everyday courage of grassroots leaders trying to protect their communities, and the moral quandaries and personal risks they must navigate along the way.
When The New Humanitarian asked local aid workers, civil society groups, and public officials for contacts of individuals involved in dialogues in central Mali, it was Guindo’s name that kept coming back.
“He was the first to have direct negotiations with the jihadists,” said the director of a Malian NGO involved in peacebuilding work in the centre.
“If there is any problem, he will sort it out,” said a women’s rights campaigner from the region.
Problems weren’t hard to find in Koro before the dialogues. The jihadists’ arrival had poisoned ties between the region’s marginalised Fulani herders – who had joined the militants in large numbers – and members of Guindo’s Dogon group who had joined the militias.
With support from the state, the Dogon militias massacred and besieged Fulani villages. The jihadists and Fulani defence groups then did the same to Dogon communities, which hold a mix of Muslim, Christian, and traditional beliefs.
It was during this period that the teacher, a Dogon, was kidnapped. He was fetching animal feed outside his village when he bumped into jihadists. His friend had a gun and pulled the trigger; the militants, who were Fulani, fired back and shot him dead.
When the teacher went missing, his friends and family contacted Guindo, who was part of an association of Koro-based peace activists gaining a reputation for fixing problems. Guindo knew the teacher personally and sought to secure his release.
The farmer’s first step was to call the phone number of the teacher, who picked up and put him through to his jihadist captors. To them, Guindo then made a simple proposal: In exchange for the teacher, a Dogon, he offered to find a Fulani captive of Koro’s militias.
“My finger is in your mouth, and yours is in mine – I hope we don’t bite each other,” Guindo told his jihadist interlocutor.
“I am very impressed by the way you talk,” the jihadist replied.
The militant gave Guindo three days to find a Fulani boy kidnapped by a Dogon militia a few weeks earlier in Koro. The farmer looked everywhere without success. Then, a deadline day breakthrough: Three militiamen said they knew of the child’s whereabouts.
The fighters came to Guindo’s house, but their leader was tetchy. “He stopped me right away, saying he doesn’t want to hear about it,” Guindo said. But pints of millet beer, liquor, and servings of NGO spaghetti rations helped change his mind.
After exchanging the hostages with the help of four friends – and the run-down Merc – Guindo’s next task was to convince others in his commune to meet the militants. That took five gruelling meetings and plenty of objections.
During one gathering, Dogon militiamen – for whom Fulani and jihadist are often one and the same – turned up with the remains of a militant. The militiamen said the jihadist had accidentally blown himself up while laying a mine in the ground.
“These are the people you are making peace with,” the fighters said. “They want to kill you.”
“We need to try,” the farmer replied. “If it works, it works.”
As conversations dragged, Guindo found strength in the legacy of his deceased father – an influential village chief known for his mediation skills. He also turned to the memory of his nephew, who had lost his life in the violence a few years earlier.
“I knew the conflict would affect me again if I did nothing,” said the farmer, who wears a skull cap, thick robes, and a frayed black scarf even in the searing heat.
A militant’s message: ‘Go and live your lives’
Eventually, a group of village leaders agreed to head with Guindo to the same patch of scrub where the hostage exchange took place. However, some pulled out at the last moment, distrusting the militant’s motives.
“Six of them said they were not going to go, and withdrew,” said a close friend of Guindo’s who was at the meeting. “They said, ‘these jihadists are fooling us, they have guns and will kill us’.”
Guindo said the jihadists turned up on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks. They had heavy weapons and trademark black flags – yet the meeting was amicable, just like the hostage swap.
“We are fed up with guns and noise,” Guindo told the militants.
“We are fighting to establish sharia law,” the jihadist commander replied. “If there is no problem, then go and live your lives.”
After the meeting, markets re-opened, and farmers worked their fields relatively unhindered. Subsequent discussions were also held in which Guindo extracted further compromises from the militants that have made life that little bit more bearable.
At a January meeting, the farmer asked jihadists to stop attacking telecom towers – arguing that it impacted the communication needs of communities and militants alike. He also asked them to stop laying mines near civilian areas.
When jihadists stole the vehicle of an international medical NGO working around Koro, it was Guindo who arranged for it to be returned. The fighters even offered to pay for the cost of a smashed window, but the NGO said they would pay for that themselves.
Even religious matters aren’t off the table. After two months of negotiating, Guindo said jihadists recently agreed to allow women and men to sit next to each other on certain bus routes where this was previously forbidden.
“You solve one issue, and you find another straight after,” Guindo said. “This is a problem that started long ago. It’s not one conversation that will solve everything.”
Separating the goats from the lions
Enforcement of sharia varied after accords were struck. Guindo said jihadists took a permissive approach to his commune – a product of the trust built between them. Yet schools were kept closed and women were forcibly veiled in other areas with pacts.
Many feel these sacrifices are necessary for the sake of stability. But the accords have detractors: Soldiers often treat those striking them as akin to jihadists, while militias in some areas consider pacts to be a form of submission.
All this creates risks for Guindo, and mediators like him. The farmer’s family is instructed not to reveal his whereabouts to strangers, while every time he organises a mission, he worries it may be his last.
Guindo said a leader of his association survived a recent shooting (though it’s unclear who by), while another had their transport business disrupted by militia fighters. They now sell old car parts in a city hundreds of miles away.
“We are facing a lot of risks and our lives are in danger,” Guindo said. “When we travel, we are scared.”
Nor are Guindo’s efforts well compensated. For a long time, the farmer said he travelled around on foot arranging dialogues. His association now scraps together a few hundred dollars a month from its members – but the funds don’t cover much.
The money problems impact Guindo’s ability to ensure the pacts are respected. In many districts, accords have fallen apart as jihadists and militias have broken the terms and conditions.
Still, Guindo always has his powers of persuasion to lean on when convincing civilians not to pick up weapons. “In a fight between two lions (the army and the jihadists), a goat has no place,” he tells communities during discussions in Koro. “A poor man shouldn’t put their hand into the trouble of two kings,” he often adds.
Edited by Andrew Gully. Illustrations by Dramane Diarra, a Malian artist based in Bamako.
*Guindo is a pseudonym. His real name is not being used for security reasons. Village and commune names, and certain other details, are also obscured.