Feb 13, 2018

Bellah People: Recognition of Minorities in Mali Crucial to Rebuild Society

The Bellah people are one of the largest and most vulnerable communities in Mali and suffer from violence, discrimination and a systematic exclusion from decision-making process by the central government. Even after the Algier Accord, where the Bellah people were given no room in the negotiations, national reconciliation processes fail at including minorities. The opportunity to integrate non-violent groups in the peace process would be both a way to achieve the recognition and rehabilitation of the community and to stabilise and create national reconciliation in the country.

 This article was published by The Broker:

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 conflict, 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.

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 theft. While they constitute one of the most vulnerable communities in Mali, the various organs managing the peace accord 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 mediators .

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 Accord. 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]”.

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 population. 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 2018, 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 held. 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.

Photo courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet by @Flick