In Bamako, Mali’s lush capital, it’s not hard to spot soldiers. This is a nation that has been on a war footing since 2012, and there are plenty of military men marching around the city: a large Malian army presence, of course, but also troops from France and armed peacekeepers and police from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

But in a stark conference room in a hotel in the city centre, at a training course for peacebuilders, there is not a uniform or weapon in sight. Instead, there are bright pattern print shirts, short-sleeve suits and an array of colourful turbans, balanced precariously on the heads of the many women in the room.

These are civilians, representatives from civil society groups all over Mali, and the country’s future is in their hands – although this is not always obvious, judging from Mali’s often belligerent political discourse. ‘These people are actually in the communities. Soldiers can stop people from doing things, but they cannot change the way people think. A lasting solution can only come from civil society,’ admitted an observer from MINUSMA, sitting next to me.

As we watch, participants are vigorously debating the causes of poor governance in Mali, with corruption being the most popular complaint. Other proposed causes are more controversial: would the country really be better off if women were in charge? Shouldn’t everyone acknowledge that while poor governance is a constant, the scale and manifestations of the problem differ from region to region?

While participants argue, session facilitator Ambroise Dakouo watches, and listens. He knows it’s not his job to offer solutions, or advice. He is at the training course to get the conversation going and ask the difficult questions that will allow the participants to come up with their own solutions.

‘We are in a complex crisis in Mali, one that changes all the time. Nobody has a vision of how to move forward, because everyone looks only to themselves and to their regions. We need to move beyond this, to make people aware of the bigger picture,’ says Dakouo, a local specialist in governance and local development. And, as he explains various frameworks for understanding governance to the group, and different ways of understanding their own contribution to broader national objectives, he does just that.

For Dakouo, the role of civil society in Mali is particularly important because of the government’s weakness, which was exacerbated by the coup in 2012, and the chronic instability that followed. This has left a governance vacuum which, like it or not, civil society must fill. And its role is particularly important now, in the wake of the peace deal signed in June between the government and the main armed groups.

In theory, Mali has now moved from a conflict situation into the phase of post-conflict reconstruction, and the success or failure of this will depend to a large degree on the work of some of the people in the room. Soldiers, almost by definition, will struggle to take charge of the transition to peace: it must be a civilian-led process.

The training session was organised by the Institute for Security Studies’ African Centre for Peace and Security Training (ACPST), with participation from the Malian National Coalition of Civil Society for Peace and the Fight against the Proliferation of Small Arms.

It is something of a departure for ACPST, which has historically focussed on capacity building for military and police personnel, and senior officials with governments and continental institutions. However, according to ACPST Acting Head Golda Keng, it is an area in which the centre would like to expand.

‘This three day session is not really a typical training session,’ she explains. ‘It’s a showcase of best practices as developed and shared by civil society themselves. It’s to help participants see what’s going on around them, and what others are doing to confront similar situations … we try to make them see that their problems are not uniquely Malian, but that these issues are everywhere.’

Another outcome is simply to connect the various disparate sections of civil society in Mali. The networks created here will endure long after the trainers have left the country. This is particularly important in the Malian context.

‘During the crisis [since 2012], the army was divided, the government was divided, and civil society was also divided. Parts of civil society were with the government, parts were with the rebels, and parts were with the coup leaders. This diminished the role of civil society because they were too politicised,’ explained Dr Mariam Maiga, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Civil Society for Peace and the Fight against the Proliferation of Small Arms.

Maiga explains that sessions like this, which bring different civil society actors together from all over the country, help to bridge those divides. ‘It’s a very important contribution to the consolidation of civil society. We are the ones who must construct the peace. There are many of us working on this, but we have to work together,’ she concluded.

There isn’t a huge amount of actual training that happens during the course. It is designed to encourage participants to share and critique their own experiences, and to come up with their own standards of best practice. This is a counter-intuitive approach, but it’s not unique: in life coaching, which helps individuals overcome personal issues, there is a theory that the only person really qualified to solve their own problems is the person himself.

The role of the life coach is merely to facilitate the thinking process: to ask the right questions at the right time, to provide the necessary background information and, crucially, to stand back and listen when necessary.

A similar principal is at play here. Ultimately, what is the most effective way to train a peacebuilder? To let them train themselves.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Simon Allison is a consultant at ISS.

Image: A woman hands out anti-war decals during a protest rally and march. REUTERS/Chip East