Africa

Mali: The road to redemption begins now, like it or not

By Simon Allison 26 July 2013

Mali, the model democracy, was supposed to hold elections over a year ago. Then the wheels fell off, and everyone realised those wheels weren’t attached very securely to begin with. This weekend, Malians will give this democracy thing another chance in less-than-ideal circumstances. SIMON ALLISON reviews what happened in the interim and wonders if there’s any likelihood of a better outcome this time round.

The autumn of 2012 was altogether a more innocent time in Mali’s recent history. The country was, from the outside, a model democracy, with regular changes of power and a leader who was gracefully stepping aside, seemingly destined for Mo Ibrahim’s prize for excellent African presidents and a new career as a wandering international statesman. Donors were pouring money into education and healthcare, the economy was growing, and elections were just around the corner – it was, in short, the African Good News Story.

But the Good News Story took a sudden turn to the dark side and democratic Mali didn’t last long enough to make those elections, scheduled for April that year. Like with so many of the region’s other problems, it’s tempting to blame Muammar Gaddafi, whose malign influence in North Africa long outlasted his death. It was his hardened Tuareg soldiers – recruited from the nomadic areas of northern Mali – who returned home after Gaddafi’s brutal slaying in convoys brimming with gold, money and heavy calibre armaments. But it wasn’t all Gaddafi’s fault – these returnees breathed fire into a Tuareg rebellion that was already in the planning stages, and Mali’s hopelessly disorganised army didn’t stand a chance.

By March of 2012, the Tuareg rebellion had already inflicted several embarrassing defeats on that hapless army; the prospect of losing the north completely began to seem distinctly possible. Citizens in the capital, Bamako, began to protest in the streets; shamed by the military defeats and the government seeming lack of interest. They were less impressed with their government than the international community, witnessing first-hand (and suffering the consequences of) the massive corruption in President Amadou Toumani Toure’s administration and its general lack of competence.

A young army captain, Amadou Sanogo, sensed the time was ripe for change. With a bunch of other young officers, he staged a mutiny which swiftly turned into a coup d’état. The president fled to Senegal, and suddenly this young, inexperienced man was the self-declared head of state. Elections were no longer on the agenda.

But Sanogo couldn’t stop the rot – not within the state, and not within the armed forces, who rushed out of the dangerous northern regions so quickly they didn’t even have time to put their tails between their legs, handing it to the Tuareg rebels on a plate. In a matter of weeks, Sanogo destroyed Mali’s democracy and lost the north completely. It was not an auspicious start.

While Sanogo pottered around with interim governments and warring army factions (Mali’s army is much better at infighting that actual fighting), the focus moved back to the north where those Tuareg rebels were struggling to consolidate their swift military victory. The separatist faction, which wanted to establish an independent state in northern Mali, had led the rebellion, but they were soon pushed out of power by various Islamist groups who implemented strict Sharia law. Lurking somewhere in the background here was the dreaded spectre of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Never mind that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda proper are tenuous at best, and their roots are in Algeria’s long civil war – the name alone was enough to send western intelligence analysts into meltdown, and it soon became clear that the international community must, one way or the other, prevent northern Mali from turning into hotbed of radical fundamentalist Islamist terrorist activity.

The international community’s solution, when it came, took everyone by surprise. Spooked by reports that Islamists were going to advance on Bamako, France launched a sudden military intervention – without really telling anyone or asking for any kind of approval. In went the planes and the bombs and thousands of boots on the ground, a frightening demonstration of military might. The Tuaregs and the Islamists were in shock and in awe alright, and France was able to gain control of most key northern cities within weeks.

For France, the really difficult part came next: getting out again. A West African force was prepped and ready to take over from them, in theory, but in practice they were ill-equipped to deal with the kind of challenges they’d be facing (which were, in order of priority: securing the north; fighting off the remnants of the Islamist militant groups, which although bowed are not yet beaten; and helping to restore basic services which collapsed in the chaos).

A better solution was found with the United Nations, who have created a special mission to “assist, stabilise and support” the country – in addition to its existing humanitarian operation, there to deal with hundreds of thousands of displaced people and millions on the brink of famine. When it’s fully up and running, the new force Minusma, will be composed of 11,200 soldiers and 1,440 policemen, and only 1,000 of these will be French – allowing France to send the remaining 3,000 soldiers home (they’ve already withdrawn several thousand).

But the key to solving Mali, everyone in power seems to agree, is to hold those elections which were abandoned in the wake of Sanogo’s coup; to restore Mali to its model democracy status. And so, elections will be held, this Sunday – even if the country isn’t even close to being able to pull them off successfully.

The most obvious problems are: the biometric voter system is way behind schedule; delivery of voting cards is way behind schedule; and hundreds of thousands have been left off the role completely, including every citizen that is 18 years old and most of the refugees displaced by the conflict and accompanying humanitarian crisis. Also, it’s the rainy season, making trips to polling stations (if they can be found) hazardous; and it’s Ramadan, the Muslim holy month during which almost everyone fasts from dawn to dusk.

As the Guardian’s Afua Hirsch concludes in her analysis of why elections now are probably a bad idea: “The international community is sowing the seeds of yet more discord by imposing its own timeline for a return to elected civilian rule, and applying irresistible pressure by making aid worth £3-billion available only if Mali complies … As a result Mali’s elections will probably not be regarded as legitimate by the 1.2-million potential voters who have not been registered, or the thousands of others left off the new roll.”

Regardless, the election this weekend is going ahead – and Mali’s old political elite is gearing up to tussle for secure the two top spots, which will allow them to compete in a run-off election on August 11 (providing no one wins an absolute majority in the first round, which seems highly unlikely).

Writes Leonardo A. Villalón, a leading academic expert on the region, for the always on-point Sahel Blog:

“The [election date] issue is now moot. As one African Union expert working with the [electoral commission] puts it: ‘We don’t talk about that anymore.’ The campaign is on and elections will be held, and importantly it will be with seemingly very wide popular support. In conversations with Malians from the political class, people acknowledge the difficulties and imperfections in organization, but no one has doubts about the fact that they will happen on the scheduled date. The dominant sentiment is that there is an urgent need to move forward to get out of the current situation, that elections thus need to happen as soon as possible, and that any delay would only make matters worse. The withdrawal of one presidential candidate on 17 July, over what he claimed was inadequate preparation, certainly reflects some anxiety, but both the other candidates and the broader public have shrugged their shoulders, and gone on with the campaign.”

The show, in other words, must go on. In the international narrative that has defined Mali for the last decade – from model democracy to terrorist haven – this is the point at which the country begins the long hard road to redemption. Whether or not Mali will deliver – well, that’s another story. DM

Read more:

  • Some observations on the electoral campaign in Mali on the Sahel Blog
  • Mali does not need this rush to elections on the Guardian
  • Five things you don’t know about Mali, but probably should on Daily Maverick

Photo: A boy sits in front of an electoral campaign poster for Malian presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Timbuktu, July 25, 2013. Mali will hold presidential elections on Sunday. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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