Mali: The new president’s top 5 priorities

By Simon Allison 15 August 2013

Mali, and its new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, must count themselves exceptionally lucky that he won such a convincing victory in both rounds of the recently concluded elections. The huge margin of his win, and the graceful concession from his main opponent, means IBK has a genuine democratic mandate for the painful decisions he’ll have to make over the coming months – despite the myriad and well-documented flaws with the election itself. Now to the altogether more difficult business of putting back together a country that’s been broken in so many different ways. These are his biggest challenges. By SIMON ALLISON.

1. Giving the men with guns something else to do

Men with guns are a dangerous combination at the best of times. In northern Mali, where many of the men with guns are part of a defeated political force and where other gainful employment is scarce, they’re even more dangerous. If he is to have any chance of stabilising the northern region, which was the source of both the nationalist and Islamist-led rebellions last year, IBK is going to have to find a way to get the fighting-fit and well-armed rebel fighters on his side.

“The question of how to lure such men from militancy looms as Mali re-establishes a democratic political order after months of war against an al Qaeda-linked insurgency and a military coup that allowed the rebellion to flourish. How Mali welcomes them back into society – or doesn’t – could determine the shape of conflicts to come in the vast and heavily-armed Sahara,” commented Drew Hinshaw in the Wall Street Journal.

In the past, Mali has offered to integrate defeated militants into its armed forces, but this might not be an option this time. The army, still smarting from humiliating defeats in the early stages of the rebellion, has said it won’t accept any former rebels into its ranks.

Speaking of unruly men with guns, IBK will also have to work hard to keep the army on his side. Ultimately, it was not a rebellion that toppled the last democratically elected government, but a coup led by disaffected officers, and those same officers are probably the most immediate threat to IBK’s power. Keeping them on board while asserting the dominance of the civilian government will be a very delicate balancing act.

2. Making peace with the MNLA and consolidating the north

Although French military intervention earlier this year helped Mali’s interim government regain control of the north, this control remains tenuous. The city of Kidal is particularly problematic. Although nominally governed from Bamako, it is in fact in the hands of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg nationalist group that launched the rebellion in 2012. Azawad flags fly over government buildings, and IBK’s plane was stoned as it landed at Kidal airport delivering the then-candidate to a campaign rally in the city.

The MNLA’s rebellion was hijacked by various Islamist groups, eventually forcing it into an uneasy alliance with the government. But their aims haven’t changed much, even if they have been tempered – the group is looking for some guarantees of autonomy for the north after years of being marginalised by the ruling elite in Bamako.

And maybe that’s what IBK should give them. Historically, the north really has been poorly served by a succession of southern governments. This might not change with genuine autonomy, but it will at least give the MNLA less reason to start a fight again, and force them (or whatever northern administration is appointed/elected) to take on the responsibility of actually governing.

This would be a hard sell to IBK’s southern constituency, however, who hold the MNLA responsible for starting this cycle of instability and for opening the door for Islamist groups. There is much bitterness aimed at the MNLA in particular and at the Tuaregs (the nomadic ethnic group which forms the MNLA’s political base, and drives much of their ideology) in general. This is where serious attempts at national reconciliation are necessary, perhaps along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Encouragingly, this has already begun. In April, interim president Dioncounda Traoré launched the 33-member Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission. Although it hasn’t had much of a chance to make an impact, it should provide the necessary framework to begin the long and difficult national reconciliation project.

3. Stopping the rot in Bamako

Before the rebellion and the coup and the military intervention, Mali was meant to be a model democracy. But it wasn’t. “Democracy in Mali was a façade stitched out of a social imperative to seek consensus and accommodation at the expense of accountability. As a result both government institutions and the military had been hollowed out by a decade of corruption and nepotism,” wrote Aryn Baker in the Wall Street Journal.

Even IBK himself agrees with this assessment, saying in a campaign speech: “Mali was stolen from us. That government ate it up and sucked the bones dry. They humiliated us to the point that people started to ally with the Islamists. Malians, that will never happen again.”

It’s hard to take IBK’s bold words at face value given that, as a former prime minister, he was an integral part of the political elite that profited from and perpetuated this state of affairs. Nonetheless, he must build an administration that holds itself to higher standards. Much of the success or failure of his government will depend on the type of people he staffs it with. He can’t execute decisions singlehandedly; he needs an organisation around him capable of carrying out his vision, untainted (or not too tainted) by inefficiency and corruption.

In this context, the announcement made by IBK’s vanquished poll rival, Soumaila Cisse, is hugely encouraging. Cisse has vowed to create a proper opposition for the first time in Mali’s history, one that will keep IBK on his toes. “I will build an alternative group. We will make proposals. We will criticize if necessary. We will promote democracy by opposition,” Cisse told a news conference. “That is what our country needs today.” Previously, opposition figures were often co-opted into government, creating a political elite more interested in maintaining their own lifestyle than creating the necessary checks and balances.

4. Fighting the War on Terror and managing foreign involvement

There is at least one person who thinks everything in Mali is going swimmingly. That person is François Hollande, French President and architect of the French military intervention that beat back the advance of the Islamist rebel and regained the north for Mali’s government. “What has happened from the French intervention on 11 January 2013, up to the election of a new Malian president has been a success for peace and democracy,” he said.

That may or may not be true, but it’s disingenuous. The French intervention was never about peace and democracy. It was about those Islamist rebels, and specifically the looming threat of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had established a cosy base in northern Mali. (That’s why Mali got the full-frontal military assault while poor old Central African Republic, whose government was in far more danger from rebels, was left largely to its own devices.)

But on that front, too, the intervention was largely successful. Ansar Dine and Mujwa, the two Malian Islamist groups involved, are on the defensive and have been forced into hiding. AQIM, meanwhile, is presumed to be weakened and on the run and has dispersed into neighbouring countries – Niger, perhaps, or Algeria.

But while they’re down, the militant Islamist groups are definitely not out and it will require a significant investment of time and resources to maintain northern Mali as a bulwark against Islamist militancy. This is being taken care of by the United Nations, which has authorised a 12,600-strong force to keep peace in the region, but they are running into their own problems. The force is not yet up to its full complement, and many of the troops present still need to be trained.

For IBK, the international presence is essential in maintaining the government’s authority in the region (his army has already shown they are not up to that task). But this poses a long-term threat: he needs to avoid being seen as a stooge of western governments, and he needs to make sure that Mali is prepared for the inevitable departure of the UN force. Mali cannot lean too heavily on the crutch of foreign troops or it will fall over when they’re gone.

5. The humanitarian crisis and managing the aid bonanza

In what was already a poor country, a year of conflict and instability had a devastating impact on civilians. There are around 375,000 people who have been displaced within Mali, and 175,000 who have fled to other countries. There are 2-million people facing serious food security issues, with supplies of key foods scarce and very expensive when they are available.

“Conflict significantly disrupted economic activity and the delivery of basic social services in the north. Many pastoralists, farmers and traders were forced to abandon their herds, fields and businesses,” explained Irin, the UN news agency. “Following the retreat of the Malian administration, many public buildings and services were looted or destroyed. The gradual return of internally displaced persons and refugees to the north will further strain limited social services. A struggling Malian government will need assistance repairing infrastructure and restoring services needed to meet the most basic needs of northern inhabitants.”

Rushing to help with this crisis are a plethora of international NGOs and state development programs. Most aid was suspended in the wake of the coup, and it is poised to be released once IBK is sworn in. Estimates are that as much as $4-billion will flood into Mali in the next few months. Used properly, this has the potential to seriously mitigate against the very worst consequences of the instability. However, it also has the potential to encourage widespread corruption and waste, both of which almost all previous Malian government have been guilty of. With the aid definitely on its way, IBK has to figure out how to use it properly, or risk having it completely derail all his promises of better governance, and Mali’s chances of dragging itself out of poverty. DM

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