Ground zero: Revival of Democratic Mali?

By NAI researcher Mats Utas

Not long ago, Mali was considered a beacon of democracy in West Africa. Then came the military coup, out of the blue to many outsiders, and the rapid mobilisation of several armed groups, more or less radical in religious views, which quickly moved to capture much of the north and even started to threaten the capital Bamako. Thereafter came the French to the rescue of the south and also, somewhat awkwardly, to the rescue of a government the military junta had put in place. France, together with forces from Chad and Niger, quickly forced the armed groups to retreat into the vast deserts of the north. In the blink of an eye came elections and transition to a civilian, democratically elected government. Seldom has a conflict of such national and regional complexity been so compressed in time. And here we are today at some kind of ground zero.

Elections took place quite peacefully and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) of the Rally for Mali party won a confident victory in the second round. The runner up, Soumaïla Cissé, demonstrated political maturity and accepted the loss. IBK was, according to most observers, the best choice for enhanced stability in the country. Now it is up to IBK and his party to repair what has been broken since the military coup. And that is a lot. Democratic institutions hardly ran as deep as Western observers wanted to believe, and the rapid dismantling of state institutions after the military takeover proved that point, but (re)building them will be an arduous task. In Bamako there is, furthermore, still tension between political groupings/power hubs, notwithstanding the soothing of coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo and his followers by promoting him to four-star general (thereby highlighting an alliance between Sanogo and civilian power).

The most obvious challenge for IBK is, however, the situation in the north. Few northerners did or had the possibility to vote, and from the point of view of national reconciliation the hastened elections might prove counterproductive. Northerners will hardly conclude the elections enabled them to participate in steering their country back on track, but will rather see them as a means for the south to remain in power and for France and her allies to rubberstamp some kind of abstract transition. It is easy to see that without real reconciliation, further radicalisation of citizens in the north will occur and militant resistance will at some point increase.

The militias in the north are today scattered in remote desert areas, have been pushed across borders into neighbouring countries, or have gone into hiding among civilians. In part, they are kept at bay by the remaining French troops, but now it is chiefly the Malian army and West African troops that keep control. Malian troops have already used illegitimate violence against civilians and alleged collaborators with the militias, and it appears likely that even under a UN banner West African peacekeepers will also act heavy-handedly towards the local populations. Furthermore, there is a clear risk that these peacekeepers will dig themselves into the local economy and society and may rapidly become part of the problem. Unless the new Malian government makes real efforts to include Tuareg and other northern groups in its governance structures, to work towards reconciliation and ultimately real integration of these groups into the Malian state, the continuing military presence by both national and regional forces may further promote the popularity of claims for Tuareg secession and the continued radicalisation of Islam.

With the transition to democracy comes mountains of aid money. This may at first appear to be a blessing and provide a real chance to rebuild the country. But it may also be a misadventure if groups within government and state sectors do not use the money as intended. Thus questions remain.   State governance in Mali was weak prior to the coup and the war and the last year’s conflicts have made it even weaker. How can Mali’s institutions control the new aid wealth? Are state checks and balances sufficient? If not, resources may well flow in the wrong directions, strengthen individuals, criminalise the state and actually create new conflicts between the haves and have-nots. If this moment on a timeline is ground zero, then all actors working to rebuild Mali must work carefully, and hand in hand, to achieve a sustainable future for the country.


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