Not long ago Mali was considered a beacon of democracy in West Africa. Then came a military coup, out of the blue to many outsiders, and a rapid mobilization of several armed groups, more or less radical in religious view, that quickly moved to capture much of the north and even started to threaten the capital Bamako. Then came the French to the rescue of the south and somewhat awkwardly also 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 scenario containing such national and regional complexity become so compressed in time. And here we are today at some kind of ground zero.
Elections took place rather 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, proved 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. Although 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, still the (re)building of state institution will be an arduous task. In Bamako there is furthermore still tension between political groupings/power hubs and although the coup leader erstwhile Captain Amadou Sanogo and his followers were soothed by Sanogo officially being promoted to four-star general (pinpointing an alliance between Sanogo and civilian power) there is still much unresolved tension beneath the façades in Bamako.
The most obvious challenge for IBK is however the situation in the north. Few northerners could or had the possibility to vote and from the point of view of national reconciliation the hastened elections might prove contra productive. People in the north will hardly conclude that the elections was a possibility to participate in steering their country back on track but rather see it as a means for the south to remain in power and for France and allies to rubberstamp some kind of abstract transition. It is easy to see that if not real reconciliation will take place then further radicalization of citizens in the north will happen and militant forms of resistance will at some point again increase.
Militarily the militias in the North are today scattered in remote desert areas, have been pushed across borders into neighboring countries, or gone into hiding amongst civilians. Partly they are kept at bay by remaining French troops, but chiefly it is now the Malian army and West African troops keeping control. Malian troops have already used illegitimate violence against civilians and alleged collaborators with the militias, and it appears quite likely that even under a UN banner, West African peacekeepers will also act quite heavy-handedly on the local populations. Furthermore there is a clear risk that these peacekeepers will dig themselves down in the local socio-economy and may thus rapidly become part of the problem. Unless the new Malian government makes a real effort to include Tuareg and other Northern groups in their governance structures, work towards reconciliation and ultimately real integration of these groups in the Malian state, military presence of both state and region may further drew popularity to claims for Tuareg secession and not the least continued radicalization of Islam.
With the transition to democracy through the election of IBK come mountains of aid money. This may at first appear as a blessing and it is a real chance to rebuild the country. But it may also be a misadventure if groups within the government and state sectors will not use the money in the way they are intended for. Thus questions remain: Remember that state governance in Mali was weak prior to the coup and the war and that the last year’s conflicts have made it even weaker. How can Mali’s institutions control the new found aid wealth? Are state checks and balances sufficient? If not, resources may well flow in wrong directions, strengthen individuals, criminalize the state and actually create new conflicts between the have 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, for a sustainable future of Mali.