Ground zero: Revival of Democratic Mali?

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.


  1. Sébastien Jadot

    August 30, 2013 at 8:56 am

    Very interesting. All in all, the parallels to ECOMOG (Nigerian peacekeepers in particular) in Sierra Leone come to mind. The added ethno-religious variables in Mali render any troop contributions from West-African states all the more challenging. What is your view on that topic?

    • Thanks Sebastien. Yes I have before raised the parallels to ECOMOG but also later UN forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In both countries they very soon became part of the very economy of the country, including looting, buying looted goods and illegal trafficking of arms and drugs. Although especially Nigeria has to quite some extent professionalised since that time, it is still most likely that West African PKOs will partake in illegal activities (it should also be said that other peacekeepers from other countries do so as we’ll). Still to be seen is how damaging this will be. And indeed ethno-religious aspects will also play its role. From a regional perspective, and with the internal problems they already have, it is also interesting to speculate what the outcome is for Chad and Nigeria.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post. Just to add to that, we cannot forget, that IBK was one of the sole candidates who did not publicly denounce the coup d’etat, and thus the overwhelming backing he got, can be interpreted as what people here in Bamako calls a “sanction vote” against the old regime (led by ATT) that was overturned by the coup. Paradoxically, IBK is himself very much part of the old political elite, which makes his job even more of a balancing act, as, even though greatly diminished, the threat of another coup has not dissappeared. As you very well point out, Bamako’s political climate is not stable and IBK will probably not be given much leash (particularly by Sanogo et al.). Thus it is true that one of the greatest challenges is in the north, but I foresee that most of IBK’s energy for the moment, will be spent trying to appeace the different parties in the south. The flux of aid money may play a big role in this game, and I think it is safe to say that the big change (in regards to corruption, civil rights, economic development etc.) people are hoping for, is not nearby. Instead, as you point out, even greater tensions may arise. I cross my fingers that my politically engaged friends here are right when they say that IBK will not be able to sidestep too much (par rapport corruption, keeping promises and in general not being too much of a despot), but hopes are somewhat slim.

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