Mali 2.0

The French military intervention and a successful election have given Mali a chance to reboot its democracy. But it's going to be an uphill climb.


BAMAKO, Mali — In late July, the people of Mali, a poor, landlocked West African nation once considered by many to be a model democracy, turned out in record numbers for presidential elections. Amid lingering insecurity, northern Malians from towns such as Gao and Timbuktu defied threats of violence to cast their votes.

In muddy courtyards across the lush riverside capital city of Bamako, women in colorful wax-print outfits stood next to women in all black, their faces veiled by the niqab. Young men in skinny jeans and fashionably tight T-shirts impatiently rubbed elbows with elders wearing religious caps and flowing traditional robes.

These were images that seemed unthinkable only six months earlier, when France intervened to drive a mosaic of Islamist groups — some with ties to al Qaeda — from the country’s desert north. During the run-up to the polls, several analysts and prominent international NGOs expressed concern that hastily planned elections might further destabilize an already fragile nation.

But despite these warnings, Mali plunged ahead with elections that the aid donors, specifically France and the United States, had been calling for as a condition to releasing nearly $4 billion dollars in pledged assistance. When the second round of voting ended with runner-up Soumaila Cissé graciously conceding to the winner, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the international community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Somehow, Mali had pulled off the "good enough" elections that were seen as a prerequisite to helping the country move forward.

President Keita, known locally by his initials IBK, faces an enormous set of challenges as he begins his first month in office. His first order of business is to negotiate a settlement with the latest incarnation of ethnic Tuareg rebels — now operating under the moniker of MNLA/HCUA — who are demanding substantive autonomy for regions of northern Mali. According to a June 18 agreement reached in neighboring Burkina Faso, Keita has 60 days to launch fresh talks with his rebel counterparts.

Last year, Tuareg rebels allied with radical Islamists succeeded in wresting control of the north away from the government in Bamako and proclaimed the territory an independent republic. That move by the separatists prompted a coup by disgruntled army officers in the South and ultimately led to a French military intervention that ended the rebels’ brief and chaotic experiment with self-rule.

A self-proclaimed admirer of the historic French president, Charles de Gaulle, Keita has cultivated a reputation as a straight shooter, an independent thinker, and a tough negotiator. In the local Bambara language, for example, his supporters refer to him as kankelentigui, a phrase which means he is a man who says things once and means it. Having struck a chord with voters by promising to unify the nation and restore Mali’s honor, Keita won a strong electoral mandate that could give him the political capital necessary to reach a tough compromise that will not alienate the large segment of Malian society, including the majority of northern Malians, who oppose the MNLA/HCUA and their demands for greater autonomy.

According to a veteran diplomat recently appointed by Keita to a ministerial position, the two sides may even already be close to an agreement. "At this point," he said, "the issues with the north are technical, not political," he told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Keita’s second task at hand is to lay the foundations upon which the infrastructure for good governance — a fair and independent judiciary, transparent ministries, professional armed forces, a basic healthcare system, economic and educational opportunities — can be built. Though no one involved would probably use the term, it’s a process that amounts to a full-scale state-building project. The challenge is daunting, and one that Mali cannot handle alone.

"The international community is here to assist Malians in helping them find solutions to the sources of conflict," said Bert Koenders, who heads the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the United Nations peacekeeping mission that is only just establishing itself on the ground. "It’s an enormous responsibility, because although the situation has improved, there are still all kinds of security risks," he said.

"I think many Malians realize they have to turn the page in this country," said Koenders. "There has to be a new social contract between the different regions and groups." And that, Koenders explained, is why the 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission is designed to address "the root causes of the conflict, which are also in Bamako."

In many ways, the complexity of the MINUSMA mandate highlights the fundamental challenge of Mali’s political transition: how can the international community help Mali to make progress while also addressing the "root causes" of ethnic conflict? At first glance, the two goals might seem complementary, but working toward both ends simultaneously requires a delicate balance. While urgent humanitarian imperatives — and the incentive of that $4 billion in assistance — demand forging ahead as fast as possible, long-term stability may very well depend on making sure the next steps in Mali’s democratic transition are cautious and deliberate.

During Mali’s previous democratic transition in 1991, a broad national dialogue took place among diverse group of stakeholders, including students, union leaders, religious notables, academics, activists, and technocrats. They were brought together not only by the challenges left to them by 30 years of dictatorship, but by the need to decide, collectively and without outside meddling, what type of country they wanted Mali to be.

"Those were some of the most exciting days in our history," recalls Youssouf Koné, who was a student during the halcyon days of Mali’s young democracy. "We surprised the world by creating a democracy that everyone said was not possible in a country like ours."

Yet when Koné describes Mali’s current political culture, he speaks as though 1991 is a distant dream. "We needed our old masters to come back and save us," he said, referencing the French intervention. "We needed them to save us not only from the jihadists," Koné continued, "but from ourselves."

The extent to which corruption had seeped into every level of Mali’s politics became painfully clear by the spring of 2012. While the northern two-thirds of the country were under a brutal Islamist occupation and hundreds of thousands of Malians were in dire need of humanitarian assistance, Mali’s insouciant political class in Bamako was preoccupied with picking from the carcass of the Malian state.

The shameless intransigence was the apotheosis of not just a corrupt political system, but an entire culture in which corruption, fueled by an influx of illicit cash from criminal networks and systematic theft of international aid, had become the norm.

How did Mali go from an unlikely democratic success story to a failed state in a matter of days? When exactly did Mali’s democracy begin to rot? Who was responsible? 

These are important questions. Yet Malians, having been ostensibly bailed out by the international community with a military intervention and the promise of aid dollars, have largely been spared the need to grapple with them.

Many Malians, for instance, blame the demise of their country on the classe politique, an ambiguous concept that offers the illusion of ascribing blame without actually holding anyone accountable. And while Mali’s political establishment is certainly to blame for much of what went wrong, the classe politique critique is inherently self-serving. It absolves the rest of Malian civil society from the harsh reality that Mali’s rampant corruption was enabled by a culture of impunity that had blossomed over the last decade. Mali’s rich tradition of conflict mitigation through compromise and reconciliation even helped mask this reality. The end result was a culture of non-accountability in which, as one Malian friend is fond of saying, "corruption is everywhere, but no one is corrupt."

Questions of justice and accountability might seem backward-looking and even frivolous when one considers all the problems that Mali currently faces. But it is hard to imagine how Mali can ever truly "turn the page" without having the requisite tough conversations and soul-searching debates that lead to cultural shifts.

Impending legislative elections may provide the first real indication of whether Mali’s relaunched democracy is on a new trajectory.

Though Mali’s last elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was not technically a member of any political party, he managed to win elections and govern through "consensus politics." It was an approach to governance that built broad coalitions and made co-opting rivals relatively easy. More importantly, it removed any incentives for political parties and civil society groups to form opposition movements. With time, the incestuous political elite expanded well beyond politicians and government ministers to include civil society organizations, religious movements, even rebel groups, all of which were eager to join patronage networks designed to parcel out the spoils of the state.

Keita, who is firmly entrenched within Mali’s oft-maligned political elite, and has been accused of corruption in the past, has expressed little interest in forming a "unity government." Earlier this month, he put forward a list of ministers that offered few posts to political opponents, potentially providing the political space and necessary incentives for a vibrant and viable opposition to emerge.

While recent presidential elections constitute a tremendous achievement for which Malians and the international community should be commended, a dose of skepticism is in order.

Though important, Keita’s victory is only the first, and perhaps the easiest, step in a democratic transition that comes after years of deterioration. In fact, the regularity with which local and national elections were held over the last 20 years partially explains how Mali was so frequently diagnosed as a healthy democracy long after it was terminally ill.

The multitude of problems that led to Mali’s collapse, however, did not stem from a lack of free and fair elections. Rather, they stemmed from a lack of strong institutions capable of holding government officials accountable and providing government services to the Malian people. Developing these institutions will take time, money, but most of all, political will at every level of Malian society.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola