Give Mali’s elections a 90-day breather

Last month, the government of Mali decreed that the first round of the country’s presidential elections would be held on 28 July, with a second round scheduled for 11 August in the event that no candidate receives an outright majority of votes in the first round. The regime of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré has been making a show of getting ready for the vote, publicizing a three-week period of renewed registration for displaced voters earlier this month, and taking delivery of new biometric ID cards Mali’s roughly seven million voters will need to cast their ballots. And the recently signed Ouagadougou Accords cleared up one major stumbling block, allowing the vote to be conducted in the Kidal region in the country’s far north, where rebels had formerly vowed not to allow the government to organize elections on territory they controlled.

An example of Mali’s new biometric ID cards

And Mali is not wanting for presidential candidates. So far, about two dozen have announced their intentions to run, only a handful of them “serious contenders” with a chance of garnering more than a few thousand votes. Today, 28 June, is the last day for Malians to register as candidates officially. It’s also exactly 30 days before the scheduled first round of voting.

Let’s cut to the chase: Mali will not be prepared for elections 30 days from now. If the vote isn’t delayed, all signs point to an electoral shambles that could spark yet another crisis.

Yesterday Mamadou Diamountani, head of the country’s national electoral commission, went public with his misgivings about meeting the 28 July deadline. He described  production of those new biometric IDs as “way behind schedule.” Though Diamoutani didn’t say so in as many words, getting these cards to millions of Malians simply can’t be done in a month. Distributing voter IDs in Bangladesh took 90 days, and that’s in a country with a more capable state infrastructure and a significantly smaller area than Mali. What happens when a million or more Malian citizens are denied access to the polls because their cards haven’t reached them yet? What about the hundreds of thousands of Malians displaced by conflict? “I have said it before and I will say it now: It will be very difficult to stick to the date of July 28,” Diamoutani told The Associated Press today. [For those unfamiliar with the way Malians talk, this is code for "It will be impossible to stick to the date."]

Mamadou Diamoutani, head of Mali's Commission électorale nationale et indépendante

Mamadou Diamoutani, head of Mali’s Commission électorale nationale et indépendante

Diamoutani’s reservations are widely shared within the Malian government, but the July date is dictated by Mali’s donors — especially France — who have their own agendas, and thus far appear oblivious to facts on the ground. They continue to insist on a 28 July vote.

The July timeline was always unrealistic, as I wrote in March and April. When it comes to organizing this poll, Kidal (where the electoral process has yet to begin) and its tiny populace may be the least of Mali’s problems. Government administrators are still largely absent from formerly rebel-held areas of northern Mali. By late July the region’s rainy season, which is getting off to a late start, will (God willing) be in full swing; this will keep most of the country’s rural inhabitants, two-thirds of the population, out in their fields, and will make transporting electoral materials and workers in remote areas extremely difficult. The date set for the first round of voting also happens to fall within the fasting month of Ramadan, threatening to reduce voter turnout even further.

“Yes, the country does need a presidential election,” Gilles Yabi of the International Crisis Group recently told VOA. “But if they mess this up, if there is weak voter participation and if there is a part of the country, the South, that votes and a part, the North, that does not really vote, then that will not help Mali come out of this crisis and deal with its deeper issues of governance.” Yabi’s organization has called on Malian officials “to consider delaying the process” by “no more than three months” to allow the completion of voter ID distribution, the return of Malian administrators to former conflict zones, and enable those internally displaced and those living in refugee camps to participate in the vote.

If donors don’t allow President Traoré’s administration to delay the date, a vote probably will still be conducted on 28 July. But it won’t lead to a government that Malians feel will defend their interests over the interests of foreign governments and corporations. It won’t put an end to the inertia that’s been gripping the Malian state since well before the 2012 rebellion and coup. It won’t provide a mandate for the new regime to enter into difficult post-election talks with Tuareg rebels. “The vote will be legal, but it won’t be legitimate,” as Professor Issa N’Diaye put it to VOA. In short, it won’t resolve any of the problems it’s supposed to.

There’s still time for the U.S. and French governments, who have been driving Mali’s electoral process, to let the Malians push their elections back to a more sensible date in October. By then, many (though not all) of the natural and man-made obstacles to a well-conducted, representative vote will be out of the way.

People like Professor N’Diaye believe that France and the U.S. don’t want to see Mali succeed; they see the great powers as bent on destabilizing Mali to gain control of its natural resources. This viewpoint, which is widespread among Malian intellectuals, is one I really don’t share. But should it come to pass that Mali heads into ill-prepared elections at the insistence of the great powers to suit their own timetable, the predictions of N’Diaye and his camp may very well come true, and Mali’s new government will have been set up for failure. When that happens, it won’t matter to Malians whether the great powers’ intentions at the time were benevolent or malevolent. They’ll just know that their country was further divided by something the wealthy countries could have prevented, but didn’t.

Postscript, 8 July: Candidate Tiébilé Dramé has filed suit with Mali’s high court to postpone the election, arguing that the condition of voter rolls in the Kidal region violates the constitution’s provisions for the organizing of elections and denies Malian citizens their right to vote. Calls for postponement have also come from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Washington PostThus far, however, neither the French nor the Malian government has shown any willingness to deviate from the officially scheduled election date.

Postscript 2, 16 July: The right-wing Heritage Foundation has now jumped on the “delay the vote in Mali” bandwagon. Perhaps it’s time I reconsider my position….

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Accord and discord in Mali

Representatives of the Malian government and Tuareg separatist groups have signed a peace agreement in Ouagadougou, capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, and the response from abroad has been enthusiastic. The EU’s top diplomat hailed it as an “historic accord,” while the French foreign minister called it a “major advance” in ending nearly 18 months of armed conflict in Mali. Tiébilé Dramé, the Malian government’s chief negotiator at the Ouagadougou talks, told the Associated Press that “the biggest task is finished. We have agreed on the essentials.”

But hold on: the deal signed on 18 June (the full text of which Mr. Dramé has made available online) is only a preliminary agreement, intended to enable presidential elections to be held across the country on 28 July, including in the northern-most region of Kidal, which remains in the control of MNLA rebels. The plan is that after a new Malian government is elected, the two sides will begin “an inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis” (Chapter 1, Article 2). In other words, the Ouagadougou accord is just a temporary fix.

Talks in Ouagadougou (Tiébilé Dramé is at right)

Talks in Ouagadougou (Tiébilé Dramé is at right)

Last week, a document said to be a draft of the agreement appeared online, after the MNLA announced it had accepted the terms of the Ouagadougou negotiations.  The terms contained in the document generated vociferous opposition in the Malian media and among politicians. A Bamako newspaper published it under the title “the full text of dishonor,” and Mali’s chief prosecutor warned that any Malian official who signed it “would answer to history.” The parties of two Malian presidential candidates denounced the agreement as “the accord of northern partition,” part of a “vast conspiracy” to turn the Kidal region into a “foreign protectorate.” Issa N’Diaye, one of Mali’s best-known public intellectuals and a star of its “anti-globalization left,” wrote an op-ed charging that the Ouagadougou accord put the country “at grave risk of civil war.” And Interim President Dioncounda Traoré refused to sign the initial version of the agreement.

While the authenticity of the document that circulated online last week was not officially verified, its text is about 97 percent similar to that of the document signed this week in Ouagadougou. Let’s consider the reasons behind those objections to the initial document, and assess how the final accord differs from the earlier one that produced so much uproar.

Objections were concentrated around three substantive questions:

  1. How and when will the MNLA disarm? For many Malian leaders, disarming the MNLA and other armed groups in the north of the country was a precondition for any negotiations whatsoever. They felt that Resolution 2100 of the United Nations Security Council provided a mandate for immediate disarmament. Yet both versions of the Ouagadougou agreement (Articles 6 and 10 in the old one, Articles 6, 7 and 11 in the new) call for armed groups to be kept in “cantonnement” [like being confined to barracks; see postscript below] with their weapons, under the supervision of UN peacekeepers, until a definitive post-elections peace deal can be reached. Critics see this as merely kicking the can down the road.
  2. How and when will the Malian army re-occupy Kidal? The early version of the Ouagadougou agreement called for both sides to halt all combat and intelligence-gathering operations and maintain their present positions. Malian administrators, police and gendarmes would come to Kidal, followed later by the Malian army, prior to election day; this deployment would be in “close cooperation” with UN and French forces. “How,” wondered Issa N’Diaye, “can a supposedly sovereign country only deploy its own armed forces under the supervision of foreign forces?” The final version (Article 11) calls for a “progressive deployment of Malian defense and security forces in the region of Kidal,” still in coordination with UN and French troops. The fact that the Malian army and armed MNLA fighters will have to share space in Kidal over the next several weeks or months is cause for concern, to put it mildly.
  3. How and when will rebels be prosecuted for alleged war crimes? A great many Malians blame Tuareg rebels for perpetrating massive human rights violations when they took over much of northern Mali in early 2012. The massacre of several dozen Malian troops at Aguel Hoc stands out as the most unspeakable incident, and became a rallying cry for Malian loyalists (although abroad, doubts persist as to how the killing took place). The government in Bamako issued a number of international arrest warrants against rebel leaders; Alghabass Ag Intalla, who represented one Tuareg  group at the Ouagadougou negotiations, is under one such warrant. While the initial
    Aguel Hoc massacre

    A photo allegedly showing corpses at Aguel Hoc, January 2012

    version of the agreement (Article 17) called for the suspension of criminal proceedings against rebel leaders who signed the deal, the final version contains no such provision. This fact could allay widespread fears in Bamako that rebel fighters and their leaders would be granted immunity — if not for fresh reports indicating that the Malian government is under pressure not to enforce those warrants, and journalist Serge Daniel says the warrants “look likely to be dropped.” (It’s worth noting that Article 18 of the final Ouagadougou accord calls for an international investigation into “war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, crimes of sexual violence, drug trafficking and other serious violations of international human rights law” — which will presumably cover crimes committed by loyalists as well as rebels.)

Aside from these substantive concerns, there are others one could describe as symbolic — but which are no less politically significant. That the Malian government even entered into talks with separatist rebels rankles plenty of people in Mali; the negotiations appeared to put a member in good standing of the community of nations on the same footing as a relatively small breakaway movement, legitimizing a group some Malians regard as criminal. (Here they see a double standard: in the words of Issa N’Diaye, “Why require Mali to negotiate when France refuses to negotiate with the Corsican and Basque [separatists]?”) The mere mention of the name “Azawad” in the text of the agreement (though it is granted no official status) is another sore point. Realistically, concerns over these symbolic issues can hardly be assuaged: opposing any form of negotiation means supporting an armed solution, which the Malian army is ill-prepared to pull off, further reminding Malians of their nation’s effective loss of sovereignty. The Ouagadougou accord, hammered out under considerable international pressure and mediated by two governments (France and Burkina Faso) that are widely distrusted in Mali, was always going to be a bitter pill for Malians to swallow, whatever its provisions.

I believe this accord does constitute a step in the right direction, but as noted, it leaves many important questions unanswered, which means there is great potential for things to go wrong. We don’t yet know how the Malian public will respond to the new agreement’s provisions. (So far at least one presidential candidate, Moussa Mara, has come out in support; another, Soumana Sako, has “categorically rejected” the Ouaga accord.) Assuming elections take place in July (something of which I remain skeptical), will the government that’s voted in even honor this agreement? Will hostile street demonstrations (like the one recently quashed in Koutiala) force politicians to back away from it? Will the junta in Kati intervene once again to “save the nation” from its craven politicians? And even if the deal is implemented, can it pave the way for a definitive solution that will actually break the cycle of impunity and lawlessness that has been the rule in northern Mali for so many years?

Postscript, 21 June: Tiébilé Dramé has explained to RFI his understanding of the term cantonnement: “It means that a place will be found where members of armed groups to be disarmed will be confined. While waiting [for disarmament], all weapons will be inventoried.” To learn more on reactions to the Ouaga accord (particularly from the Tuareg), see Andy Morgan’s analysis and Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” from yesterday.

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The paths of conflict diverge

As French troops hunted Islamist fighters in northern Mali this past winter, historian Greg Mann said that what was taking place in the region was not one war, but several. For a few months starting in January 2013, the various armed conflicts that had broken out over the previous year appeared to converge, as did French and Malian interests. But, as Greg reminded us in March, the French government’s war was not the Malian government’s war. And now it seems that Mali’s war — after a long hiatus — is starting up again, and breaking away from France’s war.

For weeks there have been rumblings of an impending resumption of armed conflict between Malian government forces and the MNLA separatist rebel group that controls the northern region of Kidal. Rumors of Malian troop movements north of Gao have been circulating since February. But this week these were joined by an army statement that government forces had massed midway between Gao and the rebel-occupied town, and by news today that Malian troops took the village of Anafi, 100 km southwest of Kidal. A report on Malijet claims that Malian soldiers are within 35 km of the town, and that MNLA forces are retreating toward Algeria; a similar report has appeared on Reuters.N Mali mapAll this comes on the heels of reports that the MNLA has been rounding up and expelling dark-skinned people from Kidal. While MNLA representatives claim they are merely rooting out “infiltrators” and Malian army spies, officials in Bamako say the MNLA is now showing its true “racist” and “segregationist” colors. The US State Department has issued a statement condemning “racially-motivated acts of detention and expulsions in Kidal.”

(Meanwhile reports indicate that a suicide bomber was the lone fatality after an explosion yesterday at a house belonging to an MNLA colonel in Kidal; these reports come from an MNLA-friendly Tuareg news website as well as the French press.)

The rising tension has pushed defenders of each camp into their rhetorical corners.  Malian government spokespeople and state media paint the MNLA as a “Tuareg supremacist” organization whose members have always refused to be ruled by blacks and instead seek to impose their racist rule on northern Mali’s diverse population. The MNLA’s most strident critics — many of whom are not southern Malians, but Songhai from the Gao region — raise the specter of light-skinned Tuareg enslaving their dark-skinned neighbors (the subject of a recent article in the Washington Post).

Young expulsees shown on Malian state TV

Expulsees shown on Malian state TV, 4 June

The MNLA’s attempt to expel alleged “infiltrators” played straight into the government’s narrative: state television news on Tuesday night showed images of two dozen young men kicked out of Kidal, allegedly after being mistreated and held for three days without food, “because of the color of their skin.” The newscaster then read a statement by a Bamako-based, Songhay-dominated association of northerners that spoke of “the MNLA’s planned genocide” and the “ethnic cleansing of Kidal.”

The MNLA (which claims to be a multi-ethnic movement, and has a Songhai vice president) accuses the Malian army of “openly and massively [perpetrating] looting, rape, arbitrary arrests and summary executions.” The group tries to portray the Malian government, and especially the army, as bent on eradicating nomads in general, and the Tuareg people in particular, from Malian territory. A communique on its website, dated 5 June, represents the MNLA as the victim of aggression at the hands of a government that is “neither for peace, nor for legitimate elections.”

Negotiations between the MNLA and Malian authorities, which began last month in neighboring Burkina Faso, were already at an impasse, and may now be simply irrelevant. (Interim President Dioncounda Traoré says the military offensive doesn’t call the talks into question, but the Malian government has not exactly been speaking with one voice lately. Foreign Affairs Minister Tieman Coulibaly told the BBC that the talks would probably “slow down.”) Extremists on both sides have been strengthened, with each extreme accusing its adversaries of being in bed with terrorists and drug traffickers, and of being inherently racist, genocidal, and criminal. (Much of the Bamako press continues to label the MNLA “armed bandits.”)

Gao protestor: "Yes to Operation Serval, but no to France's bias in the northern Mali crisis / WE WON'T BUDGE"

Gao protestor: “Yes to Operation Serval, but no to France’s bias in the northern Mali crisis WE WON’T BUDGE”

In government-held territory, goodwill toward France has declined dramatically. In Gao, for example, youths protested last week against what they considered French complicity with the MNLA. Demonstrators also blamed the Malian government for repeatedly caving in to the demands of Tuareg rebels: “The Malian government has always favored those who take up arms over sédentaires [non-nomads] who have never taken up arms against their country,” one leader told a Malian newspaper. Some protestors said they would “prevent the holding of elections” (still scheduled for late July) until the government addresses their concerns. In Bamako, politicians have attacked President Hollande because of his less confrontational stance toward the MNLA. Cool heads are not prevailing, and the public mood is shifting away from any negotiation with the rebels.

There are many questions about what comes next. Will Malian troops manage to retake Kidal? If they do, how long can they hold it? (Their supply lines will be stretched extraordinarily thinly over hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain, a problem the approaching rainy season will exacerbate.) Will the army engage in the sort of atrocities of which they have frequently been accused? What role will be played by troops from France, Chad and other African nations — whose governments sent them to fight Islamists, not take sides in a civil war? And how will the resumption of “Mali’s war” affect the nation’s electoral process?

My own view is that even if it succeeds in the short term — by no means a foregone conclusion — the Malian government’s attempt to settle the conflict militarily will only aggravate the political disputes that have widened across northern Mali over the past several years. Instead of the “peace of the brave,” we are witnessing a war launched by leaders who are afraid of being perceived as weak.

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Polling the Malian public

One year ago I wrote about Bamako’s “lone pollster,” an independent, unaffiliated Malian applied economic statistician doing his own surveys of public opinion in Mali’s capital city. Mr. Sidiki Guindo is still at it, and has just come out with results of a poll asking 2600 residents of four cities in central and southern Mali (Bamako, Sikasso, Segou and Koutiala) about their preferences for scheduled presidential elections. Neither he nor I can claim that the results are representative of public opinion nation-wide; they offer a sometimes murky glimpse of what certain segments of the Malian population are thinking. As I wrote last month, it’s unclear whether the scheduled timetable for July elections can be maintained. As we wait for Mali’s electoral process to take shape, let’s consider Mr. Guindo’s preliminary findings. My slightly abridged translation appears below (click here for the original French version).

Sidiki Guindo

Sidiki Guindo

After more than a year of unprecedented crisis, Mali and its allies want to organize presidential elections in July 2013. This presidential election is singular for many reasons: first, it comes on the heels of (if not amidst) a very bitter crisis, the blame for which is widely shared; second, it also comes at a time when the most senior candidates seem to be giving it their last shot. Therefore, Malians and political parties are more determined than ever to choose a president. In light of this situation, every Malian has the responsibility to work for the total success of these elections. For our part, as a statistical economist of this country, we plan to carry out a series of opinion surveys to predict the results of this electoral contest. These surveys are motivated by three factors:

  1. Imitating other countries: Almost everywhere else, polling methods play a major role in predicting the results of various elections. There is no reason why Mali should be excluded from this trend.
  2. Motivating our leaders to pay more attention to statistics: While political parties spend millions on their electoral campaigns, none of them seem to be taking stock of their strengths and weaknesses, neither during nor after the election. Today, even the government seems to lack the culture of quantifying things before acting. In Mali, the significance ascribed to statisticians and to statistics leaves much to be desired.
  3. Taking on an interesting challenge for a young statistician: For an Ingénieur Statisticien Économiste (ISE) [applied economic statistician], predicting the results of this election by statistical methods is a good problem to take up.

Who commissioned this survey? This survey is neutral with respect to political parties, current and former governments, juntas and international organizations. It is a scientific exercise aimed at helping our country get out of its crisis. To this end, detailed reports of the results will be made available online in the coming weeks.

The questions asked: We sought answers for an array of questions such as, What are Malians’ greatest concerns? What does the population think about organizing elections before liberating Kidal? How would each political party fare in the first round of the vote? Will there be a second round? In the event of a second round, how would votes be divided? Who will be the next president of Mali? What image do these different leaders have with the people?

Methodology: The poll was carried out from 10-12 May 2013 with a sample of 2600 people aged 18 and older. This first stage of our polling was limited to four cities: Bamako, Segou, Sikasso and Koutiala. We chose these cities because of their importance in choosing the next president. They act as a testing site for the next stages. The results obtained in these cities might be a  predictor of national results for the large parties. The size of these cities is significant and the results will be related to the overall country results. Nonetheless, a representative survey at the national level must give more precise results (and will undoubtedly be undertaken before the vote).

The theoretical conception of this study respects all the theories for such a poll. Different tools were used to analyze the data and we checked the relevance of each tool before applying it. The survey utilized the quota sampling method (the most widely used in opinion polls around the world). The quota variables used were sex and age. Education level is taken into account during analysis. We surveyed 2600 people divided among the four cities (860 in Bamako, 710 in Sikasso, 650 in Segou, 380 in Koutiala).

Our sample size respects the set of hypotheses to verify in parameter estimation, corresponding to a 2% margin of error. We preferred, however, to provide upper and lower estimates of the scores (confidence intervals), taking account of certain realities on the ground. These details are very important in judging the quality of the results. We invite our statistical colleagues and research firms seeking to predict the election results to provide details on the size and distribution of their samples, the area of study and type of survey used. Without these details, poll results are only worth so much.


Are the people motivated to vote?

To the question “Are you ready to vote in presidential elections?”, 81.95% of respondents said they were ready to vote; this was the proportion of people registered under RAVEC [the Recensement Administratif à Vocation d'Etat Civil, a national ID and voting registration campaign conducted in 2010-2011], and having the intention of voting on election day. We therefore can hope for a relatively high level of voter turnout. We must however note that there may be a significant divide between these stated intentions and actual behavior. Among those who said they did not intend to vote, 44.6% think there is no trustworthy candidate, and 14.3% say the election will be rigged in advance.

Should we hold elections before liberating Kidal?

We asked, “If we are not able to liberate Kidal before the date set for elections, do you think election day should be postponed, or should the vote be held in the rest of Mali without Kidal?” To this question, the vast majority of respondents, 82.8%, preferred postponing elections if Kidal is not liberated beforehand.

Candidates and parties

To the question, “If elections are held next month, for whom would you vote?” we found different results in different cities (even if one trend was visible throughout the area of study). We also noticed that certain confidence intervals overlap (in which case, our conclusion is based on the average).

In Bamako, voters will turn out for two candidates: Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of the RPM and Soumaïla Cissé of the URD. Keita is in the lead with a score between 35.3% and 42.5%. He is followed by Cissé with a score between 10.8% and 15.8% (with an average of 13.3%). These two candidates will garner at least 46% of the votes in Bamako. Third place is contested between three candidates: Moussa Mara of the Yelema party (10.2%), Dramane Dembelé of ADEMA (9.2%) and Modibo Sidibé of FARE (9.2%).

In Segou, Keïta leads with a score between 39.6% and 48.4%. Dembelé of ADEMA is in second place with an average score of 11.2%. Third place is a toss-up between Soumaïla Cissé (8.6%) and Moussa Mara (8%). The confidence intervals overlap between these two. Mountaga Tall of CNID garnered 5.5% of the vote in Segou.

In Sikasso,one of the key cities in these elections, there is a wide gap between the top two candidates and the others. Keïta emerges with a score between 37.4% and 45.5%, followed by Cissé with a score between 15.2% and 22.6%. Third place is too close to call between ADEMA’s Dembelé (9.7%) and Housseini Amion Guindo of CODEM (9.0%), given overlapping confidence intervals.

In Koutiala, Keïta is again in the lead with a score between 26.0% and 35.9%. He is followed by Oumar Mariko of SADI with between 18.5% and 27.5% (averaging 23.01%). Dembelé of ADEMA and Cissé of URD garnered 10.9% each.

In the entire survey area (all four cities), one trend is noticeable: Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta comes in first place (35.7%-42.1%), with Soumaila Cissé in second (10.4%-15.4%).Third place is held by Dramane Dembelé of ADEMA (6.1%-11.7%).

Average tallies across all four cities

Average tallies across all four cities

The case of Modibo Sidibé: During the design of this survey, before collecting our data, we had the hypothesis that four candidates would poll noticeably above the others: Dramane Dembélé of ADEMA, Soumaïla Cissé of URD, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of RPM and Modibo Sidibé of FARE. According to our results, the latter’s support never exceeded 10% (9.2% in Bamako, 4.1% in Segou, 5.0% in Sikasso and 7.4% in Koutiala).

The case of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta: One of our more remarkable findings is the support for the RPM’s candidate [known as "IBK"]. In all four cities, he leads by a clear margin. Everywhere but Koutiala [which happens to be his birthplace!], his score is twice that of the second-place candidate.

The case of ADEMA and the URD: The URD is in second place in Bamako and Sikasso; in Segou, second place is held by Dramane Dembelé of ADEMA, while in Koutiala it is held by Omar Mariko of SADI. Neither ADEMA nor the URD has yet secured enough support to assure getting through to the second round.

Will there be a second round of the presidential election?

Looking at the results from these four cities, we see that no candidate has more than 50% of the vote. Supposing that results elsewhere are similar, we can say that there will inevitably be a second round of the presidential election. This conclusion could change if “IBK” gains more support. The URD seems more likely than ADEMA to make it to the second round.

How will the support for candidates who lose the first round be divided? How much weight will their endorsements carry? Who will be the next president of Mali?

In countries like ours, a great many candidates do not enter elections to win, but rather to negotiate government posts through alliances in the second round, or to test their popularity for subsequent elections. Therefore, the distribution of their supporters will depend in large part on the alliances that are struck after the first round, and on the weight of their endorsements. During our survey we asked questions about these different aspects. The analysis of the responses will be part of the second phase of this project (in the coming weeks).

The limitations of the survey: Like all scientific work, ours has its limitations. This first poll is limited in two respects: it concerns only four cities, and was conducted well before the scheduled election date. These two limitations are mitigated by the fact that the cities selected are known for their weight in the choice of president, and the fact that the populations these cities are reasonably well informed and choose their candidates well in advance (this latter hypothesis is not yet verified for rural areas).

My closing remark: As Mr. Guindo indicates above, such information must be interpreted with caution. Not having participated in the data-gathering and analysis process, I cannot personally vouch for the accuracy of these data. I am actually rather conflicted about Mr. Guindo’s call for statistics to play a greater role in Malian public life: in my view, while these tools can be useful, we Americans have taken our obsession with quantification and polling too far. But for whatever they’re worth, I think his results make interesting reading.

Postscript, 30 May: Bamako’s Le Pretoire newspaper has published an editorial denouncing “the publication of complicit polls whose scientific value is close to zero, in the eyes of nearly all experts.” The editorial does not identify Mr. Guindo by name, nor does it identify any of the experts who have allegedly found his or any other recent survey worthless. This is the first time I’ve seen polling as the subject of invective in the Bamako press — which means it must be attracting at least some attention.

Postscript two, 7 June: Maliweb has posted an item claiming to be by the “Société Malienne de Sondages” (Malian Survey Company) reporting the results of a different poll, which give Soumaïla Cissé 40% support among those surveyed, and IBK only 10% support — effectively inverting the order reported by Sidiki Guindo. No details are provided on the sampling frame, on where or when the survey was conducted, etc., and the polling company in question appears to be a very recent creation (a Google search reveals no mention of it until this week). The Bamako newspaper La Nouvelle Patrie has also run an article about this supposed poll, not even attempting to mask its position in favor of Soumaïla Cissé’s candidacy.

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Why Mali won’t be ready for July elections

Elections must be held in Mali, and soon; of that there can be no doubt. Mali desperately needs new leadership. The current caretaker government, put in place last year after negotiations between ECOWAS and the junta that ousted the unpopular Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) from power, has little legitimacy and even less incentive to address the country’s pressing problems. Mali’s interim head of state, Dioncounda Traoré, might be the feeblest, least dynamic leader Mali has ever seen. His most notable action during his year in power has been his decision to wear a white scarf around his neck. Some cynics in the opposition brand his regime “ATT sans ATT.”

Dioncounda Traoré: My, what a white scarf he’s got

Mali’s main donors, France and the US, have repeatedly insisted that fresh national elections be held. The US government is barred by its own legislation from providing any military or development aid to Mali until a new vote is held. So, in late January, the Malian government duly announced that elections would be organized in July, and its representatives continue publicly to stick by that timetable.

Unfortunately, there are at least four obvious reasons why a July poll date is unrealistic.

  1. Part of the country is still entirely outside government control. Towns in the region of Kidal, cradle of multiple rebellions since Mali’s independence including the most recent one, have been occupied by separatist MNLA rebels since Islamist forces abandoned them in late January. While the French have kept the separatists at arm’s length, so far the Malian armed forces have been either unable or unwilling to enter the region and confront the MNLA, which refuses to disarm or permit elections until it can negotiate some form of regional autonomy with the Malian government. Such concessions would be political poison for authorities in Bamako, however, where the MNLA is widely seen as a criminal organization which must be dealt with harshly.
  2. Insecurity persists even in some government-held regions. A spate of suicide bombings and attacks in Gao and Timbuktu since February has shown that the Malian army’s control of these towns remains tenuous. It would be simple for a few committed terrorists to disrupt the electoral process and intimidate people into staying home.
  3. Critical electoral infrastructure is not yet in place. The Malian government only awarded a contract to produce voter ID cards in April. Even if the contractor produces and delivers them on time, the mere process of distributing them to nearly seven million Malian voters would be daunting in the best of times. And, given that hundreds of thousands of Malians are still displaced from the conflict, this is not the best of times.
  4. It’s just the wrong time of year. July is a critical month in Mali’s agricultural calendar: it’s the month when rainfall becomes regular and cultivation activity peaks. In other words, Mali’s mainly rural population will be preoccupied with other things. The rains will also make travel difficult in much of the country, with flooding and impassible roads. French troops in all-terrain vehicles had a rough time crossing the Timbuktu region at the height of the dry season; how will poll workers access these areas after the rains have begun? As if all that weren’t enough, July this year largely overlaps with the month of Ramadan, which will also hinder participation in elections.

One of the great failings of Mali’s formally democratic system over the past 20 years has been the lowest voter turnout in West Africa: turnout in Mali has been consistently below 40 percent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (see chart below). In other words, even with none of the above obstacles, most eligible voters did not participate in the process. If a vote is held in July, it’s likely that even fewer Malians would take part — and the process would not achieve its purpose of establishing a new government which most Malians would regard as legitimate.

Turnout data

Voter turnout (as a percentage of the voting-age population); 1992 figure is for parliamentary elections only, while other years are for presidential elections

Recently the head of Mali’s electoral commission went public with his doubts that elections could be organized by July. Donor governments also seem to understand that such a timetable is unrealistic; the US State Department has softened its language somewhat, calling for elections “in July or as soon as technically feasible.” In France as well, many analysts believe their government’s apparently uncompromising language in favor of a July vote is an effet d’annonce, a media ploy aimed to spur action from the Malian government — a tactic similar to giving an ultimatum to a tarrying home repair contractor. According to one French policy observer, these statements are intended to compel the Malians “to move the electoral process forward. If we don’t say anything, nothing will move forward. [Even] if we’re optimistic, the presidential election won’t take place before October.”

While quick elections are therefore unlikely, there’s two reasons for hope that the eventual vote will succeed. One, despite their growing discontent with the practice of governance in their country over the past decade, Malians remain overwhelmingly committed to democratic ideals and institutions, at least in the abstract. The rate of Afrobarometer respondents expressing attachment to elections has remained consistently high (82 percent in December 2012, unchanged from ten years before). Moreover, when asked an open-ended question about the best way to “move beyond a regime that is corrupt and incompetent,” respondents in the six government-controlled regions of Mali last December identified elections more frequently than any alternative.

Two, when a vote does take place, given historically low turnout rates, any turnout above 50 percent would make the process look like a resounding success. Given the mood in the country, with many Malians keen to send a message to their leaders, such an outcome is not out of the question.

What Mali does not need now is a flawed, ill-prepared process that ordinary Malians will dismiss as another “electoral hold-up” geared to protect the interests of politicians in power. It does not need a premature vote that will not extend over the country’s full territory. The country’s citizens want, and deserve, an election that will inspire their confidence.

Postscript, 9 May: L’Indépendant, one of Bamako’s more respectable newspapers, claims that Mali’s transitional government has secretly dispatched emissaries to Paris to “negotiate the postponement” of July elections.

Postscript two, 10 May: Africa Confidential concludes that Mali’s government has scarcely begun to prepare for elections, and that foreign partners (notably France and the EU) “see the importance of credible elections” and are “sympathetic” to calls to delay the vote until the end of the year.

Postscript three, 14 May: Ambroise Vedrines of Slate Afrique has published a call to “abandon the idea of July elections.” Also, a conversation between Bruce Hall, Baz Lecocq, Greg Mann and myself about Mali’s situation has just appeared on African Arguments.

Postscript four, 5 June: Deutsche Welle’s website has published an article entitled “Mali’s Rush to the Ballot Box,” outlining the same issues discussed above. It concludes with what it calls “good news: “The biometric voter registration cards are going to be printed and distributed in time for the election.” Distributed by the manufacturer to the Malian government, maybe — but probably not to Malian voters. That process took three months in Bangladesh, where the state is reasonably intact. It will probably take at least as long in Mali.

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The floating hippo

Author’s note: a few months ago, historians Baz Lecocq (Ghent University) and Gregory Mann (Columbia University) assembled a multinational, interdisciplinary team of Mali scholars to write a comprehensive analysis of that country’s crisis. In all, eight researchers specializing in diverse aspects of Mali’s populations and their history contributed to this project. Initially we nicknamed it “the floating hippo” for reasons that the second paragraph makes clear, but the article’s official title is “One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts.” Ours is the most holistic, wide-ranging scholarly attempt so far to explain recent events in Mali. A more polished, but briefer, version of it will be published by the journal Review of African Political Economy in issue 137 later this year. Our introduction appears below; if you want to read more, download the the 10,000-word “extended editors’ cut” (PDF document).

One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts

A multivocal analysis of the 2012 political crisis in the divided Republic of Mali*

By Baz Lecocq, Gregory Mann, Bruce Whitehouse, Dida Badi, Lotte Pelckmans, Nadia
Belalimat, Bruce Hall, and Wolfram Lacher

In 2012, the political landscape in the Republic of Mali transformed rapidly, drastically, and unpredictably. The formation of a new Tuareg political movement — the National Movement of Azawad — in October 2010 and the return to Mali of Tuareg with military experience from the Libyan conflict in August 2011—bringing along heavy weapons and logistical supplies — made speculation on renewed violence on the part of separatist Tuareg inevitable. Indeed, Tuareg separatists launched attacks on Malian garrisons in the Sahara in January 2012. Mali had experienced such rebellions before. What nobody foresaw was that this renewed conflict would lead to a coup d’état by disgruntled junior officers; the near total collapse of Mali’s army and most of its democratic institutions; the seizure of all of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and foreign and local mujahideen [1]; the precocious proclamation of an independent Azawad Republic; and the effective occupation of the north of the country by an alliance of Jihadi-Salafi movements who imposed their form of shari’a law on a suffering and largely recalcitrant population. Those events happened very quickly, and their effects will be felt for years. This article attempts to give an overview of the crisis in Mali as it unfolded through 2012, with particular attention to what was happening on the ground in Mali itself.

The Malian national mascot is the hippopotamus: a quiet but potentially dangerous mastodon whose name in the Bambara language is a homonym for the name of the country. At present, the Malian hippo is floating gravely wounded in murky and troubled waters. The current political situation in the country involves different political cultures, domains and systems, including Tuareg clan politics, a contested multi-party system based in Bamako, the international domains of Franco-African relations, the position of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the ideology and effective networks of global jihad. No single scholar can claim full understanding of all these domains. Understanding is further hampered by a lack of reliable information on what happens on the ground, coupled with a good deal of deliberate or accidental misinformation. This article represents an attempt by a group of eight scholars, each of whom has studied one or two of the aspects that together make up a hugely complex beast, to pool our sources and analysis. In analogy to an old parable, the eight of us are like the blind scholars who, touching different parts of an object, each come up with a different explanation of its nature. We hope that in the discussion of our findings below we will clarify at least partly what the nature of the beast is.

Our inquiry will remain incomplete. First of all, despite the unusually large number of contributors to this article, our view is not panoramic, while our vision is imperfect. Second, the situation in the Sahel continues to change in unexpected ways. Between the time of our writing and the publication of this article, the situation has already changed dramatically, as it undoubtedly will do again. This then is an exercise in contemporary history, culminating with international diplomatic efforts to organize a military intervention to be led by ECOWAS, authorized by UN Security Council resolutions (July and October 2012), and materially supported by France. At the time of writing, we did not think that this intervention would be effectively organised and operational before the first months of 2013 at the earliest. Events proved us right, although not in the fashion that we had anticipated. In its published form this article may serve as a historical background to this intervention.

[1] As this article will make clear, several groups fought against the Malian government and sometimes against each other. They fall into two broad categories. The first, the Tuareg separatists known as the MNLA, are in rebellion against their own government; we refer to them as ‘rebels.’ Those in the second category are engaged in a violent jihad with ideological roots in Salafism. They see themselves as fighting for Islam, although the vast majority of their victims are Muslims who do not recognize their religion in the actions of these fighters. We refer to this second category as the mujahideen; some of them are in rebellion against their own government, but many are citizens of foreign countries. They are not therefore ‘rebels.’ As we argue below, individual fighters and commanders have shifted back and forth across the permeable boundary between these two categories, but we maintain it for analytical purposes.

[read the rest here]

*This is an Authors’ Original Manuscript of an article to be published in the Review of African Political Economy (copyright Taylor & Francis; article DOI not yet available). When citing details presented in this paper which do not appear in the definitive form in ROAPE 137, please refer to this paper under the formal title with “Extended Editor’s Cut” added and give the URL where you found it; for all other citations please refer to the final version in ROAPE 137 under its title.

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Mali’s coup, one year on

It was a year ago this morning that we woke up in Bamako to a changed reality. Soldiers at a barracks outside the city had mutinied against their commanders, taken over state broadcasting and the presidential palace, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré.

Yesterday a journalist with France24 asked me whether, at the time of the coup, I had anticipated the depth of the crisis that would follow. My answer was no. I remember what it felt like, listening to gunfire breaking out across the Niger River, a few hours later watching those first images of soldiers in the ORTM studio announcing the suspension of Mali’s 1992 constitution. At the time many of us hoped this episode would prove a short-lived “hiccup” in Mali’s democratic transition, followed by a speedy return to normalcy. I don’t believe I would have predicted that Malians would largely acquiesce to the junta; that 60 percent of Mali’s territory would soon fall to a coalition of separatist MNLA and Islamist rebels; that the Islamists would later overpower their secular allies and make northern Mali synonymous with barbarity; that the Malian state and its leaders would prove utterly impotent to protect their citizens or reunify the country; or ultimately that France would dispatch thousands of troops to Mali’s soil.

ORTM, March 22, 2012

None of this is to say, however, that Mali’s coup arrived out of the blue. The political crisis that has shaken the Malian state to its foundations began long before those soldiers mutinied and, in hindsight, warning signs suggesting the failing health of Mali’s democratic experiment were visible all along.

Consider voter turnout. If Mali’s democracy was so vibrant, why did more than 60 percent of eligible voters consistently stay away from the process? It’s true that a large part of Mali’s population is rural and illiterate, but this doesn’t explain why voter turnout in Mali’s elections since 1992 was consistently the lowest in West Africa. At a fundamental level, most Malians didn’t feel represented by their elected officials, and the problem was growing worse. According to the Afrobarometer survey, public satisfaction with Mali’s democracy had been falling for a decade by the time the coup took place.

Another warning sign was the spike in deadly vigilante violence in Bamako, from mid-2011, as a growing number of urban residents lost faith in the ability or willingness of some of the state’s most fundamental institutions — the police and the justice system — to protect them from criminals. I mentioned this phenomenon in a post a couple of months before the coup, and returned to the subject in greater detail last April.

As for the rebellion, insecurity is nothing new in northern Mali. The latest insurgency (officially dubbed “the renewal of armed struggle” by the MNLA) was launched in mid-January 2012, but had been brewing long beforehand, even prior to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya the previous October and the subsequent return of heavily armed Tuareg fighters to Mali.

Mali’s coup and the chaos that followed were by no means inevitable. President Touré’s government was weak in early 2012 — as events have proved — but it just might have been able to limp through scheduled elections and hand power to a successor. That successor might have been able to contain the rebellion and reverse the Malian state’s decline. Of course, there’s little use speculating over how things might have played out differently. My point is that the political crisis of the last 12 months should not have come as a surprise, and might possibly have been averted if Mali-watchers (myself included) had been more attuned to the signs of trouble. For 20 years we viewed Mali as a success story, and became so heavily invested in that optimistic narrative that we failed to make an accurate assessment of the disappointments and risks.

An interesting poll conducted in Bamako last month by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation points to further evidence of popular alienation from the political process. An overwhelming majority of respondents feel that the country’s political parties pursue only selfish interests (table 4), and more than three-quarters cannot name their parliamentarian (the figure for female respondents is 85 percent; see table 2). When asked why more Malians don’t vote, the most common response is a lack of trustworthy candidates (table 9; see chart below). Maybe the only surprising finding here is that around sixty percent of respondents actually trust their interim president and prime minister (figures 1 and 2).

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013)

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013; n=384)

The same poll examines Bamako residents’ attitudes toward events in northern Mali. 98 percent of respondents approve of France’s ongoing military intervention (figure 10). They largely distrust the MNLA, and view the exclusion of Malian troops from Kidal as “unacceptable” (tables 11 and 12); moreover, 68 percent are completely opposed to negotiating with rebels for peace (table 18), though they do appear to support some kind of talks with other representatives of northern populations (tables 19 and 21). They maintain strong support for the Malian army (figure 13) and tend to be skeptical of accusations that Malian troops have committed human rights abuses (table 13). More than three-quarters favor a permanent French military presence in Mali (figure 17), and about two-thirds express favorable views toward a “permanent American presence” in Mali (figure 16). By contrast, opposition toward a UN peacekeeping operation runs fairly high (tables 15 and 16).

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo in REUTERS/Joe Penney

The man who led last year’s putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is still in the news. Just yesterday Radio Deutsche Welle published a recent interview with the captain, in which he gives a favorable assessment of the coup’s motivations and consequences. “The current political system is working well,” he claims. “And what is more, the Malian people are beginning to understand what went wrong and to realize that this is the chance to start over.” The most noteworthy part of the interview is Sanogo’s affirmation that he will not be a candidate in upcoming election. He also told an interviewer from Der Spiegel, “I have no political ambitions, and I won’t run. But if I did, I would stand a good chance of winning, because I’m very popular with the people.” Something tells me we will be seeing a great deal more of this man, who indeed maintains a public following in Bamako and who always seems to know how to reach his audience.

On the eve of my departure from Mali last year, three months after the coup, I posted a grim assessment of its impact, writing that “the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them.” Nine months later, my view has not changed. But I have a little more hope now than I did then for the country’s future. If Mali’s leaders can use this crisis to confront the problems that brought down the previous democratic experiment, if they can include more of their fellow citizens in the process of rebuilding the Malian state, they might just be able to put their country back together and keep it together. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable, but it’s possible.

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Six steps to fix a broken Mali

It’s too soon to declare Operation Serval a success, and there are already concerns about its eventual end, but the French-led military intervention in Mali has at least brought the country back from the brink of disaster, and opened up a space in which Malians can finally begin to chart a way forward for their nation. If I were advising the people who hold Mali’s fate in their hands — not only Mali’s interim president, but members of influential donor governments in North America and Europe — here’s what I’d recommend: six steps to reform the Malian state, settle conflicts and restore stability.

  1. Take the time to organize proper elections. According to Mali’s interim government, nationwide elections (originally meant to be held in April 2012) are now scheduled for July. The U.S. government, bound by legislation barring aid to any regime that ousted a democratically elected predecessor, has long insisted on a new vote, even while half of Mali was under rebel occupation. The U.S. Embassy in Bamako strongly supports the July date for elections. But premature elections could well create another crisis within a matter of months. Voter lists were already in disarray long before the country’s political-military crisis flared up a year ago, displacing half a million northerners. As journalist Cheick Tandina put it, “Mali doesn’t need hasty elections which might get botched and would confer no legitimacy to those voted in.” Mark Quarterman, Director of Research for the Enough Project, has also warned Mali against succumbing to the “election fetish”:  “elections, under the current system, could solidify the hold of the current ruling group,” he wrote last month, referring to the discredited parties and politicians whom many Malians blame for causing the current mess. Elections in Mali must take place, but according to Mali’s timetable, not that of donor governments.
  2. Hold an inclusive national dialogue to forge a political system with popular legitimacy. This dialogue must precede elections. Only leaders with a solid mandate will be in any position to negotiate with disaffected communities in northern Mali (see item 5 below). Mali desperately needs a legitimate government, and while foreign powers can aid the process, the only people who can create it are Malians themselves. Prominent voices in Bamako are calling for a national dialogue like the 1991 conférence nationale that paved the way for a new constitution and elections the following year. But the current rush to elections may take that option off the table.
  3. Reintroduce foreign aid very carefully. Misspent aid money was part of the problem under the old regime, and more misspent aid will only make matters worse. The chart below shows the vertiginous rise in official development aid to Mali in the first decade of the 21st century, from under half a billion dollars to over one billion dollars annually.
    Mali aid

    Official development assistance received in Mali (Source: World Bank Databank; figures in constant 2010 US$); thanks to Nate Allen at Princeton for this chart

    Not only did this money not make Mali better governed, it very likely contributed to its destabilization. Experts like Jonathan Glennie, Paul Collier and William Easterly have made trenchant critiques of development aid, most notably its tendency to absolve recipient governments of the responsibility of actually governing. At minimum, Mali’s donors must make every effort to ensure that their taxpayers’ funds are properly spent and don’t undermine the effectiveness of the very state they are supposed to reinforce. (See a recent op-ed and a brief on aid and governance in Mali, both by political scientist Isaline Bergamaschi.)

  4. Reform the Malian armed forces from the ground up. The European Union has launched a new mission to train the Malian military, but lack of training is only the tip of the iceberg. Northern Malians don’t trust the Malian army, which continues to face accusations of killing civilians. It’s unclear whether the Malian government will take punitive action: its chief prosecutor claims he has yet to be informed of any abuses committed by the army.
    Sanogo screenshot

    Capt. Sanogo: on TV, again

    Meanwhile, Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the coup a year ago, still appears regularly on state television, which even last week broadcast friendly interviews with him in French and in Bambara. Boukary Daou, the newspaper editor arrested 12 days ago after publishing an open letter criticizing Sanogo’s high salary, remains in custody. It’s apparent that Sanogo and his military backers hold a great deal of political power in Bamako, and that the military has yet to be insulated from the political process and vice-versa. Mali’s army is simply a reflection of the dilapidated state apparatus, and requires more than a few EU trainers to fix.

  5. Hold talks to address northern grievances. Mali’s interim officials have expressed willingness to meet with separatist MNLA leaders, provided they disarm and drop their demand for sovereignty. But it’s not obvious what the rebels would gain from such talks: according to a statement by Mali’s prime minister, federalism is off the table, and many politicians in Bamako are eager to make the point that “rebellion doesn’t pay.” Up north, the Tuareg-dominated MNLA is now consolidating control over the territory it controls, issuing documents stamped with the name of the “Azawad Republic” they declared last year. Thus far the MNLA and the Malian government have engaged in a “dialogue of the deaf,” with the rebels accusing Bamako of orchestrating a “genocide,” and self-appointed “youth leaders” in the south labeling the MNLA a terrorist organization, “enemy number one” of the Malian people. (To get a feel for the difficulty of having a fruitful discussion on the place of Tuareg people in Mali, consider some of the comments on my post about Mali’s “Tuareg problem” last month, many of which interpreted that post as “anti-Tuareg propaganda,” others of which actually articulated anti-Tuareg invective.) Whoever should represent northerners, and however difficult such talks may be, they must take place.
  6. Support the truth and reconciliation process. Earlier this month, at the insistence of donors, Interim President Dioncounda Traoré announced the creation of a “dialogue and reconciliation” commission. Some Malians are skeptical of this idea, which they see as alien to their own traditions of negotiation and conflict resolution. But this is one instance where — my anthropological proclivities notwithstanding — I think donor priorities are well founded. Since independence, the government’s failure to address the legacy of violence has only contributed to an escalating cycle of bloodshed in northern Mali, between the army and Tuareg civilians as well as between Tuareg and Songhai militias. In the words of Malian anthropologist Isaie Dougnon,

    “after every crisis, Mali passes a general ‘amnesty’ law, which closes the records of those who are accountable to the people and those who have committed the worst crimes against the interests of the people, without putting in place a framework for understanding and reconciliation. This is what was done after the coup of 22 March 2012. It granted amnesty to coup supporters and civilians before the process of political transition was even begun.”

    One way or another, Malians must confront the injustices of the past. Doing so openly  runs counter to a strong tendency to suppress painful memories in the interest of preserving social harmony. Yet this tendency only prevents the long-term resolution of sensitive issues. Either everyone must be held accountable for their misdeeds — a process that demands a much more robust justice system than Mali possesses — or some form of truth and reconciliation process must take place.

Of course the devil is always in the details, and I’m aware that for certain readers the above list probably seems rather like the Monty Python sketch in which an “expert” explains how to rid the world of all known diseases. I’m also aware that these six steps, while necessary for Mali’s future stability, may not be sufficient to produce it.

Yet over the past month as I’ve joined colleagues both in and out of academia for discussions about Mali’s current crisis and how it developed, I’ve been struck by how many experts don’t even see some of these steps as necessary. Some believe speedy elections and some vague form of regional autonomy for the Tuareg will be sufficient to solve the problem. I think this is deeply misguided. Peace in Mali rests as much on events in Bamako and Kati as in the Adrar des Ifoghas, in Gao, or in Kidal.

[Author's note: Greg Mann and I recently co-authored a shorter opinion piece making some of these same points. This blog post represents my own views and does not necessarily coincide with Greg's.]

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The north, the army, and the junta

The Chadian government’s announcement of the deaths of two top commanders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, made headlines in the last week — although the French and Malian governments have so far given no explicit confirmation of these deaths, and the Algerian press is skeptical. The heaviest fighting has occurred in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains north of Kidal. Earlier today, a fourth French soldier was killed in action, this time in a skirmish near the village of Tin Keraten, 100 km outside of the city of Gao.

Adrar des Ifoghas mapAnother story has all but escaped the notice of the international media: Mali’s armed forces have been almost shut out of military operations in the northern-most combat zone. Since late January Malian troops, alongside counterparts from France, Niger and Chad, have occupied Gao, Timbuktu and other towns along the Niger River; Malian soldiers were patrolling jointly with French counterparts near Tin Keraten, according to the Associated Press. But further north, in the region of Kidal (birthplace of many rebellions over the years), the fight against Islamist rebels is being waged by troops from France and Chad, who have now been present there for more than a month. The Chadians have taken heavy casualties, with at least 27 dead thus far. Occupying Kidal alongside these forces are fighters of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist rebels who a year ago were allied with the Islamists. But the Malian army is not there, at least not in force. (A handful of Malian troops are reportedly in the area: last week Malian Army Col. El Hadj Ag Gamou told the French newspaper L’Humanité that 19 of his men, all Tuareg, are there acting as guides for the French and Chadians.)

“It’s the lack of means that explains the absence of the Malian armed forces in Kidal. If they give us the means, we’ll go beyond Kidal,” the deputy director of Mali’s armed forces public information bureau told a press conference in Bamako. Public reactions among Malians have been skeptical of this claim; army spokesmen have little credibility with the Malian people these days.

The truth is that France and the MNLA don’t want Malian troops in Kidal. Given the army’s track record over the last several weeks — torture and summary execution of prisoners, plus recriminations against alleged “collaborators” — Tuareg residents there have every reason to fear a massacre. The army, no doubt under pressure from France, recently arrested some of its own soldiers suspected of carrying out abuses against Arab civilians. The Malian armed forces may lack the means to send their troops to Kidal, but more importantly, they lack discipline and a credible command structure to keep their men in line.

Still, the Malian army’s absence from Kidal rankles some Malians, who see it as an affront to national sovereignty. Bamako newspapers routinely cast the MNLA as an unreformed terrorist organization. “The MNLA’s presence today in Kidal not only contradicts the principal of Mali’s territorial integrity, but also calls into question the reconquest of northern Mali,” wrote an editorialist in today’s Le Flambeau. “And from this endorsement flows, on the one hand, the MNLA’s legitimacy in Kidal, and on the other the Malian state’s disinterest toward this part of its territory.” Other papers have accused the MNLA of continued collaboration with Islamist groups.

Army Colonel Ag Gamou, for his part, dismissed the MNLA as bent on “political banditry,” and having no more legitimacy than any of the Islamist groups now targeted by French and Chadian troops. “The MNLA is nothing but an aircraft carrier for all the jihadists,” he told L’Humanité. Such warnings against the MNLA’s “rehabilitation” will complicate prospects for serious national political dialogue.

Col. Ag Gamou with some of his troops near Gao

Another complicating factor is renewed dissension within the Malian army’s ranks. In an open letter published in today’s Le Républicain, a junior officer complained about what he sees as unfair benefits given to Captain Amadou Sanogo, the ex-CNRDRE junta leader who last month was sworn in to head a military reform committee. The letter reads,

Dear Mr. President:

We have learned, as we are dying in the grand desert, that Captain Sanogo, for having mounted a coup d’etat, and put the country in its present situation, will receive a salary of four million [CFA francs, approx. US$8000 per month]. And the others in his group, which is to say, his clan, who refuse to come fight, also receive the same treatment. We do not understand this and demand of you, we other soldiers of the Malian army, a clear explanation. We want to know if mounting a coup d’etat to be compensated and recognized as a good soldier [sic]? We will never accept this. If this decision is not annulled within two weeks, we will cease, that is to say me and my men, to fight and we are ready to accept all the consequences.

Capt. TOURE, Gao, March 1, 2013

Touré’s use of the term “clan” to describe the group of soldiers loyal to Sanogo is reminiscent of the way critics described ousted president ATT, whose corrupt entourage was one of the Malian public’s primary complaints against him (see, for example, the 2007 book ATT-cratie: La promotion d’un homme et de son clan). Such language clearly troubles the powers that be in Bamako, including the junta whose members retain control of the security services: only hours after this letter was published, according to a statement on the paper’s website, Malian state security agents arrested the publication director of Le Républicain, one of Bamako’s most respected newspapers.

This episode illustrates the many challenges Mali now faces. The question of who’s really in charge in Bamako, and what influence the junta’s members have in the political process, must be settled definitively. The military must be reorganized and kept on a tight leash. And Malian political leaders, while avoiding the appearance of caving in to illegitimate groups, must engage in open discussions with representatives of disaffected northern populations, including the Tuareg, whose grievances are both legitimate and long-standing. Accomplishing these tasks will make killing a few hardened Islamist leaders in the desert look easy.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that it was Adam Thiam, editor in chief of Le Républicain, who was arrested earlier today.  Information subsequently posted on Maliweb indicates that it was Boukary Daou, not Thiam, who was taken into custody.

Postscript, 10 March: Malian soldiers posted in Diabaly have reportedly left their positions and headed south toward Segou, firing into the air to protest not having received combat pay, according to a report by the AFP.

Recommended viewing: Reuters photographer Joe Penney’s set of portraits of young women in Gao wearing headdresses that had been banned under Islamist rule.

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Corruption is for everyone! (Part 2)

Last May I wrote about the ways the phenomenon of corruption in Mali is not restricted to the political elite, as one could conclude from the voluminous public criticism Malians make of their leaders on Mali news websites. Now comes this comment posted to a recent news item about Mali’s political class, ostensibly by a Malian named Kassin in response to compatriots. His critique gets to the heart of the matter far better than I ever could, and I thought it worth translating in its entirety.

Kassin: “When I read these comments, I fall down laughing, Malians are so dishonest!

“You attack the politicians as if they were the only thieves in the country.

“They embezzle from their state offices and from development projects to win candidacies in elections, to traffic in real estate, build houses, buy apartments overseas, send their children to study or show off, their wives to give birth or show off overseas….

“Yes, they are big-time thieves. But they’re far from being the only thieves in Mali, otherwise the country wouldn’t have collapsed like it did in 2012.

“There’s the SOTRAMA apprentice who rips off the driver who rips off the owner who rips off the state through the vehicle’s customs and insurance fees.

Overloaded SOTRAMA (

“There’s the traffic cop who takes 1000 francs to let the vehicle go on its way, even though it has no spare tire, doesn’t meet regulations, has no windshield wiper, no safety belts, it’s overloaded, and 15 meters down the road there will be carnage with 10 dead and 15 gravely wounded.

Gabriel Touré Hospital, Bamako

“In Gabriel Touré Hospital [one of Bamako's big public hospitals], doctors’ first concern is to treat the best-off among the wounded, neglecting the others… if, that is, [the doctors] haven’t already gone off to private clinics (Farako, Pasteur), the better to sell their services to sick people in good shape, even though they’re paid by the state for a full-time job, and nobody complains.

“There’s the nurses who try to sell the medications they swiped from other sick patients.

“There’s the school principals and public school teachers who charge their students registration fees (300,000 to 500,000 francs), trade exam grades or exam answers for sex or money, and nobody complains.

“Placement in civil service recruitment competitions for Customs, the Tax Office, theTreasury, the Kati military school, the Koulikoro military academy, the National Police, the Gendarmerie, are all sold to candidates for millions of francs, and nobody complains.

“Scholarships for students and interns, generously offered by donor countries, are illegally haggled over in the Ministry of Higher Education like commodities, often sold to foreigners who don’t even have Malian passports but who for a few hundred thousand francs will take the place to study abroad of a young Malian who deserved it.

“Study fees paid by students for the public treasury are embezzled by their schools’ accountants, who lend the diverted money to traders to enable them to get their shipping containers out of Customs to make an illegal windfall, and nobody complains.

“There’s the traders who prefer to pay a few thousand francs to the Customs agent building his multistory house rather than pay the official duties for their vehicles, so the money never goes into state coffers.

“There’s the senior army officers who bicker over fuel allocation for operations or for UN peacekeeping missions.

“There’s the mayors and municipal advisers who sell off the same plots to 5 different people.

“There’s the lawyers and judges who settle their cases among them before trial, having sold the verdict to the highest bidder, and nobody complains.

“Those who win government contracts systematically kick back 10% to the ones who award them, then build defective projects that are nevertheless approved by the public works agency.

“There’s the state electricity workers who take 5000 francs to reconnect service to a subscriber who’s never paid his bills, or help him bypass the electrical meter.

“There’s the civil servant who shows up for work at 10 a.m. and goes home at 2, even though the workday begins at 8 or 9 and ends at 4, and who takes 10,000 francs from anyone who wants to collect an official document, and nobody complains.

“There’s the emigrant abroad who sends money to his brothers, parents and friends to buy a plot or build a house and who is systematically robbed of half his money — and that’s if he’s lucky, otherwise it might be all of it, and nobody complains.

“In short, when we talk about corruption in Mali, 98% of the population does it, so to blame only the ones who go into politics is to lie to oneself and won’t help the country move forward.

“We have to get to the root of the Malian problem by putting justice at the center of our preoccupations.

“If those in the legal system won’t budge, it’s the the conscious young people who must force them to change, otherwise this country will never get back on its feet.”

My own comment: To fix this broken state, it won’t be enough simply to change Mali’s leaders, nor to find more patriotic politicians. The rule of law must be established, and institutions of the state (meaning, the people who work for them) must be made capable of resisting the pressures from society to bend or break the rules.

So, how to do that? I don’t share Kassin’s view that “nobody complains.” In point of fact, Malians complain incessantly about all this these instances of corruption in their lives. But they generally go along with them, because when the rules are not enforced (or selectively enforced to aid those in power*), only a sucker plays by the rules. And until that changes, it doesn’t matter who’s at the top, or how disaffected the people are; Mali’s culture of corruption will go on.

* I recently heard an apparently popular saying among the Brazilian ruling classes: “For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law.” Do Malians have their own version of this saying, I wonder?

Postscript, 6 June: Malian singer Rokia Traoré said something in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique which touches on the same theme as this post.

In this country, when you run a company, your relatives won’t understand it if your niece doesn’t get a job there. When you’re a civil servant and you offer Tabaski sheep [an expensive end-of-Ramadan gift] to everyone, nobody wonders where you got the financial means to do it. A leader doesn’t fall from the sky, he comes from the people; he reflects the environment in which he grew up. And if embezzling money has become almost normal, how can you expect him to be more concerned with the public good than with his personal comfort?

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