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.

    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.

    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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9 Responses to Six steps to fix a broken Mali

  1. Bruce, thanks once again for sharing your thoughts. One rapid reaction: speedy elections are favorite amongst established Malian politicians, as they have their propaganda machinery ready to run. A new generation of clean politicians would need more time to prepare themselves for the elections.

    Anyway, this piece of advice should be adressed to foreign (incl. USA) governments in the first place as these governments are putting so much pressure on Mali to speed up the elections!

    Cheers, Klaas

  2. margriet reinders – Kindia, Guinea – I am living and working with passion in West Africa enjoying culture and nature. My greatest passion is textile. Handwoven cotton materials, like bogolan and indigo cloths.
    Margriet Reinders says:

    Interesting thoughts for Malian future! I would like to add the importance of the role of women in peace building, social harmony and national and local development policies.

    • janetgoldner – My work explores culture, identity and social justice in various media: sculpture, photography, video, installation and social projects. It consistently bridges diverse cultures, celebrating the unique beauty and genius of each as well as what we have in common.
      Janet Goldner says:

      Thanks Margriet! Very important.

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  6. Jeremy Davis says:

    Any perspective on Yeah Samake and his chances in a July election?

    • brucewhitehouse
      brucewhitehouse says:

      I haven’t been in Mali since June so I can’t speak to his public profile these days, but I read this online: Yeah Samake visited Malian troops in Mopti, Sevare and Timbuktu, with plans to visit Gao. This might make him the only presidential candidate to do so.

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