Is Mali heading back to the abyss?

July was a bad month for Mali. On the 12th, government security forces fired on unarmed demonstrators in Gao, killing three. The protestors were denouncing the establishment of interim local authorities–a provision of the peace accord signed in June 2015, but something deeply unpopular with many Malians, who see the entire peace process as phony and driven by powerful outsiders. When the state is deaf to citizens’ concerns and puts warlords and rebel leaders into positions of political responsibility, it’s worth wondering whether the only way to make one’s voice heard in Mali these days is by taking up arms.

One week later, an army post was attacked in Nampala, near the Mauritanian border. The attackers overran the base at dawn and looted part of the town before melting away; reports indicated that 17 Malian soldiers were killed and dozens wounded. Two different Islamist groups, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front, claimed responsibility. Given that the latter’s existence is considered dubious by some specialists, such claims should be received warily. But aside from the question of who carried out the raid, Malians are left asking what their army is good for–besides shooting unarmed demonstrators–if it cannot defend its own bases.


President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita paying tribute to soldiers killed in Nampala (photo: Maliweb)

Days after the Nampala attack, the precarious calm in Kidal was shattered by resumed fighting among armed Tuareg factions, in a further sign of the unraveling of the internationally brokered peace process underway since 2013. An unknown number of combatants and civilians were killed. (Sidiki Guindo’s GISSE survey firm has issued a recent report, funded by international organizations including the World Bank, on poverty, well being and perceptions of change among residents of northern Mali. Most northerners reported not seeing any attempt by the Malian state to restore infrastructure or services in their communities, and of course Kidal has had no Malian administration, even symbolic, since May 2014.)

While Bamako has been generally calm for months, the city has its own problems. On 30 July a near riot reportedly occurred in the Dibida neighborhood following municipal authorities’ campaign of déguerpissement (demolition of supposedly illegal structures and businesses). This unrest came amid a deepening sense of disappointment–about the Gao shootings, about the interim authorities, about the government’s inability to create jobs. In response to the above affronts, all the government has managed to do is extend Mali’s official state of emergency to March 2017. To quote rapper Tal B, money’s not circulating, the people are angry, there are no jobs.

The state is reduced to its coercive powers: ordinary citizens get no carrots, only sticks. Consider Tal B’s video for his song “Chicottement,” in which a teacher has his students conjugate the French verb chicotter (to whip).

It’s hard to argue with the depressing conclusions of Joseph Brunet-Jailly, who wrote in a recent blog post: “There has been no reconstruction of the state because there is no political plan.” There was a moment, two or three years ago following the installation of an elected government, when a genuine re-boot of Mali’s state apparatus seemed possible. Whether due to lack of political will or lack of means, that never happened, leaving Malians stuck with essentially the same undemocratic, dysfunctional political system they lived under when their country’s crisis erupted in 2012. And, as Brunet-Jailly points out, Mali’s international partners have refused to acknowledge the true nature and depth of this crisis.

All this is reminiscent of what happened in the months leading up to Bamako’s March 2012 coup d’état. The massacre of Malian troops (Aguel Hoc in 2012, Nampala in 2016) lays bare the state’s fundamental vulnerability; public frustration boils over; the president is powerless to act. The dire mood and deep distrust of government authorities that prevailed in early 2012 look a lot like what we’re seeing now.

The main difference this time, of course, is that thousands of UN and French troops are on Malian soil and are unlikely to stand by while mutinous soldiers or unruly demonstrators attempt to take power into their own hands.

A number of seasoned political actors and observers in Mali, from Tiébilé Dramé to Issa Ndiaye, have called for concertations nationales–a complete rethinking of the country’s  system of government and political representation. This is what the junta and their hotheaded supporters claimed to want four years ago, when half the country was under rebel control. In light of the post-1991 system’s persistent failure to reform itself in the intervening period, however, perhaps it’s time for such a dramatic step. Would donor governments support it? Or are their interests being served somehow by Mali’s prevailing paralysis and disorder? This question is weighing on a great many Malian minds as their country edges closer to the brink.

Postscript, 3 August 2016: Ansar Dine has posted a video showing what it claims are five Malian soldiers captured during the raid on Nampala. This revelation, compounded by the fact that two soldiers previously reported dead turned up unharmed after the attack, leaves the true Nampala death toll unclear. The defense ministry in Bamako has stated that six of its soldiers are missing.

Postscript, 18 August 2016: In another sign of popular discontent, Bamako youths protested yesterday against the detention of activist and radio host Mohamed “Ras” Bathily (who was interviewed for this blog in 2012). According to Mali’s chief prosecutor, Bathily was detained on suspicion of violating public morality and demoralizing Malian troops; he had recently criticized the government’s handling of the country’s ongoing jihadi insurgency. At least one protestor was reportedly shot dead by police, and social media networks including FaceBook and Twitter went dead in Bamako–though the government denies cutting them.


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9 Responses to Is Mali heading back to the abyss?

  1. Raymond says:

    Guess theres no point moving to Mali.

  2. Observer says:

    very informative. Thanks & keep up

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  4. STAN BURNS says:

    Thanks Bruce

  5. Marty Gleason says:

    I have always had a fantasy about going to Mali for many years. It was interesting finding your blog last week and reading the ins and outs of Mali living while you were there.

    The events of this decade are very sad and I guess make Mali too dangerous now. Would you guess Mali may calm down, say, ten years from now, enough to at least visit?

    Thank you

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I don’t like to make such predictions. Then again, I know plenty of Westerners who have visited or lived in Bamako during the last tumultuous four years and didn’t encounter any trouble during their time there. So I’ll say it’s certainly possible that the situation will stabilize, but I will also bet that anything north of Segou will remain a “red zone” on donor countries’ maps for years to come. Ruben Andersson has written a fascinating analysis of the mapping of risk in Mali, an article which should appear in the next issue of Current Anthropology.

  6. Rick says:

    Great piece Bruce, very informative.
    As to international efforts, ECAP, MINUSMA, etc., what are your thoughts on the proper role they can/should have to positively affect the governance situation in Mali to make its government more democratic and responsive to the needs of the Malian people? Should they even try, given what appears to be a great deal of societal mistrust in the international community (especially France), and any outside solutions will probably be seen as interference and suspect, regardless of the motivation?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I think the last 3 years have demonstrated the limits to the international community’s ability to strengthen weak state institutions in turbulent countries (if the previous 15 years of US experience in Afghanistan wasn’t proof enough!). For two generations, donors have approached underdevelopment and conflict in poor countries as technical problems, when they are in fact political problems demanding political solutions. But the UN, EU and bilateral donors want to appear “apolitical” in their dealings with poor governments. In any case, the first thing donors can do is to stop misdiagnosing the problem and to recognize that governance is at the heart of the matter. The second thing is to support reform processes that actively incorporate the voices of ordinary citizens–not just those who have taken up arms. I think such moves would go a long way toward winning back public trust.

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