News from Mali just keeps getting worse.
More than five years after French soldiers ousted jihadi fighters from northern Mali and nominally restored central government sovereignty there, the country has grown even more unsafe and fractious. The peace accord signed amid great fanfare in 2015 has yet to be meaningfully implemented. A tally of incidents since 2015 recorded by Malilink shows an alarming rise in violent acts on Malian soil by national and foreign militaries, jihadi groups, secular militias and criminals — along with the associated death toll (see chart below). Most disturbing are recent ethnically motivated killings carried out by Malian troops and “self-defense militias” in the Mopti region, where the US Holocaust Memorial’s early warning project forecasts a growing risk of “mass atrocities.”
In light of these unprecedented threats to Mali’s security and integrity, the stakes would appear to be high for the country’s presidential election, the first round of which is scheduled for 29 July. Though I’ve focused my recent research on socio-cultural issues (and have let my blogging lapse accordingly), the impending vote compels me to consider Mali’s political situation and to reflect on both the election’s likely outcome and what it means for the future.
I therefore offer three predictions.
1. Voter turnout will be dismal.
Low voter participation would conform to precedent, with Malians consistently being West Africa’s least likely voters since the 1990s. I have argued elsewhere that Mali’s weak electoral participation is a clear sign of democratic distress. Turnout for presidential elections (as measured by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) has averaged 62% of eligible West African voters but only 37% in Mali, where it peaked at 45% in 2013. The ongoing spike in violence will depress 2018’s turnout below that level, especially in the center and north.
Then there’s the problem of Mali’s darkening public mood. The latest Afrobarometer survey (conducted in February 2017) shows Malians increasingly dissatisfied with their government. Most respondents expressed little faith in the state’s capacity to reduce criminality, manage the economy, create jobs, or fight corruption. Nearly half feared becoming the victims of political intimidation or electoral violence. Although most Malians continue to see democracy as the best form of government, most also view their own government as a poor democratic example. This was true prior to the events of 2012 and is even more true today.
2. The incumbent will win.
No sitting president having ever lost an election in Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (“IBK”) will almost certainly be elected to a second five-year term. While widely disliked, he enjoys the advantages of incumbency (control of state media, access to funds and patronage networks), and low voter turnout will work in his favor. Although he inspires little public confidence, it is doubtful that someone else in the field of two dozen candidates will prove any more inspiring. IBK’s established rivals (such as Soumaïla Cissé, Dramane Dembélé, and Cheick Modibo Diarra) all ran against him in 2013 and lost; the remainder are outsiders or unknowns.
A recent profile in a French magazine dubs IBK Mali’s “do-nothing king,” a bright but vain figure who sleeps in late, keeps dubious company and makes fine speeches while assiduously avoiding decisive action. He is portrayed as aloof from his government’s corruption and administrative paralysis, to say nothing of the spiraling violence in the country’s north and center. Without French troops propping things up, an adviser to Mali’s constitutional court warns the author, “everything will fall apart within two weeks.” Yet IBK keeps fiddling away like Nero as Rome burns around him, and he might even garner a majority of first-round votes, thus rendering a run-off unnecessary.
3. It won’t matter anyway.
With so many grave dangers facing the Malian nation, how can I say that this election won’t matter? Well, prediction number three is a corollary of the first two. Malians are increasingly alienated from their political elite, which has stubbornly resisted reform efforts since the country’s political crisis began in 2012. The most crucial questions — like how to curb violence, reimagine the state and foster national reconciliation — aren’t up for real discussion, and the current head of state has shown zero interest in putting them on his agenda. I keep recalling the words spoken by an unnamed Burkinabè presidential adviser to a French diplomat in 2012: “Mali can collapse, and as long as Bamako remains, they will all squabble over scraps of power in Bamako.”
Mali’s present situation offers little cause for optimism, and some analysts openly question Mali’s long-term viability. “There might not be any realistic scenario under which Malians could have a state that universally delivers basic public services and organizes collective action,” write Catriona Craven-Matthews and Pierre Englebert in an article published earlier this year. “A condition of permanent receivership with internationally provided life support might be Mali’s most likely foreseeable scenario.” In 2013 I’d have dismissed this contention as unwarranted cynicism and pessimism; these days I’m not sure one can be too cynical about the postcolonial Malian state.
It would be wonderful if none of my predictions (not to mention the “permanent receivership” scenario described above) came true. In the months before Mali’s previous presidential election, dedicated civil society activists tried to make voting count for something and many of us actually believed that Malian leaders, having peered into the abyss, might act more accountably to the public and rescue the country from impending doom.
Today’s outlook is quite different. As a recent editorial in a Bamako newspaper opined,
2018 is nothing like 2013, when no candidate needed 20 artistes [pop singers], the involvement of state services like the CMDT [state cotton company] and the mobilization of all the country’s regions to fill a Bamako stadium. In short, the five-year term that’s ending has been a missed opportunity for the people; let’s hope that 2018 doesn’t produce a definitive rupture.
Then again, with the political status quo offering only public alienation, corruption, state dysfunction, and violence, a definitive rupture might not be so bad.