Open Thread for Reflections on Mali’s Elections

Yesterday, Mali held the first round of its presidential elections. I have not yet seen results, and I know that many analysts expect the contest to go to a second round on August 11.

I am most interested in two issues connected to the vote. First, the issue of refugees: see here and here on refugees and the elections, and here on the separate (but no less important) trend of refugees beginning to return to Mali. Second, the issue of Kidal, a northern Malian city whose administrative status was a point of contention during the pre-electoral period between the Malian government and Tuareg-led separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA).

What is your view of yesterday’s vote? Are you hearing any results? What from the coverage has struck you?

Guest Post: Some Observations on the Electoral Campaign in Mali

[I am delighted to share today's guest post, which comes from Dr. Leonardo A. Villalón of the University of Florida. As his biography attests, he has been a leading expert on the Sahel for over twenty years. He has also been a generous mentor to other scholars, including me. He writes from Mali to share some impressions and findings regarding the upcoming elections. As always, readers' comments and reactions are welcome. - Alex] 

The comments below were written on 20 July during a visit to Bamako in the midst of the presidential electoral campaign. The observations are impressionistic, based on conversations and interviews with a range of actors, but necessarily limited primarily to people from what is known locally as “la classe politique.” No doubt sentiments on the street and in the popular neighborhoods are somewhat different.

Bamako is plastered with campaign posters and billboards. Even the huge iconic hippopotamus statue at a major roundabout in the center of town is covered in posters for competing candidates. With 27 contenders—one dropped out a couple of days ago—in the first round of presidential elections scheduled for Sunday 28 July, the entire city seems to be caught up in the elections, on the surface at least.

As many analysts have reported, there is no shortage of reasons to worry about the process, and lots of well-founded trepidation about what could go wrong in the aftermath of these elections. But at the same time it is very clear that many Malians have a real sense of hope that the nightmare that began with the coup of 22 March 2012, and led to the occupation of the country’s northern half, first by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and then by the assorted jihadist groups who displaced them, just might be drawing to an end. The French intervention in January 2013, enthusiastically welcomed at the time, has lost much of its luster, particularly over France’s handling of the MNLA in the remote northern region of Kidal. But complaints are muted and there is still a general sense that the French intervention is what opened the door to a way out of what many describe as the “black hole” into which the country had fallen.

Most importantly, the intervention seems to have marginalized the military actors who led the coup. Following a ceremony last month to mark a “reconciliation” between two competing branches of the military, the coup leader, Amadou Haya Sanogo, formally asked the country’s forgiveness for what he had launched. His gesture is read cynically—and almost certainly correctly—as being motivated by fear of what might await him after the transition, given that he has clearly lost control or even any real influence.

The candidates include three former prime ministers, a number of other well-known figures from Malian politics, and some newcomers, including one woman. Many local analysts insist the election is wide open, but if any candidate seems to many to be the front-runner it is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK. His campaign plays on his image as a strong and decisive leader, forged in his time as prime minister in the 1990s, and portrays him as the one man capable of reestablishing order and authority. Many think it likely that he will be among the top two in the first round, who will then go to a runoff two weeks later, on 11 August. His weakness, however, is that his popularity is not matched by the degree of party organization demonstrated by some of the others.

It is still very much an open question as to which other candidates could make it to the runoff. Speculation turns around several, including Soumaïla Cissé (a former minister and president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union—UEMOA); Modibo Sidibé (a former prime minister), Dramane Dembélé (candidate of the one-time dominant ADEMA party), or perhaps Cheick Modibo Diarra (former head of Microsoft Africa, who served for a time as prime minister in the interim government). In any case, it seems unlikely that with such a large field anyone could win outright in the first round, and there thus seems certain to be an extremely intense period of political maneuvering and horse-trading to secure endorsements by the losing candidates in the two weeks between the first and second rounds. And if IBK is not in the top two, some worry about whether his followers—or even IBK himself—will accept the results.

The scheduled date for the elections has been controversial, and in the lead-up many suggested that the timing would be impossible. Indeed, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced shortly before the opening of the campaign that it would be extremely difficult to stick to the date. The International Crisis Group and other observers also called for a postponement. But the “international community”—code words for the French, with American backing, and UN blessing—made it clear that there would be no going back on the date.  The issue is now moot. As one African Union expert working with the CENI puts it: “We don’t talk about that anymore.” The campaign is on and elections will be held, and importantly it will be with seemingly very wide popular support. In conversations with Malians from the political class, people acknowledge the difficulties and imperfections in organization, but no one has doubts about the fact that they will happen on the scheduled date. The dominant sentiment is that there is an urgent need to move forward to get out of the current situation, that elections thus need to happen as soon as possible, and that any delay would only make matters worse. The withdrawal of one presidential candidate on 17 July, over what he claimed was inadequate preparation, certainly reflects some anxiety, but both the other candidates and the broader public have shrugged their shoulders, and gone on with the campaign.

There is strong sentiment among Malians that they are an occupied country. “We are under tutelage” (sous tutelle) says the president of the NGO Network to Support the Electoral Process in Mali (APEM); indeed he goes further, “we are once again colonized.” In addition to the UN patrols that occasionally circulate in the city, all the major hotels in the city are full to capacity with technical assistants and specialists of all sorts who have come to supervise and observe the transition. The large Nord-Sud hotel has been rented in its entirety for the next two years by the French military, which has taken over managing it. And the towering Hotel de l’Amitié has been completely booked by the United Nations. The hint of resentment among Malian actors about the large number of outside experts adds to the sense of urgency to carry out the elections, and to restore a constitutionally elected government.

The material preparation for the elections has also been a major source of concern. Indeed, in the buildup to the elections that were to have been held in 2012, before the coup intervened, the issue of the electoral lists and voter identification remained highly problematic and unresolved. With the goal of moving forward with elections now, an amendment to the electoral code on 21 May 2013 prescribed a revised system that has been widely accepted. Based on a general census of the population that had been carried out in 2009 for the purpose of establishing a biometric civil registry (including photos and fingerprints), national identity cards have been produced, and will serve as voting cards. This census was significantly better than any previous effort in Mali to identify voters.

One unsolvable problem is that, given the timing of the census, the list does not include people who turned 18—the legal voting age—this year. But no one seems particularly concerned about that fact. The resulting “Cartes NINA” (for Numéro d’Identité National) are being distributed across the country, and while there is variation in some regions, the general trend suggests very broad popular mobilization to collect the cards; in some areas the figure is already as high as 80%. In Bamako, kids circulate among the traffic selling plastic badge-holders like those used for nametags at conferences, which they hawk as “Carte NINA protectors.” Some people are wearing them. Voters will be allowed to retrieve their cards until the eve of election day. One lingering concern is that the cards do not indicate the actual voting place for each voter, but the electoral administration insists lists will be published in advance, and has additionally instituted innovative systems for find a polling site via free text messaging. There is good reason to think that we might actually witness the highest voting turnout in Mali’s history with this election. Historically turnout has been extremely low, even by regional standards.

The major source of concern which all acknowledge is what will happen in the remote northeastern region of Kidal, the MNLA stronghold and an area where the French presence has complicated the return of the state, and hence the organization of the elections. There are conflicting reports about the extent to which the logistics are in place for the elections to go forward. And there are many fears that there will be violent efforts to disrupt the process on election day. It is true, as people quickly point out, that Kidal represents a very small portion of the electorate, and it is in addition the region where turnout has always been the lowest. Whatever happens in the region on election day will thus not determine the outcome of the elections—results will be declared regardless of what happens in Kidal—but the perception of whether the region took part in the process will very much shape the enormity of the task facing the new president in trying to rebuild national unity. The political stakes in the region are thus very high, and there is a huge symbolic importance to whether the elections go smoothly there. That is very hard to predict. While TV coverage of the campaign in the past few days showed Tuareg youth greeting a candidate with cries of “Mali! Mali!”, violent clashes in Kidal between Tuareg and other residents allegedly left one person dead, and the situation is clearly tense. News sources on 20 July announced that five election workers had been detained in Tessalit, in the far north, in an apparent effort to disrupt the process.

The other major issue at stake in this election, and one that provokes unease and some evident discomfort among many, is the issue of religion. Mali is a deeply religious country, some 95% Muslim. Over the twenty years of Mali’s democratic experimentation the role of religion in the public sphere of an officially secular state had been a source of controversy and some tension. The massive mobilization of religious forces in opposition to a proposed family law in 2009, forcing the president to back down, was widely read as an indication of the rising power of religious actors. In this context the intrusion of religious actors into the electoral campaign has raised significant worries. While this is not really unprecedented, it certainly has never reached the scale it seems to have attained in this campaign.

At the same time, the religious sphere itself seems to be divided on both the extent and the role it should play in the process. A network of Muslim associations calling itself “SABATI 2012” [for more on SABATI 2012 see here - Alex] has organized to promote candidates reflecting Muslim values in the campaign, and has declared that it will make an official endorsement of a candidate. With the support of the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Mahmoud Dicko (often described as a “Wahhabi”) and his somewhat unlikely alliance with the Sufi shaykh of Nioro du Sahel, the group met recently to discuss an endorsement. It is widely understood that the preferred candidate of many in the Muslim religious community is IBK, but no official endorsement has yet been made. And the subsequent discussions of an endorsement in mosques produced tensions, and even some violence. There is no common Islamic front, therefore, and the religious figure in the country with the broadest popular following, Shaykh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has clearly indicated he will not endorse any candidate. Various candidates, nevertheless, have begun to make religious appeals in their campaign speeches. And Soumaïla Cissé’s campaign has put up a large billboard near the Islamic Cultural Center in Bamako announcing his support for promoting “Islamic finance.” Many factors will determine whether the electoral process will translate into greater religious influence in post-transition politics in Mali, but the door is certainly open to that possibility.

On Saturday 20 July 2013 the APEM Network held a press conference to present and discuss the report (French) of the “pre-electoral observation” mission they had carried out, in all regions of the country, from 1 June to 20 July. The report focused on five issues: 1. The elaboration of the electoral lists; 2. The distribution of the NINA cards; 3. The filing and validation of candidacies; 4. The conduct of the electoral campaign at mid-point; and, 5. The logistics of getting the electoral materials in place.  In each area the report discussed the state of affairs, and in each noted some number of problems or issues, mostly minor. The overall conclusion of the report is that the elections are on schedule to take place as planned, across the country. Imperfections are there, the APEM officers noted in their comments, but they are limited, and they are not such as to favor one candidate over another. The press conference ended with the projection of some photos of one persistent flaw APEM had noticed: Bamako is plastered with campaign posters, many of them placed illegally.

In the soul-searching mood that characterizes many discussions with Malian intellectuals about the country’s current state, one keen observer told me: “These elections are only a bandage on an open wound. They cannot themselves heal the problems in Mali, but they may at least allow some protection from further infections while the wound heals.” But the wound is deep, and it may take a long time and much more substantial remedies before it can really heal.

Mali’s Elections: SABATI 2012 and Muslim Engagement

For those interested in how Muslim identities figure in the lead-up to Mali’s July 28 presidential elections, the organization SABATI 2012 presents an important case. According to this article (French), SABATI, headed by a man named Moussa Boubacar Bah, is backed by two major Malian Muslim leaders: Imam Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and Chérif Bouillé of the Hamawiyya Sufi order.

SABATI is intervening in two important ways in the campaign: it has released a document outlining its policy recommendations to the new government, and it is preparing to endorse a candidate.

SABATI’s memorandum requests that the new government make policy changes in several sectors, among them “justice, the crisis of the north, security, health, religious, our ethical and moral values, education, agriculture, sanitation, and governance.” In the religious domain, SABATI calls for greater funding of religious institutions, the establishment of new centers for training religious professionals, the incorporation of Qur’anic schools into the state education system, and the creation of a national agency for Islamic schools. It is noteworthy both that SABATI makes relatively specific requests regarding government action on religion and that SABATI is deeply concerned with ostensibly non-religious sectors like agriculture (though, some might argue, everything is a religious matter).

Regarding SABATI’s endorsement, several articles (French) suggest that Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta (Wikipedia page here) is the preferred candidate of the organization and its purported backers. From what I can tell, however, the official endorsement has yet to appear.

For religious leaders, endorsing candidates carries rewards but also risks. Successfully mobilizing portions of the electorate (SABATI promises to mobilize more than 15% in Mali [French]) can oblige elected politicians to heed religious leaders’ demands, and can moreover bind followers and leaders more tightly together. On the other hand, giving an endorsement but failing to mobilize followers can make religious leaders appear impotent and ridiculous in the eyes of both politicians and their own followers. In Senegal, major Sufi leaders largely discontinued the practice of giving explicit endorsements after the late 1980s and early 1990s, when youthful disciples’ voting and rioting made clear that they were rejecting their shaykhs’ commands.

In Mali, some religious leaders, notably Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara (French), have stated that they will not give specific voting instructions to their followers; indeed, though SABATI has sometimes claimed to have Haidara’s support, press accounts suggest that Haidara’s followers have largely held themselves apart from the organization and its plans. We will see how SABATI and its backers manage the endorsement process, and how it affects their political and religious reputations.

On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?

Mali: France, Kidal, and the MNLA

The story I want to tell here can be told with headlines:

  • AFP, May 18: “France Accused of Favouring Mali’s Tuareg Rebels.”
  • Reuters, May 19: “After Crushing Mali Islamists, France Pushes Deal with Tuaregs.”
  • USA Today, May 20: “French Troops Depart Mali, Leaving Joy, Worries.”

These articles leave the reader with the impression that France is continuing to intervene in Malian politics even as it reduces its military presence there, and that its political stances are proving unpopular.

France and other outside powers have flirted heavily with the idea that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a movement that advocated northern Malian separatism during the early phase of last year’s rebellion, is a politically acceptable negotiating partner, and one that deserves some political stake in post-conflict northern Mali. Some Western policymakers find this belief alluring, I suspect, because it helps them categorize northern Malians into “good” and “bad” rebels and offers hope of putting various genies back into various bottles. If the MNLA speaks for northern Malians, the argument runs, reaching an agreement with it could resolve the conflict.

My own opinion is that the MNLA’s brutality and loss of political control in early 2012 refutes the notion that they can speak for northern Mali – they only speak for part of it. The recent withdrawal from the MNLA of one of its key leaders provides further evidence that the MNLA only speaks for some.

Outsiders would be wise to question the reductionist view that positions the MNLA as the most significant political force in northern Mali. Outsiders’ attempts to apply such a view could cause backlash on the ground. As the city of Kidal, which the MNLA now helps control, becomes a symbol in struggles over the future identity of Mali, France’s positions appear out of step with the views of many Malians. The Reuters article mentioned above explains:

A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.

Mali’s army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.

[...]

Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.

France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs’ long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.

Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.

More on the talks here, and a short case study of Arab-Tuareg clashes here.

As of Wednesday (French), the MNLA had expressed willingness to let Kidal participate in presidential elections in July, but continued unwillingness to allow the Malian army to enter the city. The longer the political and military standoff over Kidal continues, the more frustrated other parts of the country could become – RFI (French) writes that Kidal has become “a national obsession in Mali,” and that its name “is on all the lips in Bamako.” Historical memories may contribute to this “obsession”: Kidal was created in 1991 (out of the Gao region) with the hopes of helping resolve the Tuareg-led rebellion of that time. Many non-Tuareg Malians reportedly blame the Tuareg for Mali’s crisis and view the Tuareg as angling for a greater share of government largesse than they deserve. As anger grows over the situation in Kidal, Malians who hold such views may become outraged by outsiders’ attempts to elevate the MNLA as the north’s premier political force.

Bombings in Northern Niger

Two bombings occurred this morning in northern Niger, one at a military barracks in Agadez (map) and another in Arlit (map), at a uranium mine operated by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French firm Areva. At least nineteen casualties (and fifty wounded) have been reported so far, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has claimed responsibility (French). MUJWA was a key member of the Islamist coalition that controlled much of northern Mali from summer 2012 to January 2013. A MUJWA member also reportedly holds four soldiers hostage.

AFP quotes a MUJWA spokesman on their motivations:

“Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger,” MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told AFP.
“We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against sharia (Islamic law).”

The BBC adds that the latter statement is “thought to be a reference to French and Nigerien involvement in combating Islamists in neighbouring Mali.”

More from the BBC’s Thomas Fessy:

There is little doubt that these two attacks are evidence of a spill-over from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. However, although Niger shares a border with Mali, the attackers are more likely to have come through southern Libya, given the location of their targets in the country’s far north. This could confirm suspicions that fighters linked to al-Qaeda had been on the move in the area.

But this would also be the bloodiest attack carried out since the French started their military campaign in Mali this year…Militants have just shown how determined they are to strike across the region.

The attacks in Niger will heighten concerns about security throughout the Sahel, including the security of multinational companies’ facilities. The attacks in Niger also highlight the unpredictability that the crisis in Mali and the French/African intervention have generated; it merits reflection that the intervention aimed in part to prevent exactly these kind of events. The governments of the region are struggling to deal with the fallout of the crisis and the intervention, and I think it is likely that there will be more bombings in the Sahel in the coming months.

RFI (French) and Jeune Afrique (French) are providing live updates on the situation in Niger.

Guest Post: “Fixing Mali: Accountability a Prerequisite”

(Today’s guest post comes from Jamie Pleydell-Bouverie, an MA Candidate [graduating this week!] at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The post addresses challenges of accountability in crisis-torn Mali. The author’s views are not identical to mine; I disagree with the idea of ruling out amnesty for participants in the conflict, for example. But I find his arguments thought-provoking and the issue is a timely one. Please share any thoughts in the comments section. – Alex)

As Mali gears up for elections in July amidst the phased French withdrawal that is currently underway, the next three months seem to be the overriding focus of policymakers, commentators and stakeholders. This is understandable. Mali is at a crucial juncture as it tries to consolidate French military success, provide security, re-establish constitutional order and deal with a plethora of humanitarian issues. But any sustainable fix to Mali’s multifarious crisis will have to address its root causes.

Of these, one of the most important – yet sometimes overlooked – is Mali’s longstanding history of impunity. In the North, painful memories of unpunished crimes from previous conflicts have shaped the collective consciousness of people who feel ostracized and neglected by the central government. Mali is a prime example of the power that memories of unpunished crimes have to resurface and rekindle conflict. Stories of massacres that were never investigated in the 1963 rebellion and crimes that were never redressed in the 1990s rebellion have been passed down to a new generation of fighters (see ICG’s 2012 report Avoiding Escalation). Cyclical conflict will likely continue in Mali if the cycle of impunity is not broken. It is crucial, therefore, that there is a meaningful effort to investigate instances of abuse that have occurred and hold perpetrators accountable.

Since the onset of Mali’s crisis in October 2011, serious abuses have been committed by Islamist groups (AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine), the MNLA, and Malian forces. Abuses by Islamist groups include beatings, floggings and arbitrary detentions against those engaged in behaviour deemed to be “haram” or forbidden. Limb amputations and executions have been meted out as punishment, unique cultural and religious heritage has been systematically destroyed, and the Islamists’ use of child soldiers has been prolific. The summary execution of an estimated 70 Malian soldiers in the town of Aguelhoc – the “single most serious crime of this conflict” according to Human Rights Watch – was reportedly carried out by Islamists, possibly members of AQIM. Extensive abuses by the MNLA and Arab militias have also been documented, including pillaging, sexual abuse and the use of child soldiers.

Countless abuses by the Malian army have been recorded as well. Following Captain Sanogo’s coup on March 22 2012, effective command and control of the security services seriously deteriorated. Numerous instances of torture and forced disappearances were documented, particularly against “red beret” soldiers who were allegedly implicated in the counter-coup attempt on April 30. The execution of 16 Islamic preachers on their way to a religious conference in Bamako on September 8 is amongst the more shocking abuses carried out by the military. More recently, retaliatory violence by government troops in the north has surged.

Bringing Mali’s well-established culture of impunity to a close will be essential for the attainment of sustainable peace. It is particularly important that accountability applies to members of the security forces, including senior figures such as Captain Sanogo, who has been implicated by some NGOs in torture and enforced disappearances. There are some encouraging signs. Six soldiers were recently recalled to Bamako from Timbuktu following the disappearance of several civilians. These soldiers are due to stand before a Military Tribunal, which will be a first in Mali’s history. But if Mali is to break its cycle of impunity, this cannot remain an exception to the rule. Accountability must become the rule.

Any temptation to consider offering an amnesty for serious crimes in the name of reconciliation must be avoided. Reconciliation and justice are not antithetical concepts: Justice is a path to reconciliation. Indeed, the effective work of Mali’s National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission – led by Mali’s former Minister of Defence, Mohamed Salia Sokona – will depend on the administration of even-handed justice. This, in turn, will require strengthening Mali’s key institutions – such as the judiciary, the police and army – which have long failed to be effective guarantors of the rule of law. Mali is in desperate need of institutions that can provide security and redress, which makes the task of dismantling Mali’s architecture of impunity more a project of construction than destruction.

The need for thinking and acting in multiple time horizons is essential. When countries are in crisis, policymaking is too often overtaken by events, meaning that longer term goals get ignored or put on hold. This must not happen in Mali. If those factors that gave rise to Mali’s crisis – including its deep-seated culture of impunity – are not addressed, then Mali will still be a sad example of cyclical conflict in years to come.

Somalia, Mali, and the Weakness of Analogical Thinking

NPR, in March, wrote the headline, “Western Money, African Boots: A Formula For Africa’s Conflicts.” Somalia’s “success,” the piece suggested, could be replicated in places like Mali. Bloomberg, over the weekend, made the same argument: “To Stabilize Mali, Look to Somalia’s Lessons.” From the piece:

Mali is like Somalia in that, in both places, Muslim extremists took advantage of political turmoil to seize large areas of the country. In each case, African countries agreed to send soldiers to neutralize the threat — a way around Western reluctance to commit troops to far-off places, and a local solution more likely to be acceptable to African populations. Yet the forces largely floundered when left to their own resources.

Other examples of this kind of thinking are legion.

I’ve criticized the Mali-Somalia analogy, as well as the idea of Somalia as a “success story,” here. I will add this: beyond whatever merits the analogy may have, the way in which people make it, their seeming lack of awareness or concern or curiosity about the limits of the analogy, bothers me. Does the presence of “Muslim extremists,” “political turmoil,” “African forces,” and “Western funds” establish a fundamental similarity between two places? Are the separatist movements of Mali essentially similar to those of Somalia? Are the histories of these two countries, particularly over the last twenty years, alike? Is the situation in Bamako now comparable to the situation in Mogadishu? The answer to all these questions, in my view, is no.

I do not see what is to be gained, from a policy perspective, by eliding the differences between Mali and Somalia. Yes, there are Western-funded African forces in both places. But each country seeks, and needs, political solutions that respond to its own particular histories and dynamics (Peter Tinti’s writing on Mali is relevant here). If Somalia’s “model” offers Mali anything, it is grounds for caution:

  1. The length of time it took to reconquer territory
  2. The fragility of political progress
  3. The persistence of problematic center-provincial relations (see here for a grim take on struggles over Somalia’s Jubaland)
  4. Problems with payment and funding 

Etc.

Mali is preparing for elections that will likely prove highly problematic. Mali faces a massive crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons. Mali confronts a lingering guerrilla conflict in the north. Mali is struggling to determine who will rule reconquered northern territories, and what place the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad will have in northern Mali’s future (see Reuters on Kidal). Amid these challenges, more attention to the specificity of Mali’s problems would bring greater benefit than than more casually drawn analogies between Mali and Somalia.