A(nother) Transition Begins in Mali

Today, former president of the national assembly and one-time (and future?) presidential candidate Dioncounda Traore will be sworn in as president of Mali’s interim civilian government. This marks the official end of a military coup that took place on March 22, although many administrative details – namely who controls what and how – remain to be worked out. Before the coup, Mali had scheduled elections for this month. One of Traore’s main tasks is to organize new elections. He has been given forty days to do so.

Traore takes the reins of a country facing many interlocking problems. In addition to the challenge of post-coup reorganization, there is the separatist war in the north, where a proliferation of rival armed groups is making the situation murkier by the day. Then there are overlapping humanitarian issues, especially refugee flows and food insecurity.

Much coverage of the transition is focusing on Traore’s biography and how he is perceived as an individual by Malians. This is appropriate and relevant, but attention to his character should not obscure the structural challenges inherent in his position. Anyone stepping into this post now would struggle to fulfill the almost impossible expectations connected with it, especially the goal of organizing elections in less than six weeks.

France24 writes that holding the elections on that timeline is “a mission most experts believe is almost impossible.” I would qualify that by saying that the 40-day window gives a choice: either the interim government holds a severely flawed election that fails to include a number of areas in the country (potentially including, given the short timeline, some rural areas in southern Mali) or the government fails to meet the deadline. Either outcome looks bad. If, alternatively, the “forty days” refers to setting a date further in the future and laying out a plan to reach that goal, there is more hope for a credible election taking place.

Analysts also doubt the chances of any swift resolution to the war in northern Mali. This does not mean that the newly declared state of “Azawad” will achieve international recognition, but it does suggest that the capital will not regain control in the medium term, allowing the fragmentation and power struggles in the north to continue.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which played a key role in forcing the coup leaders in southern Mali to return official power to civilians, meets today in Abidjan to discuss the crisis in northern Mali. There has been much talk of ECOWAS intervening militarily in northern Mali, but such an intervention would be fraught with complexities – from where would the troops come? where would they enter Mali? how long would they stay? what would their precise mission be? These complexities cast doubt on whether ECOWAS will actually intervene, though it remains within the realm of possibility.

Assuming no intervention takes place, though, or at least not within the short term, Traore’s forty days may expire with Mali’s core problems unsolved. That in turn raises serious questions about public perceptions of leaders – by the summer, Malians will have seen no less than three governments in 2012 attempt to deal with the rebels and reorganize national politics, and stumble. The fourth government, the product of the upcoming elections, could therefore enter office in an atmosphere of even greater nervousness in the south and abroad regarding the ability of anyone in the capital to control the country. The current transition, intended as a measure to restore stability, could itself become a further source of instability if it goes poorly.

11 thoughts on “A(nother) Transition Begins in Mali

  1. It may be an official end to the coup, but the transition is superficial and misleading. It will be almost impossible to hold elections within 40 days and once the timeframe is up, Sanogo is more or less back in charge. The ECOWAS accord has a very vague clause about Sanogo and ECOWAS figuring out the next step together after the 40 days are up. This is a must read from Bruce Whitehouse on the transition and the statement Sanogo made in Bambara to Malians on Monday evening: http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/captain-sanogo-stays-in-the-picture/

    • I struggled to choose the right adjective for the coup, so I went with “official” which was the safest word I could come up with. I have not seen Whitehouse’s post – I will read it – but I had always wondered whether the civilian leader would be a figurehead, a leader, a partner for the junta, or something more complex. As you point out things are not as settled as they look, in terms of Sanogo’s role. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. Hi Alex,

    You’ve raised some excellent points in this post. The way I see things, now that there has been some sort of a transition to civilian rule, this will allow ECOWAS’ mission to be more clearly defined. Now, instead of tackling both the problem of restoring democratic rule to Mali and the Tuareg rebellion, a notional response force can now focus on preparing for a crisis response/peace support operations mission to address the latter.
    The questions you raise regarding the execution of this mission are legit, and I would add a few more: To what extent can/will Mali’s armed forces cooperate with ECOWAS forces? Who will pay for the manpower, training, and equipment for this mission? What kind of support might ECOWAS need from non-African partners, such as air support or logistical support? And finally, as the seat of ECOWAS, will instability in Nigeria be an impediment to ECOWAS taking action? If I recall correctly, instability in Nigeria was one of the reasons for ECOWAS’ sluggish response to the post-election crisis in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010-11.
    Can anyone can weigh in on the Nigeria factor and what a concept of operations for a notional ECOWAS response force might look like?

    • All good questions, and I have very few insights. Nigeria is the obvious candidate for providing most of the troops but it seems to me they are unlikely to do so. But the entire situation is chronically unpredictable.

  3. Any positive news on the political front seems to be negated by events in the north. The situation is complex enough to exhaust well-resources Western powers, so the interim government and African blocs cannot underestimate the insurgency’s capabilities and resiliency. Traore’s comments regarding “total war” already express the wrong mindset to address the Tuaregs, those ethnicities trapped in the power struggle and Ansar Dine. Given Mali’s politico-socio dimensions, historical grievances, size of the terrain and Libya’s weaponization, the risks of open warfare or foreign intervention (whether ECOWAS or Western air support) outweigh the short-term rewards. Few insurgencies are short and Mali’s won’t break that mold.

    Sanogo has also publicly stated his opposition to an intervention.

    However the strategy of negotiating with the MNLA is equally unacceptable to the government and international community. They have too many reasons to stop the breakup of another African country, with al-Qaeda unfortunately rising to the top of the list. These forces are moving in opposite directions – the government and MLNA blame each other for AQIM’s presence – making a successful election doubtful. Like you say, the government only has two choices: cancel or organize the election in the southern part of the country. Actually retaking control of the north will be difficult enough. For now the biggest challenge is synchronizing policy between the interim government, ECOWAS and Western capitals, which has yet to happen. Postponing seems to be the only realistic option even though the transition back to democratic rule cannot be delayed either.

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