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Northern Mali has been held since June by radical Islamist groups that have taken the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, nearly two-thirds of the country. They offer money and help to the poorest who haven’t fled and they find it easy to recruit unemployed youths with no prospects. In Gao, they supply fuel and food at cost price, equip health care centres, and pay the care workers. A member of parliament from the north said that when he tried to contact Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of the group Ançar Dine, he was told: “I’ll meet you when you’ve resigned from your post. Members of parliament have no legitimacy under God’s law.” The groups commit their violence in God’s name.
So is sharia law now likely to spread? Mali is two and a half times the size of France, and the north seems very distant from the “useful” part of the country, where 90% of the population live. In Bamako, the traditional tolerance is still evident. Most people kept the Ramadan fast (which ended in mid-August), but Mali-style, with no public constraints on personal piety: restaurants were open, alcohol was available and some smoked in the streets.
Employment is the main worry as the economy had been badly damaged by the global financial crisis, and many companies, especially in the services sector, have closed or laid off staff temporarily. Hotels and restaurants were the first to be hit, but now most sectors of the economy are barely ticking over. Some of the big employers, such as Air Mali, are cutting jobs. Only the mining sector seems to have been spared, with the government still paying wages.
An Extraordinary Coup
Mali — until recently, a model of democracy — has also collapsed politically. The popularity of the military coup of 22 March 2012 (condemned internationally) was a surprise. Its timing was extraordinary — just weeks before an open presidential election — and there was some looting, yet the soldiers from the Kati military base led by Captain Amadou Sanogo benefited from people’s exasperation with military setbacks against the Tuareg rebellion in the north. They also liked what they heard when the coup leaders spoke of the corruption of the elite and “empty shell democracy”. Political leaders soon switched allegiance including those who had condemned the coup by joining the United Front for the Protection of the Republic and Democracy, the front du refus or refusal front (1).
Oumar Mariko, secretary general of the African Solidarity Party for Democracy and Independence (SADI), and a protagonist in the 1991 revolution that overthrew General Moussa Traoré’s single party regime, said: “This coup freed us from a mirage and put the problem — the Malian people’s quest for democracy — back in context” (2). The Malian author Aminata Dramane Traoré added: “Sanogo is not the problem, Sanogo is a symptom” (3). That has been echoed in France, which is now reviewing 20 years of “waste”, having previously praised the Malian model.
Critics may be hasty in dismissing the achievements of the Third Republic, established in 1991. There is freedom of expression, which has allowed journalists to criticise the political situation; civil society has opened up and created many organisations currently playing a role in the mobilisation to help the north; and there is a dynamic cultural scene that has made Bamako an African hub, with a photo festival, an international book fair, and Malian musicians who have conquered the international scene. In economic terms, Mali’s young population has favoured the emergence of a new generation of company directors and a flourishing tourist industry, and attracted foreign investment.
In 1992 General Amadou Toumani Touré (known as ATT) told Alpha Oumar Konaré, the archaeologist who was elected president in the first free elections in Mali’s history: “You have to be mad to lead this country.” The president then faced a rebellion in the north, a wave of corporate claims, agitation from students (boosted by their participation in the 1991 political transition) and inter-party tensions at each election. The main undertaking of Konaré’s two terms was decentralisation, which failed for lack of resources but remains an attractive goal.
When Touré was elected president in 2002, he achieved a real political détente. He was very popular because of his role in overthrowing the Traoré regime in 1991: he led the military coup and then returned power to civilian rule. Later, as head of state, he wanted to be a unifier but instead devised a method of governing that fragmented the political scene. With no party to support him, he sought consensus and gathered representatives of all political affiliations around him. Gradually this paralysed any potential for transferring political power between parties, as well as the parties’ capacity to make proposals or conduct a public debate. Mali was full of building projects and infrastructure (roads, drainage, energy) improved, but corruption grew and mediocre managers were appointed to the highest functions. Many Malians began to perceive consensus as a way of dividing the spoils in a democracy that was “tarred over”, in the words of the former democracy activist turned minister, Mamadou Lamine Traoré (who died in 2007).
Tensions in the North
The same method of government was extended to the north, where tensions were rekindled by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which became Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2006. They were exacerbated by the consequences of the uprising in Libya, which freed the flow of arms to the Sahel (4). That was a failure for Touré, who had restored peace in the north by negotiating the Mali National Pact of 11 April 1992 with the rebels (5). Attached to conciliation and discussion at the risk of appearing to collude, he thought he could make Malian territory a sanctuary against the advance of the Algerian fighters who have been operating in the Sahel since 2003. That year he acted as mediator, negotiating the return of 32 western hostages kidnapped in Algeria. In this role he was encouraged by European powers; France later pressed him to secure the return of a hostage, Pierre Calmatte, in 2010. But by then the pact with AQIM no longer functioned and there were further kidnappings in Mali. Algeria and France then accused Touré of being too lax.
Though Touré was an experienced soldier, he was responsible for the disorganisation of the army and has now been disowned. According to a former defence minister, “Bad decisions were made, some officers were pushed aside or by-passed, there were inexplicable appointments of generals, and problems with supplies and logistics that weren’t solved.” Many Malian leaders believed that the integration of the Tuareg into the army, in line with the pact, was genuine, so nobody in Bamako really understood the resurgence of the northern rebellion in 2006.
Despite the talk, implementation of the pact’s decisions was slow, especially administrative independence and economic development. “Mistakes were made,” admitted Souleymane Drabo, director of the state-owned paper L’Essor. “Priority should have been given to opening up the north when all those new roads were being planned. But it is wrong to say that ATT, and Konaré before him, did nothing in the north. Anyone who knows Kidal well will tell you that the place has been transformed. A foreigner may see the same poverty, but we know the difference. Mali public opinion never really accepted that so much money could be poured into the northern regions, while the rest of the country remained under-equipped. They say the Kayes region [in the southwest] has changed too — thanks not to the government but to the resources of emigrant workers.”
Under-governed and undermined by the corruption that is also crippling local authorities, the Malian state was unable to implement Konaré’s vision of incorporating the northern issue into a vast decentralisation movement. Fifty years after independence “we are still battling with the national question,” said Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, Touré’s last minister of foreign affairs: there is a real fear that the south will abandon the north to its fate.
There is another threat to democracy. While the fathers of independence valued the great empires of Malian history (6) as examples of ethnic cohabitation, the present trend is to fall back on ethnic identity. A historian, who did not want to be named as the issue has become highly sensitive, said: “Malians increasingly consider themselves to be Bambara [the majority ethnic group whose language has become the lingua franca], and view relations between ethnic groups as the ties of dependence that existed under the kings of Ségou in the 17th and 18th centuries.” The Malinké heritage and the “noble” history of the Mandingo empire established in the 13th century by Sundiata Keita is over-played, although it is more myth than history.
If you add surly nationalism in response to foreign diplomatic intervention since 22 March to the threat of radical Islamism and a revisionist view of democracy, Mali’s Third Republic seems threatened to its foundations.
Translated by Krystyna Horko
Jacques Delcroze is a journalist.
(1) The FDR comprises 50 parties and 100 organisations opposed to the putsch.
(2) Le Nouveau Courrier, Bamako, 22 June 2012.
(3) “Afrique presse”, TV5, 26 May 2012.
(5) The National Pact between the Malian government and the Azawad Unified Movements and Fronts (MFUA), which established northern Mali’s specific status.
(6) These were the Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires, which dominated the Sahel and Western Africa from the 9th to the 16th century.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.