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What’s At Stake in Mali’s Elections?

Mali today is in turmoil. Since the coup that brought the military strongman Amadou Haya Sanogo into the limelight, Mali has seen one of the worst crises of dispossession in the world and a worsening food crisis. The coup of 2012, which came about after the prior administration’s seemingly “soft” response to a Tuareg uprising, has led to the dispossession of half a million Tuaregs and Arabs, as well as a regime of human rights abuses. Northern Mali, which is the size of France, is already in a humanitarian emergency, according to Oxfam, due to the present food crisis caused in no small part by the coup, itself.

The record turnout of 53% in Mali’s elections, along with run-off outcome, suggests that there is much at stake in Mali’s present elections—the first since the coup.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) appears to be in a safe lead. IBK’s main competitor, Soumaïla Cissé, alleges ballot stuffing (the same allegation IBK made ten years ago), but international observers claim that the election is tranquil. Something of a Francophile playboy, IBK studied in France, and is seen as living a relatively cosmopolitan lifestyle. In truth, both candidates are seasoned elites, although they come from very different traditions and would produce different realities.

In light of the crisis in Mali, the candidates’ relationships to the coup bear striking implications. While Soumaïla Cissé has denounced the coup, and IBK has used strong language to support the African Union’s harsh stance, IBK has also pledged to take Sanogo under his wing. Rather than alienate the military powers, IBK simply states that there will be no harsh penalties for the military’s reign of terror—instead, Sanogo will be subordinated to IBK and the chain of command will proceed in an ordinary fashion. Sanogo’s brutal past was put on display last week when he awkwardly apologized to the country, making himself a kinder-friendlier political ally to IBK.

Sanogo, who speaks more-than-basic English, is known as a worldly officer in Mali, and enjoyed a 65% support rating according to polls following the coup. Having the Bambara-speaking populist force of the coup’s main player in his corner will solidify IDK’s image, even as he courts the French elite. IBK is from southern Mali, and Sanogo is from the largest city in Mali’s Niger River area—this combination appears to solidify Malian power in the South, and maintain the boundary that asserted itself over the Tuareg aggressive of 2012.

Price cuts to cotton have subverted Mali’s principle crop, so the strong hand of the military may be needed to open more land to the cultivation of desert jatropha (as biofuel), which while traditionally grown and processed by women in Mali on a grassroots level, is increasingly being genetically engineered by foreign investors for use as monocrops in arid parts of Africa (ideally, northern Mali) as a substitute. Mali is currently under review as a member country in the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa, so the G8’s contribution to monocrop cultivation and genetic engineering in the area will be profoundly impacted by the outcome of the peace process and development plan of the next president.

Cissé on the other hand has not only rejected the coup entirely, but was briefly detained by the junta’s forces. Cissé is a former IBM-France man, a businessman who has worked at le Groupe Thomson and Air Inter, and most recently worked as the president of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States. He remains, by all accounts, one of the most powerful people in West Africa, but he does not bear the title “El Hajj”—he is not seen as the candidate of Islam, as IBK is. Mali’s former Minister of Equipment, Management of Territory, Environment, and Urban Planning, Cissé appears to be the candidate of finance and business, of technocratic rather than militarist-popular order.

The Road Ahead

Perhaps the most important aspect in Mali right now is the peace process, and IBK appears to be the one who has the most appealing answer. The peace process continues on a rocky road between several groups of rebel fighters and the French forces, but 5-10 thousand rebel fighters with Ansar Dine continue to wage “asymmetrical war” throughout the region. Most recently, Nigeria has removed its troops from Mali to fight a resurgent Islamic struggle in northeast Nigeria. Incredibly, while holding the city of Kidal in its grasp, the secular Tuareg rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad (NMLA), have proven stalwart allies with the state in the fight against the Salafist forces.

Yet as the French pull back on combatting the Tuareg in the stronghold of Kidal, they risk unpopularity—the first anti-French demonstrations in Mali after the coup were held recently around the issue of a Tuareg-friendly compromise. Thus the Tuareg question hovers over the possibility of regional self-determination under some kind of federal system of governance on one hand, and an iron-fisted, nationalist approach on the other. A vast percentage of the Tuareg population of Mali currently lives in exile, and the country remains vulnerable—alienating the NMLA could have serious consequences.

The run-off will be decided on the basis of who, IBK or Cissé, will deal with this peace process in a way that Malians approve of. But whether the army will be sent into the desert to once again extend itself into war with a historically difficult adversary, or whether a homogenous Malian nationalism will be split like a diamond to ensure a peaceable, federated resolution with the region’s inheritors is not the question that may be decided at the polls on August 11. Neither path is likely to be an easy one or a pure one; the first risks implosion from outside pressure and the latter, implosion from internal protest. There is no sign that any third way is possible, either.

As it appears that IBK will run away with the election in the final round, France hopes that this charming, charismatic populist figure will help maintain ECOWAS under French hegemony, keeping Mali’s uranium out of the hands of the BRICS or Saudis while possibly increasing the amount of land deals in the North and using the military’s iron fist to assure investor protections. This will mean increased patrols, likely coming from the US’s new drone base in Niger over Nigeria and Mali to monitor insurgencies, and long-standing conflicts. Whatever the outcome, peace may be a long time in coming, with food security even further off.

Sasha Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, the coordinator of the Earth First! Journal—Cascadia Field Office, and an activist with Bark. His recent writings can be found in continent., The Singapore Review of Books, and Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Resistance Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). This article is also being published at newswire.earthfirstjournal.org.

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