After a year-and-a-half of turmoil, the public inauguration of the newly elected President Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta signals a new beginning for Mali. But apart from the August elections that were widely considered to be free and fair, there is little except grandiose rhetoric to suggest that Mali has determinately moved away from the policies and governance that facilitated the disintegration of the state in the first place.
During his speech on 22 September, on the country’s 53rd anniversary, President Keïta – commonly addressed by his initials IBK – stated that: “I know that the war against corruption can’t be won right away. But if we don’t win it, we [will] have failed to draw any lessons from the crises of the regime, the state and the society that we have come through.” These words give the impression of dedication and determination by Mali’s new head of state to lead the country forwards on the way to justice and democracy, but with the governance structures and policies that lured the country into trouble still in place; the question remains whether IBK will be strong enough to save this young democracy from itself.
IBK’s public inauguration was held on 19 September in Bamako, with 17 African heads of state attending. Despite the fact that the French President Hollande was the guest of honour in the ’26 March Stadium’, most eyebrows were raised at the presence of the country’s former dictator Moussa Traoré, who was ousted from power in a military coup on 26 March 1991. The rehabilitation of Traoré after he was sentenced to death on two separate occasions during the 1990s signifies Malian culture’s capability for reconciliation that is firmly grounded in the country’s traditional mediation practices. The 22 years between Traoré’s fall and IBK’s rise has seen a number of experiments with democracy, several insurgencies led by the indignant Tuareg and Arab populations of the north, and most important of all a secretive but nonetheless all-pervasive move towards shadowy affairs by the country’s ruling elite.
After ruling the country in a dictatorial manner for almost 23 years, Moussa Traoré signed his own political death-sentence when he ordered his troops to open fire on peaceful student protests in early 1991. Mali had not escaped the demands for democracy and political freedoms that were being voiced across the continent at the beginning of the 1990s. In what has become known as the ‘Second Liberation’, students, workers and civil servants across Africa rose up, demanding an end to authoritarian rule and called for multiparty democratic elections. Traoré, having violently cracked down on protests several times during his rule, believed erroneously that violence would solve any problem. The protestors remained defiant, and despite the loss of an estimated 300 lives as a consequence of indiscriminate violence by the military, the students returned to the streets for four consecutive days until the military rejected the president and expelled him in a coup.
The fact that the leader of the coup, lieutenant colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), did not take power himself but instead presided over the national conference that drew up the new constitution and organised the country’s first democratic election, earned him the nickname of ‘Soldier of Democracy’. On 6 June, 1992, the former teacher, minister, UNESCO-consultant and left-leaning Alpha Oumar Konaré of the newly-formed ADEMA party was elected president with 69% of the vote.
Upon taking office Konaré faced two separate challenges that he dealt with in a way that would come to shape Mali’s future. Besides leading the country through the turbulent transition to democracy, he also had to deal with the Tuareg and Arab insurgents who had risen up in June 1990 to demand more autonomy for the north and proper representation of the regions’ ethnic minorities in the national government. The northern population felt neglected by the Bamako government, whom they accused of embezzling relief aid that was send to the country after severe droughts had ravaged the Sahel in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Konaré instigated a programme of decentralisation which he hoped would not only promote the legitimacy of this infant democracy among the population at large, but at the same time would pacify the indignant Tuareg and Arabs who demanded localised control over their communities.
The plan seemed to work; not only did the Tuareg-Arab insurgency whither out in 1995, but Mali also affirmed its status as young but promising African democracy in the eyes of the international community. Soon Mali became a donor-darling of the West, and an often referred to example of how development aid could actually work when properly implemented. By 1999 local elections had been held in almost 700 communes, and despite its enduring poverty, Mali seemed to have set out on a path that would bring nothing short of prosperity and development to the country.
In 2002, Mali’s image of a model democracy was confirmed when, after two terms in office, Konaré announced he would not run for president a third time, but abide by the maximum of two terms as laid down in the country’s constitution. The first round of elections was held in April that year, and despite some irregularities declared fair and transparent. Current president IBK was only 4,000 votes short of running in the second round, which was eventually won by ATT. The Soldier of Democracy had requested his retirement from the army the preceding year in order to be able to run for the presidency.
ATT’s rule was characterised by his policy of ‘consensus’ politics. Since he was not aligned to any political party, individual politicians were easily won over to join the president’s broad coalition in order to be able to tap into the large pool of resources that the executive branch of the government had at its disposal. Mali’s role as donor darling of the West had assured a steady influx of budgetary aid. This on the one hand assured the availability of funds for all kinds of development projects in the country, but on the other severely undermined the mutual reciprocity between the government and its citizens. The government was not dependent on the population for its revenue, and so the latter lacked the proper tools to call their rulers to order.
In the course of the 2000s the facade of Mali as model democracy was ingeniously maintained by ATT and the circle of corrupt beneficiaries that had gathered around him. While relying on external funds and the export of primary commodities such as gold and cotton to keep the country’s economy running, they turned to illegal activities and the black markets for revenue. The illicit practices originated at the fringes of the Malian state, but were later firmly entrenched within the political apparatus, seducing politicians and local big men with the immense amounts of wealth that circulated outside of state-regulated channels.
The sums of money that were made by kidnapping Westerners for ransom; the trafficking of cocaine and cannabis resin; and a number of other illicit activities ranging from human trafficking to the smuggling of contraband were large enough to corrupt politicians and lure them into the shadows. The illicit and extra-legal dealings of the Malian political elite who entered into agreements not only with local trafficking rings from traditionally vassal Tuareg and Arab tribes, but even with the Islamist militants of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), angered the traditionally noble tribes of the north who as a consequence took up arms once again in 2006.
Anger about the ATT administration’s neglect of the north and its lack of dedication to effectively implement and promote the decentralisation programme alienated not only the traditional Tuareg and Arab elites, but the local population and the armed forces as well. The Malian army in the north was undermanned and underequipped, and by no means able to combat the desert experts of the Tuareg and Arab smuggling bands, let alone the heavily armed jihadists of AQIM. It was this betrayal of his former comrades, who were effectively abandoned in the hostile desert that eventually cost ATT his presidential seat.
Early 2012 the Tuareg organised themselves under the umbrella-title of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and launched a fourth rebellion against the Malian state. They were joined by the AQIM and the Tuareg Islamists of Ansar Dine who had sensed the era of impunity they had so far enjoyed in the country’s far north might draw to an end. Concurrently, the US and France had increased pressure on the Malian government to deal with the terrorist threat on its territory. Malian army garrisons were overrun in a matter of days, feeding anxiety among the junior ranks that felt abandoned by ATT who had seemed more interested in nurturing his private capital than in governing the country in a proper manner. On 21 March a revolt of junior officers accidentally turned into a coup when ATT hastily fled the country after the indignant soldiers marched on the Presidential Palace to demand more funds and weaponry to combat the rebels in the north.
Elections alone do not make a democracy. This is the first and foremost lesson which ought to be drawn from Mali’s contemporary history, and one that IBK will do well to remember on a daily basis. The hastily organised presidential elections may have ensued without any major incidents, but this does not mean that democracy has returned to Mali. With the war in the north still fresh in the minds of many, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people still unable to return to their homes, there is a real danger of mistaking democracy for a universal solution that will solve all the country’s problems in a single stroke.
Mali was pressured into holding elections by the international community, represented by France and the US so that the billions of dollars in aid promised to the bereaved nation could be released. It was that exact same combination of meaningless elections and the influx of large amounts of budgetary aid that facilitated ATT and his inner circle to neglect the welfare of the citizens and be wilfully corrupt.
With billions of dollars of aid at hand, IBK faces the challenge of reconstructing Mali’s democracy without falling into the same traps that corrupted his predecessor. With the large UN peace force MINUSMA effectively fulfilling the role of the state’s security forces, the legitimacy of the presidency is further undermined in the eyes of the population. Elections do not equal democracy, aid does not equal economy, an end to the fighting does not equal peace, and promises do not equal development. Once IBK has learned these lessons, we might once again see a glimpse of hope on the horizon of this promising state, but until that time it would be wise not to start celebrating quite yet.
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