Mali appears to be on the path toward some level of normalcy after over a year of national crisis sparked by a northern secessionist movement and subsequent military coup. (Read CRS’s report “Crisis in Mali” (PDF), by Alexis Arieff, for background information). Now, with support of the international community, important progress is being made; yet, there are also signs that indicate that these political steps may be insufficient to address the scope of Mali’s woes.
In late June, after months of negotiations, the Malian government reached an agreement with the tribal leaders of the Tuareg secession movement, the Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad (MNLA). In the agreement, known as the Ouagadougou Accords, the Tuareg secessionists renounced their demands of a separate state in exchange for promises of increased autonomy, which was a key MNLA demand. Under the negotiated agreement, the rebels agreed to dismantle roadblocks, cease carrying their weapons in public, and permit the presence of UN peacekeepers in exchange for a government promise to implement a road map towards regional autonomy. The government’s mediator, Tiébilé Dramé, rejoiced, stating, “the agreement re-establishes the international consensus that Malian territory is indivisible and that the state is secular.”
Two weeks ago, in a sign of political goodwill, last year’s coup instigator, Captain Amadou Sanogo, apologized publicly for his actions, a sign that “fissures are beginning to heal” in the capital, according to The Economist.
These steps paved the way for Mali to officially lift a state of emergency on Saturday that had been in place for six months. The state of emergency, instated the day after the French intervention on January 11 of this year, gave the military sweeping powers and prohibited any gatherings of 50 people or more. Saturday’s allows for election preparations to proceed. Malian Captain Modibo Naman Traore announced, “The military situation has now stabilized, lifting the state of emergency will allow the candidates in the presidential election to campaign.”
The tentative permission to allow a government presence in the north, negotiated in the Ouagadougou Accords, was an important step towards the July 28 presidential elections. Campaigning began on July 7th and 28 candidates are participating, including four former prime ministers and one woman. Many are campaigning on a similar platform that emphasizes, “rebuilding the country, restoring peace, ensuring security and development, and fighting endemic corruption.” Mali-focused blogger Bruce Whitehouse has created a Word document outlining all candidates.
The international community, led by France and the United States, has been pushing for elections as a democratic transition, and as a means “to bestow legitimacy on the new government,” according to The Economist. The International Crisis Group notes that much of the international community considers elections as a prerequisite to delivering aid. According to The Washington Post, the French see elections are a crucial step to secure their withdrawal: thereafter, they will likely withdraw all but 1,000 support troops. France’s president François Hollande has indicated he opposes any election delay. Democratic elections, for which the U.S. ambassador Mary Beth Leonard has expressed strong support, would lift restriction on U.S. military aid to Mali.
Reasons for Concern
However, experts, on-the-ground observers, and Malian officials have doubted the feasibility and wisdom of a rushed election timeline as a means to stabilize the country.
Despite the Ouagadougou Accords, the Malian Government presence is still very limited in former rebel-held areas, and the July timeline coincides with the rainy season, when farming will preoccupy most of the rural population. Additionally, the north is far from stable, and “formidable threats to security, stability and the coexistence of the country’s various communities remain,” according to the International Crisis Group’s April 2013 report “Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform.”
These challenges risk delaying the distribution of biometric identity cards, which include both identity details and a photograph and must be presented by citizens in order to vote. Mamadou Diamoutani, who directs the electoral commission, expressed doubts that the current election timeline is achievable: “The big challenge is the distribution of 6,867,443 voters’ cards – we have four weeks to do it,” he said. “That job alone is tremendously difficult, given that 800,000 people are displaced or have become refugees.”
As a result, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned, “Pressing ahead within the existing timeline could lead to a chaotic and contested vote and a new president without the legitimacy essential for the country’s recovery.” ICG’s Gilles Yabi further explained, “if there is weak voter participation and if there is a part of the country … that does not really vote, then that will not help Mali come out of this crisis and deal with its deeper issues of governance.”
In this context, one of the candidates, Tiébilé Dramé, has filed suit with Mali’s high court to postpone the election. The lawsuit makes the case that elections preparations in the northern Kidal region do not meet the standard required by the constitution, and by extension, risk disenfranchising the northern populations.
Congressional Research Services’ Mali analyst, Alexis Arieff coins this as a “policy dilemma:” donor governments see elections as a necessary step towards a credible government, but analysts warn that botched elections risk delegitimizing the nascent democratic institutions (PDF)
Risks of violence
The President of the International Crisis Group Louise Arbour in a separate op-ed warned in stark terms that “if this unfortunate situation continues to prevail, then it will be necessary to prepare security, political and logistical measures at least to limit the severity of an eventual post-electoral crisis.”
Arbour compares Mali to the contentious elections in Cote d’Ivoire last year, where hundreds died in post election violence. She calles on the Malian authorities, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French forces of Operation Serval to be prepared for electoral violence, including terrorist attacks on election day. Council of Foreign Relations’ expert John Campbell on his blog reinforces Arbour’s concerns that election violence is likely. He writes, “securing the voting process will require the UN and ECOWAS to mobilize substantial resources, and there is not much time.”
The role of Peacekeepers
In addition to peacekeeping, the mission is tasked with security sector reform, including “rebuilding the Malian security sector, disarming militias, and strengthening Mali’s state police.” This is particularly important because currently the Malian army is “fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs who are indiscriminately accused of collusion with the enemy,” according to the Crisis Group (PDF). These retributions have caused heightened ethnic tensions, and as a result, ICG emphasizes that security sector reform is important for a stable, democratic path: “a solution to the crisis will only be sustainable if it combines political and military measures.”
Unfortunately, MINUSMA risks being underfunded, according to an op-ed by Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign. In the Houston Chronicle, Yeo explained that due to the inopportune timing in terms of the U.S. appropriations budget, U.S. contributions to the MINUSMA might fall short by $300 million. He argues that MINUSMA’s mission is crucial to addressing some of the systematic problems in Mali, and to fight terrorism in a volatile region, both of these objectives are in the interest of the U.S.