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Mali now has a president. Can he end Mali’s crisis?

On July 26, two days before the first round of voting in Mali’s presidential election, I published an article on Al Jazeera (English) entitled “Mali’s ill-timed and potentially inflammatory election.”)

I, along with many experts, such as the highly respected International Crisis Group (ICG), had advised that the election should be postponed, certainly by three months, perhaps longer. Our reasoning was that this relatively brief delay would allow the authorities adequate time to prepare and ensure that those citizens who wished to vote could do so. Pressing ahead with the July 28 schedule could lead to a chaotic and contested vote and a new president without the legitimacy essential for the country’s recovery. Holding elections in the state of tension and unpreparedness that existed in the country, especially the critical northern regions, in the run-up to the July 28 polling day, risked continued instability and further internal conflict.

The problem that the ICG, other NGOs and I were referring to in the run-up to the election was the “ Kidal ‘problem’”. As this ‘problem’ still exists, in spite of the better-than-anticipated elections, let me first explain what it is.

The Kidal ‘problem’

Since February, when France in particular began pressing for an early presidential election to provide some semblance of a legitimate government, Kidal has effectively been ruled, with the backing of the French military, by the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the predominantly Tuareg group who began the rebellion for an independent Azawad (the Tuareg name for northern Mali) in January 2012. This situation angered the transitional Mali government in Bamako, as it meant that a national presidential election would clearly have no credibility if Kidal remained in ‘rebel’ hands boycotting the election. The French military, however, had little choice in the matter. If they had allowed the Mali army to move into Kidal behind France’s military campaign (Operation Serval) to drive the Islamists out of Mali, as the Bamako government wanted, it would almost certainly have triggered renewed fighting between the army and the MNLA and a likely bloodbath that would have taken Mali backwards to a situation as bad as, if not worse than, that which prevailed in January 2012.

In early June the Mali army had in fact advanced as far north as Anefis, just 108 kms south west of Kidal, where, in addition to killing at least 15 MNLA fighters, it slaughtered a number of innocent civilians. Any further advance northwards would have been catastrophic. Hence the French protective blockade of Kidal.

Although the French action may have prevented a bloodbath in Kidal, it angered Bamako on two counts. Firstly, as long as the Mali army was being denied access to Kidal, the Malian government could not claim to have authority, let alone control, over the entire national territory. Secondly, as long as the MNLA retained authority over Kidal, there was no chance of the region and its peoples participating in the July election.

The Ouagadougou peace deal

However, on June 18, after several weeks of intense negotiations, a peace deal was signed in Ouagadougou between the Malian government and the MNLA and the more recently formed HCUA (Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad). These two groups represented the Tuareg rebels who had begun the rebellion in January 2012. The accord, which called for an immediate ceasefire and for government troops to return to the rebel-held northern town of Kidal, paved the way for the July 28 presidential election.

The deal comprised two basic components. One was an immediate ceasefire and the return of the Malian army into Kidal, but with a continued French military presence there to protect the MNLA. The other was that Kidal would take part in the July elections.

Electoral shortcomings

The ICG’s concerns about the election, expressed in the wake of the Ouagadougou deal about one month before polling day, were largely technical. With only a month to go, preparations for the vote were still a long way behind schedule. There was insufficient time to distribute new voter ID cards in all regions and to make the inevitable corrections involving changes of residency and  such like. Moreover, the electoral roll, based on the 2009 census, contained many errors. In addition, some 500,000 potential voters had either fled to refugee camps outside the country or been displaced within Mali.

In my original article, written a few days before the election, I suggested that the technical-administrative situation might have improved a little. Although the Interior Ministry was claiming a week or so before Election Day that 68% of the population had received their voter cards, many experts and analysts on the ground believed that figure was inflated. In the critical Kidal region, the figure was only 20%. Moreover, reports from field-workers amongst the 500,000 displaced persons indicated that few of them would get the chance to vote, even if they wished to do so. Thousands of Malian residents in France were clearly going to be deprived of their vote. In Paris, the situation was chaotic. Reports indicate that in one region only 13 out of 1,500 people had registered to vote, while in another the figure was 14 out of 800. Evidence from the ground was indicating that these ‘technical’ problems, even though marginally improved during the month run-up to polling day, could result in chaos and legal challenges.

Moreover, and as I wrote in my article, Mali does not have a good record in either inspiring its citizens to vote or in managing elections. Since Independence, voter turnout has never exceeded 40%, meaning that only some 15% of the country’s population vote. In 2002 nearly one ballot out of four was cancelled, while in 2007 some 40 per cent of voters did not receive their cards. As I wrote on July 26, “The July 28 election will not be an exception to this dismal record.” As we presently see, I was wrong.

Perhaps even more serious than these “technical-administrative” difficulties was the fact that there had been insufficient time to prepare the population for such an important election. Neither the candidates nor their positions and policies were well known to the electorate. Indeed, most of the country, including most of Bamako’s political class, was and still is largely ignorant of the true facts of what had happened to the country over the preceding 18 months. Nor do most Malians, other than the small percentage that live in the north, really grasp the country’s deeply rooted and fundamental problems that led to last year’s rebellion. They have even less of an idea about how they might be addressed. Indeed, the bulk of the population in the country’s South is still living in a world of propaganda, prejudice and ignorance when it comes to what is going on in northern Mali and what happened there during the course of the rebellion and subsequent Islamist incursion.

Until July 15, 13 days before voting, not one of the 28 presidential candidates had even visited Kidal. Indeed, it was not until July 15 that the new governor of Kidal, Colonel Adama Kamissoko, was able to set up an office in Kidal’s mairie, the governor’s official office being in the hands of the MNLA. Two days later, on July 17, one of the few candidates with some possible credibility in the region, Tiébilé Dramé, withdrew his candidacy on the grounds that the conditions for the election were not suitable.

Even at the highest levels, there was an admission that the situation was not really suitable for such an election. General Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, head of the French armed forces in Mali, admitted that “Mali is not completely stabilised”, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “even if imperfect, the results must be respected”.

There was a very real danger that if these many administrative technicalities were to lead  to the sort of chaos that some people were predicting, or if the political situation deteriorated during the period of the election, that is during the first round of voting on July 28 and then in the fortnight leading up to the second round on August 11, there would be very few reasons why people should follow Ban Ki-moon’s wishes and respect the results. Worse still, the situation could deteriorate, especially in the northern regions, with the result that the elections simply collapsed into illegitimacy, leaving the country in a far worse situation than it was before they were held.

It was for all these reasons that many experts held the view that the country needed several months of peace, stability and political education before an election could be held. But that political time and space was not granted. The needs of France, the US, EU, UN and other international agencies for a semblance of a legitimate government, able to receive international funds and the such-like, has taken precedence over the real political needs of the country’s peoples. The appointment of an elected government in Bamako was a prerequisite for the release of much needed foreign aid, most of which was suspended following the March 2012 coup.

Tension high in Kidal region

The tension in Kidal was high during the last few days before the election: it did not forebode well. Although MNLA and HCUA delegations had held positive talks in Bamako with Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré on Sunday 21 July, four people were killed and at least 10 wounded in fighting that broke out in Kidal, ostensibly between Tuareg and ‘blacks’ (although one Songhai that was killed was said to be sympathetic to the MNLA) on the night of July 18-19. The market and many shops, notably those belonging to traders from Gao, were set on fire. On the next day (July 20) six people (five election officials and an official from the local government) were kidnapped at Tessalit by unknown persons driving a vehicle flying the MNLA flag. The officials were released unharmed shortly afterwards. While the local préfet (head of the administration) accused the MNLA of the kidnapping, several senior Tuareg accused both Algeria and Malian government agents of being behind this and other such recent incidents. There were also unverified reports of Malian militia, such as the Ganda Koy, being sent into the region to ferment trouble. Indeed, there were several reports in the weeks immediately prior to the elections of Malian political leaders and the country’s armed forces inciting and even being complicit in acts of ethnically motivated violence against Tuareg populations. For its part, the Malian government had also accused the MNLA and HCUA of committing similar acts of violence against non-Tuareg ethnic groups residing in the Kidal region.

Whatever the truth behind these incidents and rumours, it was clear that tension in Kidal was high and that the town and region would be lucky if the election passed off without further incident. Any more violence in the Kidal region was not only likely to derail the Ouagadougou accord but could see the election becoming a platform for more collective and sustained outbreaks of ethnic violence across the country.

A small miracle

Fears of chaos did not materialize. The first round of the election on July 28 took place with no reported outbreaks of violence and an election turnout, at 51.5%, the highest in Mali’s post-colonial history. Of 27 candidates, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials of IBK, received 39% of the vote and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cissé 19%, meaning the two would face a run-off on August 11.

IBK was the clear front-runner in the second round. He had the support of the army, the Islamic Council and the backing of 22 of the 25 losing first round candidates. Cissé conceded and congratulated Keita for winning the Presidency on the following day, a long time before the official results were released. Keita won an overwhelming 77.6% of the vote; Cisse 22.4%. Turnout was at 45.8% and spoiled ballots, according to the Interior Minister, only 93,000 compared to 400,000 in the first round.

The outcome, especially for France and the international community, who had been pushing for a rushed election in order to unlock the $4.2 billion pledged by foreign donors, was contrary to many expectations and could be described a small miracle.

Mali’s good news even extended to the troubled north. On August 9, rival rebel factions from northern Mali, namely the secular Tuareg rebels of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) and the HCUA (High Unity Council of Azawad) and Arab militants of the MAA (Movement of Azawad Arabs), announced a reconciliation agreement following talks held in neighboring Mauritania. All three said that they have “decided to open a new page in the history of Azawad based on tolerance.” This newfound tolerance was reflected in a further meeting held in Bamako at the end of the week that also included many of the ‘black’ populations of northern Mali.

After such a success, why the caution?

After an election that has been so widely praised and welcomed internationally, why might the reader detect in these words the same touch of pessimism, or more correctly caution, as that marked my original article?

It is because the elections that have just passed, albeit a small miracle, have only taken Mali a few steps up from the base of the mountain that it still has to climb. As I see it there are still four major problem areas that still have to be addressed and overcome.

The legitimacy of the elections

The first concerns the legitimacy of the elections. At present, this is not a problem; nor is it likely to become a problem if all the other much bigger problems fall away. However, if they don’t, questions about the legitimacy of these elections are likely to come back and bite.

The problem here is not simply that the elections were rushed, but that all the ‘good news’, such as the enthusiasm for a new start and the resulting high turnout came from the south. In the problematic Kidal region, which must now be the focal area of the new government’s reconciliation efforts, the election was close to being a ‘non-event’. In Kidal, Only 35,000 voters were registered, and of those only 5,000 voted (in the first round). Moreover, of the 500,000 or so people displayed in refugee camps abroad or elsewhere in the country, most of whom come from the northern provinces, scarcely any voted.

In short, it may well be argued that this election has legitimacy in the south of the country, where the vast majority of the population live, but not necessarily in the north, which is where Mali’s fundamental problem resides.

What are IBK’s policies?

The second problem concerns IBK. Who is he? And what are his policies?  Again, this may turn out not to be a problem, but Mali’s saving feature. However, at the moment, we know virtually nothing from the elections, or his past performance in office, how IBNK is going to tackle the problem of the north. The terms of the Ouagadougou Accord provide that the new President has 60 days from the election to start peace talks.

IBK has the reputation of speaking bluntly, refusing to compromise and being a tough man. It may well be that those are the qualities that are required for his new job. For the moment, though, we simply do not know.

He has the disadvantage of belonging to Bamako’s ‘political class’, which has earned itself a deserved reputation for corruption, a preoccupation with ‘the politics of Bamako’ and, with a few exceptions, a general disinterest and lack of comprehension of the complex and fundamental problems of northern Mali that have brought the country to what many commentators have referred to as its current “failed state”.

On top of that, IBK has casthimself as the strong leader who will restore Mali’s dignity and honour. After the reputation that its rag-tag army and self-satisfied political elite have earned Mali over the last 18 months (and before), the country desperately needs such a leader. However, while that has clearly succeeded in garnishing him the vast bulk of the votes from the populous south of the country, it has also saddled him with a constituency of high expectations, which not only has little understanding of the problems of the north, but which blames the north, especially its Tuareg population, for the crisis that overwhelmed the country in 2012. IBK may find it harder to persuade his southern constituency, which has spent the last 18 months on a diet of vindictive propaganda, that a new deal is needed for the north, than in actually negotiating such a new deal with the various constituencies (Tuareg, Arabs and ‘Blacks’) of the north.

Related to his strong man image, and the support that he has from the army, as reflected in his almost immediate promotion of Amadou Sanogo, the leader of last year’s military coup, from the rank of Captain to Lieutenant General (a move described by Human Rights Watch as “outrageous”), IBK is likely to face major problems if he plans, as some commentators suspect, to try and re-establish a major presence of the Malian army, which is still wholly unfit for purpose, in the north. Such a move would almost certainly trigger renewed fighting in the north.

Also of some concern is the fact that IBK has so far ignored the warranted promotion of the most senior Tuareg in the army, Colonel-major El Hadj Ag Gamou, the one commander who remained loyal to Mali throughout the crisis. Setting him up to such ridicule from the MNLA could turn out to be an extremely foolish move.

Will the Ouagadougou deal last?

The third problem, or question, especially when we turn our attention to the Tuareg side of things, is the question of whether the Ouagadougou deal will last.

There are a number of inherent weaknesses to the Ouagadougou deal. Three stand out: the calibre of the Tuareg signatories; the views of the MNLA/Tuareg rank and file and, what I have already touched on above, the seeming intransigence and poverty of ‘progressive’ thinking amongst Bamako’s political classes.

Weaknesses in the Tuareg leadership

The Two Tuareg signatories of the Accord were Alghabass Ag Intalla, son of the traditional chief of the Iforas clan, Intalla Ag Attaher, and Bilal ag Acherif, General Secretary of the MNLA. Although the heir apparent to the leadership of the Iforas, many believe that Alghabass is not the ideal person to lead the Iforas and the other Tuareg clans in the Adrar-n-Iforas region out of their current predicament and into a more peaceful and productive future. Many of those who know him well believe that the choices he made in siding with Iyad ag Ghali and his Islamist Ansar al-Din during the course of last year’s rebellion betrayed a serious lack of judgment and a scant grasp of both geopolitics and local realpolitik. He allowed himself to become a mere pawn in Iyad’s games of power and devilish alliance. His split from Iyad and Ansar al-Din shortly after France launched Operation Serval was deemed by many as merely opportunistic.

Alghabass’ standing within his own community has been diminished considerably by his lack of good judgment over the last 18 months. Thus, although he is a signatory to the Ouagadougou Accords, it is doubtful whether he has the innate capacity to really lead his people. It is unlikely that his leadership will remain unchallenged for very long.

Views of the Tuareg rank and file

There are also questions as to how long the Tuareg rank and file will go along with a peace deal whose fundamental principle is adherence to the national unity and territorial integrity of Mali.

As recently as February, several of the MNLA’s leaders were adamant that a return to the pre-rebellion frontiers of Mali was not an option for them or many of their troops. They felt that relationships had broken down to such an extent that the old cohabitation was no longer viable. Since then, much pressure has been exercised on the MNLA along no doubt with some handsome inducements. One inducement could have been a promise by Mali, supported and ‘witnessed’ by France, to implement a road map towards some level of regional autonomy. Most of the more realistic minds in the upper echelons of Tuareg society have accepted that an independent Azawad will have to remain a dream for a long time yet. Has Mali, under pressure from France, secretly agreed to consider some form of regional autonomy? Only time will tell.

But how will the idea of Mali, un et indivisible go down with the MNLA rank and file? The answer, according to some local experts, is “not very well.” Palpable apprehension of self-serving leaders selling out has existed amongst the lower ranks of the MNLA for some while now. The best that can be hoped for is that MNLA fighters will see the Ouagadougou deal as a tactical move to buy time and breathing space, rather than a solid foundation on which future peace and happiness can be built. And perhaps the leaders, in their hearts of hearts, share the same view.

Moreover, something that many commentators have tended to overlook is the fact that the MNLA does not comprise all the Tuareg in Azawad. Far from it. Indeed, many Tuareg – at least 400 trained Tuareg soldiers – remained loyal to Colonel Ag Gamou and Mali during the course of last year’s the rebellion. IBK’s apparent failure to acknowledge that fact could prove his undoing.

The biggest risk of the deal breaking down comes not from the MNLA and the Tuareg but from Bamako. The interim government that held what semblance of power there was prior to these elections, as well as popular opinion, were far from ready to contemplate any kind of major concession to the MNLA, whose image in the south has been described by one journalist as “the devil incarnate”. There is no reason, just because an election has been held, that such views will change.

There have been signs, as with the MNLA leadership, that a certain realism has been seeping into the minds of at least a few senior politicians in Bamako, no doubt aided by a certain ‘gentle’ pressure from France, the US and EU, along with the awareness of the $4.2 billion that has so far been pledged to the region’s redevelopment and security. This may prompt some amongst Bamako’s political classes to consider a form of devolution / regional autonomy as the price that has to be paid for long-term peace.

However, the real danger, as a leading writer and expert on the region said a month or so ago, “is that such ‘progressive’ thinking remains in a minority and out of step with the seeming intransigence of mass opinion.” The youth wing of SADI (Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocracie et l’Independence) has already denounced the Ouagadougou accords as “a heinous plot to carve up Mali, aided and abetted by France.” Daniel Tessougué, chief public prosecutor of the Court of Appeal in Bamako, declared that if the politicians sign these accords, they will have to answer to history.

The fact that some of the most vociferous opposition to the Accords actually came from Presidential candidates and members of their parties, does not bode well for the future. If IBK chooses, as one local expert remarked, “to base his political strategy on the popular mood in the streets, the Accords will not be worth the paper they are written on.” If that is the case, then another rebellion, in five, ten or twenty year’s time, is almost inevitable.

The deteriorating regional security

Finally, I should just mention that Mali cannot act or be considered in isolation from the wider region of which it is a part. Although that is a subject that goes beyond the bounds of this article, it cannot be ignored. Algeria’s readiness to undermine Mali over the last four years, especially in supporting AQIM’s (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) activities in Mali and last year’s Islamist insurgency, along with the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Niger and Libya, not to mention Nigeria, and a little further afield Tunisia and Egypt, will not make the resolution of Mali’s deep-seated problems any easier.

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