Elections in Mali: A Step Toward Peace?

By Sasha Wright
Aug 20, 2013

Last week Mali held its first democratic election since the military coup over a year ago, electing career politician Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, widely known as “IBK.”  Elections were scheduled on a short timeline despite many critiques that the country wasn't logistically ready. It was just this July that the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the interim Malian government came to a temporary peace accord, paving the way for these elections, and a mere eight months after France’s military intervention in the country.

While 27 candidates entered the race, members of Mali’s political establishment dominated the elections, which were hailed as a success by the media, election observers, and France itself. The primary contenders IBK and Soumaila Cissé who made it to the second round of voting have long careers in Malian politics, having served in the same previous administrations and even competing against each other in previous electoral campaigns. French president Francois Hollande summed up his government's satisfaction with IBK’s election and his country’s intervention, calling both “a success for peace and democracy.”

IBK was known as one of France's favorites in the race, and has a tight relationship with many high-level French politicians. He has a reputation for firmness for his role in suppressing union strikes and student protests in the 1990s in service of implementing a neo-liberal economic agenda. While condemning the coup, in the end he maintained the relationships and rhetoric to be the favored candidate of the army—typical of his ability to make pragmatic and opportunistic choices.

IBK comes to office after more than a year of turmoil: first an attempted secession led by the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the north of the country, then the rise to power of Islamic groups in northern cities, a military coup, and finally French intervention to reunite the country. While this uncontested election brings some short-term stability, what will it mean for building lasting peace and democracy in Mali?

North and South

Malians met the elections with mixed feelings. In the south Malians turned out to vote in record numbers, with a total turnout of over 50 percent in the first round of voting. There were still issues, for one, voter rolls have not been updated since 2009, excluding younger voters who recently came of age. Not all IDs were delivered in time, and in the first round of voting many could not find the location of their polling station. Some observers say that these technical challenges could have been addressed by delaying the election just a few weeks.

Overall, despite the irregularities the mood in Bamako stayed positive. The elections became an opportunity for youth and civil society mobilization in a country where political activity has been dominated by a small political elite. Hadeye Maiga who participated in election education and turnout said, “We are very happy. This is the first time in Mali more than 40 percent have voted. This is a big challenge for us and we are happy we elected a president with the majority of votes.”

The feeling in the northern cities and refugee camps contrasted starkly with Bamako. Many separatist Tuaregs boycotted the vote, determined to continue the fight for an independent state or autonomous region. In the refugee camps the small minority that attempted to vote often found the polls inaccessible. In some camps no registered voters received their ID cards, and in others the polls were located far from the camp and people depended on rides from aid workers to reach them. Literacy barriers kept some voters from finding their names on voter lists. In Kidal, the contested northern city still run by the Tuareg separatist organization the MNLA, turnout numbers at some polling locations stayed in the single digits.

Ongoing Conflict

The polls stayed peaceful but the election takes place in a terrain of on-going conflict. While the French were quick to declare their intervention a success after retaking northern Malian cities from the hands of Islamic organizations in a matter of weeks in January, violence has continued. Attacks on check points and incursions have taken the lives of civilians, Malian, ECOWAs and French troops. Since the reestablishment of government control, some Tuareg and Arab groups in Gao and Timbuktu have reported revenge attacks for their perceived support of the Islamic groups that ruled the north for a year.

Most refugees have not made it home. UNHCR estimates 379,739 Malians are internally displaced or living in camps in neighboring Mauritania, Burkina Faso. Many are scared to go home because of reports of ethnic violence against Tuaregs who are assumed to be members or supporters of the Islamic rebel groups that ruled the city. The Malian military has even tortured or conducted extra judicial killings on suspected rebel fighters.

The conflict also exacerbates the poverty and lack of economic development in the north, which underlay not only this recent uprising but several uprisings since French colonialism. Without addressing these daunting issues, the newly elected government cannot not bring peace to the country.

Foreign Intervention Continues 

Perhaps even more significant than IBK's personal quirks in determining the course of his government, will be the continued role of foreign powers. While the French plan to scale down their troop levels, a UN force including many African forces already on the ground began operating in advance of the elections and plans to increase troop levels to 12,640 by December. The new government will also depend on international donors. Even if IBK wanted to rock the boat, it would be challenging considering that he will depend on the 4 billion dollars in pledged foreign aid to rebuild and run the country.

French president Hollande has reason to feel pleased. Beyond legitimizing his recent military intervention, the elections give France and the US a new partner to work with in pursuit of their significant economic and geopolitical interests in the region.

Given the histories of French and US involvement in the region, their continued presence may not bode well for long-term peace and stability. The war in January was partially possible because of the influx of arms that US and European powers pumped into Libya during the NATO intervention. Go farther back and we see that the US has used the rhetoric of “counter-terrorism” to justify military exercises in the Sahara and the training and arming of Mali's army since 2003.

But we have to look at the legacy of French colonialism to see the roots of poverty in Mali and the particular disenfranchisement of the north of the country that has led to decades of conflict. When the MNLA declared an independent state last year, it was only the latest of four attempts at Tuareg secession.

Now the US has used this conflict to justify a vast expansion of their powers in the region, through construction on a new drone base in neighboring Niger. The drone base is strategically located to fly surveillance operations over the entire region and predator drones are already collecting data for French and Malian forces. While AFRICOM is currently flying unarmed drones, the base gives them the infrastructure capabilities to carry out drone strikes as they do from their base in Djibouti in East Africa.

Going Forward

The new government has a mandate from the recent peace accords to restart negotiations with the MNLA in just sixty days. It goes into these negotiations on behalf of a divided society—when details of the July agreement were leaked to newspapers in Mali many were outraged that the government would even enter into talks with separatists. Yet if the new government does not address Tuareg issues, particularly demands for economic development that have been central to previous agreements, the events of the past year could repeat themselves.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the election was the engagement of youth and civil society groups who mobilized and got involved in unprecedented numbers. This may be just the beginning of new voices moving into the political arena in Mali. While the US government continues to expand their military foothold in Mali and surrounding countries behind the scenes, those of us concerned with peace and democracy need to keep tabs on what our government is doing, and keep our eyes open for opportunities to act in solidarity with grassroots groups in Mali working for economic justice and self-determination.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Sasha Wright lives in Oakland CA where she has been organizing against wars and for economic justice since she was a teenager. She writes fiction and non-fiction. 

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