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Elections in Mali: Reflections on the Restoration of Order

In this Sunday, 28 July 2013 file photo, men search for their names on a list of registered voters outside a polling station, in Kidal, Mali. Image by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images.] In this Sunday, 28 July 2013 file photo, men search for their names on a list of registered voters outside a polling station, in Kidal, Mali. Image by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Images.]

After the first round of the presidential elections in Mali, which predictably favored Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the reactions oscillated between criticism of the context in which the poll was conducted and a performative optimism (especially in France where the juvenile enthusiasm of the ruling Socialist Party was close to ridiculous). There was a widespread eagerness to translate a limited military victory into a political victory, even while the relevant historical precedents (from Zardari's Pakistan to Kabila's Congo and Morsi's Egypt, more recently) were all but forgotten. Undoubtedly, one hopes for a prompt return to stability for the Malian people since this is the condition sine qua non for an improvement of the economic and social conditions in the country. From this perspective, one has to admit the significance of the return to an order that is guided by a constitution as well as the withdrawal of the soldiers to their barracks. These achievements explain the high expectations that accompany these elections, both among the population as well as the foreign financiers of the Malian state (most notably the Europeans). However, the search for a way out of the crisis should also look critically at the process of the restoration of order – a process that reflects not only the current situation in the county, but also throughout the region.

The Satisfaction of Being the "Liberator" 

Without revisiting the circumstances of the French military intervention, (which prompted a lively debate on Jadaliyya, notably on this page, here, or again here), we should note that acknowledging the need for a military intervention does not spare us from an investigation of the causes that led to this situation. If it was imperative to defeat the jihadists (those who started their offensive by taking over the city of Konna in January 2013), the fulfillment of this goal does not lessen the frenetic inter-state competition for the exportation of weapons towards developing countries.[1] Nor does it absolve the rapacious exploitation of Sahelian and - more generally - African subsoil. Even less does it excuse the Libyan adventure whose consequences will be suffered in the region for a long time to come. 

Moreover, from a French point of view, it is appalling how politically irresponsible individuals keep feeding the tired myth of the "mission" of the French Republic in Africa.[2] In short, the actions of France in Africa are nothing to brag about. Rather than proclaiming oneself the "liberator" of the Malian people, perhaps one should address the various conditions of their subjection. 

The Forgetting of Structural Causes 

There are multiple causes for the crisis in Mali, and it is surely not sufficient to denounce the role of narco-terrorists since the situation is also decisively influenced by the international order itself. I have already explained here how the ruling elite tends to reduce a situation of crisis to the accompanying security concerns in order to justify the use of coercion as the only possible response. Thus we must keep in mind that physical violence is only one of many kinds of structural violences that are exacerbated in a critical configuration. 

When speaking about the crisis in Mali, we should also take into account the extreme poverty that characterizes the Sahelian space. Mali is ranked one hundred eighty-two out of one hundred eighty-six countries according to the UN's human development index (HDI) for 2012. This weak record is aggravated by the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have recently started to return to the northern part of the country, a wave of migration that provokes the usual sanitary and humanitarian issues that accompanies this kind of displacement. One also has to underline the fact that Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad also figure among the poorest countries according to the HDI criteria. Nevertheless, these countries were forced to intervene along with France and furnish troops for the African forces fighting in Mali. While it may not be surprising that the ten poorest countries are located in Sub-Saharan Africa, this fact can hardly be overlooked.

According to many foreign observers (not only Western), it is fairly common to repeat the cliché that this state of misery is an African fatality. Overlooking the structural causes of this situation, and invoking an injustice destined for the African continent, both offer redemption for the sins of an overzealous humanitarianism. Yet, this misery was not predestined; it has structural causes that are easily identifiable even if too numerous to be exhaustively presented in the present article. Here, I will limit myself to two examples. First, Mali and the other countries in the Sahel have been severely suffering from climate change. As a result, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger faced between six and ten droughts between 1982 and 2009. These countries are even more exposed to humanitarian risks since their economies are primarily dependant on agriculture. Consequently, climate change causes both the reduction of available resources and the modification of the predominant way of life. From this perspective, one can understand how the intensification of military conflicts leads to the deterioration of already difficult living conditions.

Yet as a redress to the grim picture offered by the previous example, one must keep in mind that the Mali is not and empty land without resources as it is often presented. It is the third largest exporter of gold in Africa, and its subsoil is exploited by South-African, English and Canadian companies. As one might imagine, the concessions acquired by these foreign actors give relatively meager financial benefits from these resources to the Malian state itself. Surely these funds would be a financial godsend to the country and would allow Mali to fulfill its obligations toward its population. Moreover, the mining industry is well known to operate in autarky and subject its employees to despicable working conditions. Last but not least, this plunder comes with the establishment of corrupt networks that benefit the political elite who are inserted in the globalized space of the market. It also considerably increases a legitimate feeling of injustice among the population, a sentiment that eventually fuels radicalism of various stripes (in particular jihadist). 

In short, one can see how Mali has provided an ideal space for predation. The subsequent endemic poverty has been perpetuated by the lack of state protection and the collusion of the local ruling elite with their foreign partners. Thus, there are evident structural causes for the current situation in the country (and region). These causes are not limited to narcoterrorism but are also fueled by the broader injustices at the heart of the international order. 

The Persistent Illusion of the Democratic Miracle 

In this context, the celebration of the return to democracy in Mali by the French authorities seems particularly callous. It is even more dreadful to see how the misfortune of a friendly country (more that a hundred thousand Malians leave in France)[3] led to an utterly indecent show of self-satisfaction. The European Union was no classier in its behavior; its special delegate in Mali condescendingly applauded the Malian people for their capacity to understand the importance of this election. Participation at the polls became another way to stage the slow conformity of the people from the South with the standard of "consolidated democracy." In such haughtiness, shared by officials in Brussels as much by their local partners, we can recognize another colonial cliché: the infantilization of the autochthonous population through the educative and disciplinary role that the globalized elites consider to be their proper modus operandi.

But what can we conclude about this victory of democracy in Mali? First of all, these elections are undoubtedly important for the restoration of order since they indicate (but cannot ensure) the normalization of the political game. From this point of view, these elections are a necessary step even if they are merely symbolic. This normalization comes with the hope for a political renewal demonstrated by the significant defeat of Dramane Dembelé of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA-PASJ), which was has been the main Malian political party for the last twenty years. 

Nevertheless, the fragmentation of the political field (more than twenty-seven candidates were running in this election) certainly does not ensure an effective competition for power. The leading candidate after the first round, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is a veteran of Malian politics. At sixty-nine years of age he is a former member of the ADEMA. Currently a leader of the Rally for Mali (RPM), he was the Prime Minister before becoming an opponent to former President Amadou Toumani Touré. When the latter was removed from office by a military coup, IBK backed the putschists who were led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. His opponent for the second round will be Soumaïla Cissé, a candidate for the Union for Republic and Democracy, who is also a former member of the ADEMA. At sixty-three years of age, he is a three-time Minister of Finances and remains an opponent of the coup. These two men, who will run against each other on 11 August, are not first-timers in presidential elections in Mali. Thus, regardless of the outcome, the next President of Mali will not be a newcomer to the political scene.

More significant than the lack of structural changes are the protests coming from supporters of Cissé and other opponents of IBK, who claim that the announcement of the temporary results of the first round was irregular in nature. These protests appear to be legitimate since they point out the fact that the favored candidate is backed by the military, which took the power in 2012. They are also logical since the drive to hold the elections was hasty and misguided, largely due to the eagerness of the French government to end this episode even while hundreds of thousand of displaced persons were not able to get their polling card from their place of origin.

Even if these elections have been sold as a fresh start after twenty years of catastrophic governance in Mali, the factors that drove the Malian people to distrust politics are alive and well – namely, irresponsibility, mismanagement, corruption, and collusion with foreign interests. Thus, it is important not to fetishize these elections even as we recognize their symbolic importance. Indeed, the main challenge remains finding a way out of the political crisis. It is unclear whether the solution will imply the implementation of a national reconciliation process or another means that will ensure genuine independence for the country. 

The Thorny Issue of Training the African Military

In the process of restoration of order, the most crucial point (which has been emphasized by all candidates) is the reconstitution and reform of the Malian army. This issue is also of interest to France, which hopes to bring security to the country and disengage its own forces as soon as possible. Undoubtedly, keeping Mali as a theater of operations would surely be seen as an imperial act and be unlikely to attract long-term positive coverage for France. Thus, the responsibility for restoring and maintaining order will be first transferred to African soldiers of the Minusma, and then to the Malians themselves.

In this context, the Europeans have prioritized military training and cooperation, an initiative that especially involves the French army. Here again, despite the attempts to present this partnership as a new illustration of Franco-Malian friendship, or as a pragmatic necessity, it will be difficult to avoid accusations that these actions are a new avatar of a neo-colonial project. The image of African armies marching in the 14 July parade on the Champs-Elysées in Paris cannot but remind us of imperial images from a former era. Nor can we listen to the speech of a French Colonel ordering Malians to be ready to sacrifice their life should the necessity arise without feeling a sense of colonial déjà-vu.

Yet, the situation is not so simple. The training of the new Malian army is part of a global geopolitical strategy that is privileged by the European Union, namely the delegation of security issues to partner states. It also reflects a change in the French strategy in Africa that started in the 1990s following the disastrous non-intervention in Rwanda. This large-scale military project is evidenced in the sixteen National Schools with a Regional Vocation (ENVR) are found in several West African countries where officers of African armies train the soldiers. It is also facilitated by the on the ground presence of French forces in different police operations certified by the UN (Licorne in Ivory Coast, Epervier in Chad, Serval in Mali). In total, there were no less than eighteen thousand African soldiers trained by the French army in 2012, a number that is especially significant in that the Malian army is expected to total twelve thousand soldiers at the end of their training (provided by European instructors). 

The choice made by France and the European Union to prioritize the training of African armies shows the persistence of a state-centered vision of security. In this regard, we confront the cynicism of a calculus according to which ten Chadian soldiers who die in the Ifoghas massif provoke less of an outcry than a single French legionnaire killed in battle. There are also a host of economical ulterior motives and the grotesque and anachronistic colonial images that are inevitably invoked by the partnership with African armies. Yet one also has to recognize that this military training may be a lesser evil. Indeed, a local army trained by Europeans is preferable to foreign mercenaries paid in diamond mines, as was the case in Sierra Leone in the 1990 with the South-African company Executive Outcome, or to self-defense militias engaged in the spiral of routinized violence, as it is still the case of Maï-Maï in East Congo

Finally, the reconstitution of the Malian army with European assistance is especially important since the relative calm that accompanied the first round of the presidential poll was mainly due to the withdrawal of jihadist groups. These groups have not been destroyed but merely departed from Northern Mali for other sanctuaries (in Libya, but also in Tunisian and Algerian maquis). All in all, it appears that the perpetuators of violence, as well as its structural causes, are very much still with us. This is why it is important to prevent another jihadist incursion, as well as another French intervention, without loosing sight of the fact that the real necessity is to address the structural roots of the Sahelian crisis.

Restoring Order and/or Ending the Crisis?

In conclusion, the recent presidential elections in Mali are undoubtedly an encouraging sign - if and only if the second round takes place peacefully. Yet, they are a symbolic moment in the restoration of constitutional order rather than a guarantee for the concrete and lasting improvement of the local and regional situation. Another strictly pragmatic factor in the return of order is the reconstitution of the Malian army in the capacity of national self-defense. 

At the same time, to think that the return of order guarantees a way out of the current crisis is purely delusional. How can one believe in a political settlement of the crisis in the Sahelian space without finding real answers to the demands of various minorities in the countries concerned (Touaregs, Arabs, Peuls)? Similarly, there is something absurd about the claim of the international community to be fighting jihadism militarily while at the same it authorizes the shameless predation of Sahelian subsoil, knowing full well that this fuels both corruption and radicalism (whether it is in Mali, in Niger or in Algeria). To understand the Malian crisis we should also look at the consequences of the struggles between competing foreign powers in the region, the desertification of farmlands, and European migration. 

It is clear that the restoration of order in Mali will not suffice to end a crisis whose causes are rooted in the international order. In this regard, in spite of the staging of the democratic miracle by the foreign financiers of the Malian state, the political climate is still characterized by uncertainty regarding the balance of power and the risk of militarization.[4] As long as the current order generates these multiple disorders, there is little hope for a long-term improvement of the situation in Mali.

[This article was originally published in French and translated by the Maghreb Page.]

[1] On the competition between countries involved in trafficking (by order of importance USA, Russia, Germany, France, China, UK), see the parliamentary report published by the French Assembly in 2013, avaible on the website of the Ministry of Defense.

[2] See Roland Barthes, "Grammaire africaine," Mythologies (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1957). 

[3] More than half of the estimated 100,000 Malians living in France have dual nationality. See Patrick Gonin et Nathalie Kotlok, “Migrations et pauvreté: essai sur la situation malienne,” CERISCOPE Pauvreté, 2011, consulted online 08/11/2013, URL:

[4] On political crisis, see Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale de sciences politiques, 1986).

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