Moving Mali forward

Mali was turned upside down last spring as armed groups overran the north and the military toppled the president. For some, crisis is a wake-up call, offering Malians a chance to create a new path.

Harouna Traore/AP/File
In this file photo, Malians opposing a foreign military intervention to retake Mali's Islamist-held north clash with police as they march in the streets of the capital, Bamako, Mali, earlier this fall.

Every year since 2001 the Festival au Desert has been held near Timbuktu, drawing musicians and listeners from around the world – until now. Next year’s event, according to its Website, is planned as a “Festival in Exile” held in stages in various other countries.

Mali, long considered an island of stability in a turbulent region, was turned upside down last spring as armed groups overran the north and a military coup toppled the democratically elected president.

Yet for some, crisis is also a wake-up call, unmasking Mali’s flaws while offering its people a chance to correct them.

“We need to recover the north,” says Moussa Mara, an accountant and district mayor in Bamako. “But what’s really at stake is how Mali might use this opportunity to move to greater democracy, civic values, justice, and prosperity.”

An early sign

An attempt at overhauling Mali last occurred in 1991, when Army officers ousted the strongman president, Moussa Traoré, and started the country on a path toward democracy.

Free elections were instituted, and a decentralization plan meant to empower ordinary citizens subdivided regions into 703 small administrative “communes” with locally elected leaders.

International donors showered Mali with loans and development aid. Tourism grew, with desert jaunts and events such as the Festival au Desert among popular attractions.

From 2002, the United States poured around $60 million into training and equipping Mali’s Army to fight Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist militants who have increasingly used the country’s northern hinterland as a base.

However, AQIM’s presence was also an early sign that, more generally, something was wrong in Mali.

'Everyone had something'

Behind an image of democracy, endemic corruption and slapdash governance paved the way toward crisis, writes Yacouba Kone, Mali country manager for the British charity Christian Aid in a September report.

Malian democracy failed to serve ordinary people, Mr. Kone writes. “Rather, it was the entrenchment of a narrow elite that based its power more on patronage and less on popular support, in a bid to control the central government and the economy – both licit and illicit.”

According to Mr. Mara, the cozy relationship between power and personal interest was reflected in a quiescent political establishment.

“In ATT’s regime, everyone had something, so no one contested,” Mara says, using a common nickname for Amadou Toumani Touré, the former president first elected in 2002. “Political parties and civil society didn’t play their role.”

The result was a weak state that appeased rebellious Tuareg in Mali’s north by pulling back the Army, save in time of revolt, and allowed corruption and drug trafficking that in turn helped fund Islamic militancy.

“We had a feeling of impotence,” says Abdel Kader Sissoko, a former senior official in the northern regions of Kidal and Gao who retired last year. “The administration had neither the means nor the opportunity to combat drug trafficking.”

Last March, Army officers frustrated by the government’s inability to contain Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) ousted Mr. Touré.

Overnight, Islamist militants who had partnered with the MNLA in a marriage of convenience sidelined it instead, and today control northern cities.

In Bamako, an interim government was named in August. But coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo still wields influence, says a Western diplomat who was not permitted to speak on-record.

Today, plans are firming up for potential military intervention to dislodge the Islamists: West African countries have pledged troops, and the US and European countries are offering logistical support.

While intervention could take place next year, Western leaders also hope that dialogue with militants might allow a peace deal instead.


Whatever happens, many Malians say their country must not revert to business-as-usual.

The first step, says Mara, is holding presidential elections that were derailed by the coup, which in turn should free up development aid frozen when the government fell.

For Mr. Sissoko, more development is crucial to security in the north.

“If people have enough income they won’t have to rely on those who pay them to do bad things,” he says. “The temptation has always been great.”

Elections would also offer voters a chance to shoot down mainstream political parties, says Mara. He plans to run, presenting himself as an alternative to Mali’s political establishment.

At 37, he is younger than most politicians, he says. Unlike many, he hails from the private sector and founded his own party, Yelema, which means “Change.”

That notion strikes a chord with young Malians like Halachi Maiga, a teacher from the Islamist-held city of Gao, who is also a member of the regional youth council. Last March he watched the city's local elected officials bolt as gunmen invaded.

Leading citizens and civil society members, including himself, assumed the responsibility of managing relations between ordinary people and the Islamists who now run Gao.

“We need to find a way to choose credible leaders,” Mr. Maiga says. “So as not to fall back into the old system of corruption and the corrupt.”

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