Mali gets interim president. What's on his agenda?

Mr. Traore takes the reins of a challenging Mali, facing post-coup reorganization, a separatist war in the north, and humanitarian issues like refugees and food insecurity, writes a guest blogger.

Harouna Traore/AP
Parliamentary head Dioncounda Traore is sworn in as interim president at a ceremony in Bamako, Mali, Thursday.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, www.sahelblog.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Today, former president of the national assembly and one-time (and future?) presidential candidate Dioncounda Traore will be sworn in as president of Mali’s interim civilian government. This marks the official end of a military coup that took place on March 22, although many administrative details – namely who controls what and how – remain to be worked out. Before the coup, Mali had scheduled elections for this month. One of Mr. Traore’s main tasks is to organize new elections. He has been given forty days to do so.

Traore takes the reins of a country facing many interlocking problems. In addition to the challenge of post-coup reorganization, there is the separatist war in the north, where a proliferation of rival armed groups is making the situation murkier by the day. Then there are overlapping humanitarian issues, especially refugee flows and food insecurity.

Much coverage of the transition is focusing on Traore’s biography and how he is perceived as an individual by Malians. This is appropriate and relevant, but attention to his character should not obscure the structural challenges inherent in his position. Anyone stepping into this post now would struggle to fulfill the almost impossible expectations connected with it, especially the goal of organizing elections in less than six weeks.

France24 writes that holding the elections on that timeline is “a mission most experts believe is almost impossible.” I would qualify that by saying that the 40-day window gives a choice: either the interim government holds a severely flawed election that fails to include a number of areas in the country (potentially including, given the short timeline, some rural areas in southern Mali) or the government fails to meet the deadline. Either outcome looks bad. If, alternatively, the “forty days” refers to setting a date further in the future and laying out a plan to reach that goal, there is more hope for a credible election taking place.

Analysts also doubt the chances of any swift resolution to the war in northern Mali. This does not mean that the newly declared state of “Azawad” will achieve international recognition, but it does suggest that the capital will not regain control in the medium term, allowing the fragmentation and power struggles in the north to continue.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which played a key role in forcing the coup leaders in southern Mali to return official power to civilians, meets today in Abidjan to discuss the crisis in northern Mali. There has been much talk of ECOWAS intervening militarily in northern Mali, but such an intervention would be fraught with complexities – from where would the troops come? where would they enter Mali? how long would they stay? what would their precise mission be? These complexities cast doubt on whether ECOWAS will actually intervene, though it remains within the realm of possibility.

Assuming no intervention takes place, though, or at least not within the short term, Traore’s forty days may expire with Mali’s core problems unsolved. That in turn raises serious questions about public perceptions of leaders – by the summer, Malians will have seen no less than three governments in 2012 attempt to deal with the rebels and reorganize national politics, and stumble. The fourth government, the product of the upcoming elections, could therefore enter office in an atmosphere of even greater nervousness in the south and abroad regarding the ability of anyone in the capital to control the country. The current transition, intended as a measure to restore stability, could itself become a further source of instability if it goes poorly.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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