West African group backs off intervention in Mali mess

ECOWAS had warned of a possible military intervention, but at a meeting in the Malian capital of Bamako, they accepted an interim president chosen by military coup leaders.

Adama Diarra/REUTERS
Protesters occupy Mali's presidential palace in the capital Bamako, May 21. Hundreds of protesters entered Mali's presidential palace unopposed on Monday and said they would remain there until interim civilian president Dioncounda Traore resigned, a Reuters witness said.

With a deal signed on Saturday, the West African bloc ECOWAS agreed to accept Mali's interim government led by Djouncounda Traore until elections can be held.

ECOWAS had warned that they might be forced to intervene militarily in Mali, following a March 22 coup by army mutineers. The coup toppled the government of Amadou Toumani Toure, because his government failed to provide the necessary weapons and food to fight against ethnic Tuareg rebels in the country’s vast northern regions, but left the country so unstable that Tuareg rebels ended up taking control of the north and declaring an independent state.

The deal to keep ECOWAS troops out will be a relief for aid groups who warned that Mali's political crisis was hampering efforts to feed and shelter tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting in the north. Even before the coup, Mali was in the throes of a food crisis, following higher temperatures and insufficient rainfall during the normal rainy season.

The new deal with ECOWAS leaves several questions unanswered, including the timeline for new elections. But two things are certain. One, the Malian army will continue to wield substantial influence over that country’s politics; coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo will retain the status of a former head of state, which means that he will continue to have a role in any future negotiating process. Two, ECOWAS will continue to influence Mali’s politics as well, since the regional bloc sees Mali’s instability and its Tuareg rebellion as a threat to all nations in the region.

"I can tell you that a deal has been reached in principle," Captain Sanogo told state television late on Saturday, Reuters reported. "Of course we have a certain number of accompanying measures to put in place and we will remain in [the capital] Bamako the time it takes to ensure that, after these discussions, the institutions of state are stabilized.”

Military option is difficult

West African leaders may be breathing a sigh of relief, and with good reason: Military intervention would not have been easy in Mali.

But from a viewpoint of democratic governance, there are reasons for concern with the deal. By failing to reprimand the coup leaders, and stepping back from sanctions, ECOWAS has cemented the role of Mali’s military in the country’s political system for the foreseeable future. And while ECOWAS may see this as a necessary step in taking on an even greater regional threat – the seemingly successful Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali – the regional group may be setting the stage for future coups, and future instability in Mali.

Hamadoune Toure, Mali’s government spokesman, was quoted by Voice of America as saying that Capt. Sanogo, the coup leader, will not have a say in the transition process, but “they [ECOWAS] said he will have advantages recognized to all former heads of state. They invited him to work as a team with the president and with the prime minister, for the supreme interests of Mali. And all actors are called on not to disrupt the transition process.”

It is easy to condemn peace deals that are less than perfect; it is much harder to hammer them out when you have few good options.

In previous ECOWAS interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, West Africa’s strongest military and economic power, Nigeria, had been a vocal advocate for strong military intervention, while many of ECOWAS’s francophone members demurred. In Mali, ECOWAS military chiefs seem to have been more unanimous, agreeing in principle at a May 15 meeting in Nigeria to to send 1,500 peacekeepers forces to Mali. Those have not been sent yet; now they may go to see through the peace deal.

At a meeting in Abidjan, ECOWAS leaders talked a strong game, demanding that the mutineers return to their barracks, and insisting that new elections be held within 12 months. But in the deal signed this weekend, Mali coup-leaders are guaranteed a future political role, and the timeline for elections is left open.  

For all the talk about Africa’s democratic renaissance, it appears that there is still room for Mao Zedong’s famous observation that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

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