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Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now


In an otherwise busy weekend for elections, voters in Mali went to the polls yesterday to select a new president, despite the fact that the country has a long way to go in securing a peace agreement to definitively end the crisis of the past 16 months. Mali Flag Icon

It’s no secret that the international community has pushed for an ambitious timetable, just months after France sent troops to the country to restore order by pushing back Tuareg rebels and disparate Islamist groups that had taken control of northern Mali and threatened to overwhelm Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south.  Accordingly, French leaders are anxious to have an elected president that can push for a lasting peace between a legitimate central government and the separatist Tuaregs in the north.  French president François Hollande, aware of France’s heavy-handed history with respect its former African colonies and the legacy of Françafrique, has pushed for as rapid a transition as possible to a stable Mali.  The United States and other Western governments also want an elected government in order to renew political and other humanitarian aid to the country that’s been on hold since a military coup in March 2012 that ousted Amadou Toumani Touré (known popularly as ‘ATT’ in Mali).

But given that France’s military mission only ended in February, there’s been a steady stream of criticism from both inside and outside Mali that the country was not yet ready for an election so soon after its political crisis, and that Paris and other Western governments had pushed Mali into an election sooner than necessary in order to stitch up a peace deal rather than secure a long-term political settlement.

On one hand, Sunday’s presidential race was itself an extension of the postponed election originally planned for March 2012, which was cancelled in the aftermath of last year’s coup that only exacerbated the turmoil in northern Mali, and three of the four frontrunners in Sunday’s race had previously planned to run in the March 2012 vote.  ATT, who had governed Mali since 2002, had announced he was stepping down and, before the ill-timed coup, Mali seemed set for a fairly normal election and a peaceful transfer of power from ATT to a new administration.  It’s also true that the installation of a new government with the legitimacy of a popular mandate could accelerate the momentum for a permanent ceasefire with northern rebels, and the restoration of U.S. aid will certainly boost investment.

But on the other hand, it’s not at all clear that Mali is ready to make that transition when life is still returning to normal — nearly half a million Malians have either fled to neighboring countries in the Sahel or remain internally displaced, and the rush to Sunday’s vote was plagued with confusion over establishing polling places, distributing biometric voter cards in a country of 16 million people and revising voter rolls that had not been updated in four years.  It remains to be seen if northern Malians, some of whom still support the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that declared the independence of the northern territory of Azawad and some of whom are voting abroad or elsewhere in the country, will deem the vote to have been legitimate.

Although the French forces are largely seen as having been successful earlier this year in ending Mali’s crisis, it was Western intervention in the region that may have led to the fighting in the first place.  Although northern rebel groups have continuously agitated for autonomy since Mali’s independence in 1960, there’s a strong case that Western-provided arms made their way from rebels in Libya fighting against Muammar Gaddafi. Once Gaddafi fell from power, those arms found their way from sympathetic Libyans to nomadic northern Tuaregs, who share much more in common culturally and politically with Libyans than with their southern Malian countrymen.

Given the bumbling role of Western powers that arguably fueled Mali’s crisis, the specter of unintended adverse consequences looms large.

Sunday’s vote seems to have gone about as well as reasonably expected, however, and it may have well marked the largest turnout of any election in Malian history.  Despite fears to the contrary, the voting took place without any violence in Mali’s north, and there were no reports of massive fraud or systemic errors, and that should be deemed as an initial success.

But even if the vote took place without major incidents, there’s no way to know if the election will have been a success.  In many ways, it’s just the first step of a process that, if successful, will heal a rift that goes back more than half a century.  Furthermore, the hasty election heightens the risk that Mali’s new president might not share the same respect for democracy as ATT — by holding elections with the country still recovering from crisis, voters might prefer a candidate with strongman qualities who could lead Mali to slide backward on democracy in the years ahead.  Ultimately, the international community knows that its goal of a peaceful Sahel that’s not a sanctuary for Islamic jihad must be complemented and supported by a Mali that’s making progress toward internal stability, economic growth and national unity (and there’s no guarantee that chasing radical Islamists out of northern Mali won’t destabilize neighboring Niger or Mauritania).  It’s easy to imagine faulting Hollande for pushing Mali too soon toward normalization, ironically due to efforts to keep France’s post-colonial footprint as light as possible.  Continue reading Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

How to approach transatlantic security and the ‘bubble’ problem in the Sahel


Security experts — including Julianne Smith, deputy national security advisor to U.S. vice president Joe Biden — gathered at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies Thursday to discuss transatlantic security from Mali to Afghanistan.chad flag iconniger flag iconMali Flag Iconburkina faso flag iconmauritania flag

Among the newest issues on the transatlantic security agenda in the wake of France’s seemingly successful military incursion into northern Mali last month, is how NATO, the European Union, the United States and, increasingly, the African Union, can facilitate a lasting peace in the region.  Indeed, atlantic-comminity.org, a transatlantic online think tank, is engaging a week-long ‘theme week’ on security in the Sahel.

From Mali to …?

But even as the world — from Paris to Washington to Bamako — celebrates the liberation of Timbuktu and other key northern Malian cities from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Islamic radical groups, tough questions remain about how to repair Mali, which still must arrive upon a peaceful settlement with Tuareg separatists in the north and return back to its peaceful, democratic path.

Even tougher questions remain about how to prevent another problem in any of the other countries in the Sahel — it’s not hard to draw a line between the influx of NATO-provided arms to Libya in 2011 and 2012 and the increasing instability in northern Mali.  It’s not hard to imagine that the French military success so heralded today in Mali could become the catalyst that causes, say, 2014’s crisis in Mauritania.  Or really any number of shaky nation-states in the western Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad.  Or southern Algeria.  Or, even worse, a relatively peaceful and stable west Africa.

Sarah Cliffe, a United Nations assistant secretary general for civilian capabilities, compared it to the regional problem in Central America in the 1980s — success in one country would result in another problem bubbling up in another country.  She argued that a regional solution is indeed necessary, primarily through political and security means and thereafter through economic means.

Hans Binnendijk, a senior fellow at SAIS’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, argues that Mali represents one of three kinds of transatlantic action:

  • the most formal approach, an ‘all-in’ response from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (i.e., a response based on the Washington Treaty’s Article Five that states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members), as has been the case with the NATO action in Afghanistan since October 2001;
  • a less formal approach is a kind of ‘coalition of the willing’ among NATO members to take action, as was the case in the NATO-led assistance provided to Libyan rebels in the service of ousting longtime rule Muammar Gaddafi;
  • in contrast, the Malian approach was even more ad hoc, because one nation (France) simply acted because Mali’s government was running out of time.

James Townsend, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, argued that Mali has become a laboratory for transatlantic security, in terms of providing an example for how transatlantic responses to crises may be organized in the future, noting that we’ll see more crises like Mali (though it’s hardly clear that the French leadership, already concerned about the taint of Françafrique, has much of an appetite for becoming a near-permanent military presence throughout its former African colonial empire).

Townsend is probably right, but his remarks reminded me of the old adage — if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

That’s to say that military and security responses to Mali can only achieve a limited amount of success without economic development and political engagement — and it’s not clear that transatlantic allies have much, if any, strategy for Mali, let alone the Sahel, where military force can’t resolve the issues of, for example, how to bring Tuareg rebels to the table to build a stable version of the Malian state, how to approach water policy and climate change in the Sahel in light of more frequent droughts, how to end human slavery in Mauritania, how to address the Darfur refugees that remain in Chad, or how international institutions can facilitate the development 21st century Sahelian economies.

It’s great that AQIM has been ousted from Timbuktu, but what long-term relief can we take from a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy that shifts the threat from country to country, year after year?

Continue reading How to approach transatlantic security and the ‘bubble’ problem in the Sahel

M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

malifabius Over the weekend, France found itself engaged in a new, if limited, war — and a new theater of Western intervention against radical Islam.Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Icon

French president François Hollande confirmed that French troops had assisted Mali’s army in liberating the city of Konna — in recent weeks, Islamist-backed rebels that control the northern two-thirds of the country had pushed forward toward the southern part of the country, threatening even Mali’s capital, Bamako.

On Tuesday, Hollande said the number of French troops would increase to 2,500, as he listed three key goals for the growing French forces:

“Our objectives are as follows,” Hollande said. “One, to stop terrorists seeking to control the country, including the capital Bamako. Two, we want to ensure that Bamako is secure, noting that several thousand French nationals live there. Three, enable Mali to retake its territory, a mission that has been entrusted to an African force that France will support.”

Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (pictured above with Malian foreign minister Tyeman Coulibaly), now face the first major foreign policy intervention of their administration, extending a trend that began under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded NATO intervention in support of rebels in Libya against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi and for the apprehension of strongman Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011.

Foreign Policy‘s Joshua Keating has already called the Malian operation the return of Françafrique. Françafrique refers to the post-colonial strategy pioneered largely by French African adviser Jacques Foccart in the 1960s whereby France’s Fifth Republic would look to building ties with its former African colonies to secure preferential deals with French companies and access to natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa, to secure continued French dominance in trade and banking in former colonies, to secure support in the United Nations for French priorities, to suppress the spread of communism throughout formerly French Africa and, all too often, source illegal funds for French national politics.  In exchange, French leaders would support often brutal and corrupt dictatorships that emerged in post-independence Africa.

But to slap the Françafrique label so blithely on the latest Malian action is, I believe, inaccurate — French policy on Africa has changed since the days of Charles de Gaulle and, really, even since the presidency of Jacques Chirac in the late 1990s.

After all, the British intervened just over a decade ago in Sierra Leone to end the decade-long civil war and restore peace for the purpose of stabilizing the entire West African region, and no one thought that then-prime minister Tony Blair was incredibly motivated by contracts for UK multinationals. Given the nature of the Malian effort, it’s quite logical that France — and Europe and the United States — has a keen security interest in ensuring that Bamako doesn’t fall and that Mali doesn’t become the world’s newest radical Islamic terrorist state in the heart of what used to be French West Africa.

Fabius, a longtime player in French politics, and currently a member of the leftist wing of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 and as finance minister from 2000 to 2002, though his opposition — in contrast to most top PS leaders — to the European Union constitution in 2005 has left him with few friends in Europe.

Nonetheless, Fabius argued yesterday that it was not France’s intention for the action to remain unilateral — African forces from Nigeria and elsewhere are expected to join French and Malian troops shortly, UK foreign minister William Hague has backed France’s move, as has the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama — and today, the United Nations Security Council has also indicated its support for France’s efforts as well.

For now, Hollande has the support of over 75% of the French public as well as much of the political spectrum — and it’s hard not to see that the effort will help Hollande, who’s tumbled to lopsided disapproval ratings since his election in June 2012 amid France’s continued economic malaise, appear as a decisive leader. That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be trouble ahead for Hollande and Fabius. Continue reading M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

Malian coup works out well for candidate and now interim president Traoré

When Dioncounda Traoré decided to run in Mali’s April 29 presidential election, he had no idea he would be sworn in as president — on April 12, nonetheless.

But the president of the national assembly and president of the Alliance for Democracy and Progress found himself in precisely that position as he was sworn in as interim president Thursday, following a coup on March 21 that saw the removal of Amadou Toumani Touré, who had served as president of the west African country since 2000 and was set to step down in advance of the planned presidential election.

In the wake of general international condemnation and further unrest in the north of Mali — northern Tuareg rebels, encouraged by the opportunity of the coup, declared their own nation of Azawad last week — coup leaders stepped down in favor of Traoré, who has been tasked with organizing new elections within 40 days.

Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who organized the coup from within the military as a result of frustration with the relatively soft-touch approach of Touré’s government to the northern uprising, will likely go down in Malian history as one of its most incompetent actors, having served as a catalyst for accelerating the very movement he hoped his coup would squash.  The coup simultaneously transformed the image of his nation from a poster child of democratic stability into an international pariah.  Pretty staggering for less than a month.  It will be up to Traoré to begin the process of cleaning up that mess. Continue reading Malian coup works out well for candidate and now interim president Traoré

Good golly, Miss Mali

Perhaps this was inevitable, given that the coup leaders who deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré have wavered with indecisiveness in the face of international and regional backlash since taking power on March 21.

But the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared the north’s independence Friday, making an already tense situation worse.

It is ironic to note that Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo led the original Mali coup out of frustration that the current administration was not doing enough to retard the progress of the Tuareg rebels, but it seems as if the latest move has somewhat stymied the coup’s newly installed government, Comité national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de la démocratie et la restauration de l’état (“CNRDRE”).

The Mali dynamic has featured some of the same north-south tensions as Sudan — but in reverse: in Mali, the northern, nomadic Tuaregs have long complained of mistreatment and a lack of support from Bamako and the south, where the majority of Malians live.  While the overwhelming majority of Mali is Muslim, the Tuaregs have more in common with Algeria and Libya than with southern Mali, which has correspondingly more cultural ties to other west African Francophone countries like Senegal.

With plenty of access to arms from the recent campaign in Libya to Mali’s north and the example of South Sudan to Mali’s east, it is not exactly surprising that this could have happened.  Unlike with South Sudan, however, the fear among the United States and Europe that al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups could turn the north into a terrorist haven, don’t expect the international community to leap at the opportunity to recognize the new nation of Azawad anytime soon.

So it’s looking like Mali is even further removed from holding a new presidential election anytime soon, which was originally scheduled for April 29.