Mali’s Next Big Challenge

As the French military operation in Mali – Operation Serval – winds down, and the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) prepares to take over in the coming weeks, the future of Mali and its democracy are slowly coming into focus.

The French military operation has been successful in restoring territorial integrity and returning control of rebel-held areas to the Malian government and armed forces. Nevertheless, some key areas, like Kidal, a Touareg-held city in the northeastern part of the county, remain under rebel control. As the international community continues to help shepherd the process of returning to a democratic, peaceful state, Mali still faces some major challenges on the political, humanitarian and security fronts.

The international community is united in its desire to see Mali hold presidential elections this coming July. The $4.2 billion pledged in Brussels last week for the reconstruction of Mali are contingent upon a return to democracy, and the holding of elections. Since the outgoing president was toppled in the spring of 2012, Mali has had a leadership vacuum, due to a lack of popular support and trust in Malian political and military leaders. After more than a year of intense conflict and the near destruction of the Malian state, the country needs to be revitalized by a strong and committed leadership – something which the international community and the Malian public are hoping will emerge from the July presidential elections.

One of the issues that needs to be resolved prior to an election schedule being finalized is how the Tuareg minority is to be represented and engaged in the elections and in a newly formed government, and how citizens living in the area of Kidal – currently held by Tuareg rebels – can participate in the electoral process. The prevailing Western view – that the Tuareg minority should be given some degree of autonomy and representation in the Malian government – differs from the Malian point of view, which holds that all Malians – including those living in Kidal – should participate in the upcoming elections, but only once control of Kidal is in the hands of the Malian government. The French armed forces are not confronting the rebels in Kidal, and holding back Malian efforts to do so. Instead, France is insisting Mali address the long-standing demands for Tuareg autonomy – one of the central reasons for which a Tuareg rebellion has existed for years in Northern Mali, and a key factor in the destabilization of Mali last spring. Diplomats say that “secret” talks in Burkina Faso are currently underway to try and resolve this particular issue.

In addition to finding a solution to the issue of Tuareg representation, Mali also has to contend with some logistical challenges ahead of the elections. Vivian Lowery Derrick, who leads the US-based civil society group Mali Watch, points to issues related to “inaccurate voter lists; limited transportation; inadequate protection for the security of ballots, ballot boxes and other election-related materials; limited stability in the North; limited civic education; large numbers of displaced voters; and doubts about the military’s ability to provide security.  The weather also may not cooperate, as roads become impassable, plus it is planting season from May to July.” These are not insignificant obstacles, and with an 8-week time frame, Malian authorities and election officials will need as much support as possible – both politically and logistically – to carry out free, fair and transparent elections. Anything short of that standard could potentially lead to further destabilization.

The sooner Mali can restore a democratic, representative government, the sooner it can address the humanitarian needs of its citizens. Nearly half a million individuals have been displaced by the conflict since last year, and the government estimates that 660,000 children under the age of five are in danger of being chronically malnourished. While schools, roads and other infrastructure needs to be rebuilt in areas affected by the conflict, and as the Malian armed forces continue to receive training and support from the international community, one of the key elements of the successful restoration of peace and democracy in Mali will be to find a way to rebuild – and, in some cases, create – a level of social cohesion that can strengthen the country. There are myriad social and ethnic groups in Mali, including Tuareg minorities, which need to be part of a genuinely inclusive political process – that challenge, however, is not one that will be easily solved by international donor money.