Looking ahead in Mali

Chances are that French air power combined with superior numbers and equipment on the ground in Mali will prevail and force the militants to retreat in some fashion to the Sahel.

By Scott Straus & Leif Brottem (Flashpoint)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Tue 22 Jan 2013, 7:58 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Apr 2015, 1:28 PM

That, however, will hardly be the end. We know from previous wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere that the extremists take a long view of the global war they are waging. In Mali, one of the principal armed groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been operating for years in a vast space in the north where the Malian government has and will have little control. We know, too, that France cannot afford politically or economically to sustain a long-term intervention.

It is imperative that the French, who are now investing so much blood and treasure, while exposing themselves to serious political risk, start thinking about how to help Malians put Mali back together. The militants are successful today in part because of the perennial weakness of the Malian state, a failed political process in Mali, and deep multifaceted dissatisfaction among Malians with regard to how politics have been practiced and resources allocated. Long-term success will turn on rebuilding the political process in Mali.

The simple tropes offered so far about elections, territorial unity and ending marginalisation in the north are insufficient. We must recognise three serious obstacles to restoring political legitimacy and rebuilding state institutions in Mali. None of these will be easy for outsiders or Malians to fix quickly.

First, the political process in Mali is broken. Mali underwent a remarkable democratic transition in the early 1990s. But things went wrong. Corruption took hold. Resources were misallocated. Rather than fostering vibrant political parties, Mali’s politics swallowed up independent voices. The Malian democratic dream was shattered in March last year when a US-trained military officer seized power in a coup. Since then, politics has been paralysed. With the democratic veneer removed, the coup has revealed a rotten core.

Second, the military forces that staged the coup and have stubbornly meddled in politics ever since need to retreat from the political arena definitively. But there is a Catch-22: For the intervention in Mali to be successful, the French need robust cooperation and commitment from the Malian Army. The Malians in turn are likely to demand a high political price for their actions against the jihadis. Negotiating this dilemma will not be easy.

Third, a durable solution for northern Mali is required. The north is home to many Malian ethnic groups, including various Tuareg groups who at different periods during the past 50 years have fought against southern rule. An initial collaboration between Tuareg separatists and the jihadis helped them take control of northern Mali last year. (The groups have since fallen out, and the main Tuareg nationalist group supports French intervention.) Finding the right mix for recognising the particular needs of northern Mali while integrating the region and not alienating southern Malians is also no easy task. All of these issues deserve immediate attention. While they are focused on Mali, the French, the Americans and other international actors need to pull together a brain trust and devote resources to these problems. To that end, we put three recommendations on the table.

First, buried somewhere in the country, Mali has a reservoir of democratic talent. In the early 1990s, a pro-democracy movement emerged and articulated a modern democratic vision based on Malian traditional values of dialogue and accommodation. Central to that movement were a national conference, public meetings and frank public discussion. To plot the way forward, Mali needs to return to those mechanisms to understand what went wrong and what can be salvaged. A national political dialogue needs to be restarted before elections.

Second, a way forward must be found for the Malian military. The coup has revealed deep alienation in the Malian Army. But African leaders have rightfully taken a hard stand against military coups, and Malian political legitimacy will only be restored if uniformed soldiers stay out of politics. The path ahead must give space for military grievances to be heard. Existing protocols for training, promotion and deployment, among other concerns, should be reviewed and rethought.

Finally, though there will be many calls to do so, pouring money into the north will not singlehandedly solve the problem. Similar efforts following the 1990s Tuareg rebellion did not squelch separatist sentiments. The bulk of the Malian population will resent devoting more resources to the north, thereby undermining critical political reconstruction at the national level. Mali is desperately poor with needs in every region, and favouring the north will look like rewarding disloyalty. Independence for the north is also likely out of the question.

But there are arrangements for regional autonomy in exchange for a commitment to territorial unity that may work. If peace can be restored in the north, a place to start is political dialogue and a referendum in the north that aims at a lasting solution.

None of these tasks is simple. But if the deep political and institutional problems in Mali are not addressed, the international intervention may succeed in winning the battle but losing the war.

Scott Straus is a professor of political science focusing on conflict in Africa. Leif Brottem is a doctoral candidate in geography focusing on Mali. They are both at the University of Wisconsin, Madison


More news from