As international donors, notably France and the USA, as well as the Economic Community of West African States, push for July presidential elections in Mali, critics say doing so could foment factionalization in the north thus further destabilizing it, threaten ongoing negotiations over Kidal town, and hamper reconciliation and dialogue. IRIN spoke to analysts, citizen activists and would-be voters to glean their views.
It is clear why certain outsiders are pushing for elections, said Jamie Bouverie in Africa Report: France needs to put in place a legitimate authority to enable it to declare the Mali problem over; the US requires a democratically elected authority to restart its aid and investments; and the UN requires a legitimate partner for MINUSMA, its stabilization mission.
“Conducting elections is the only realistic way,” said Paul Melly, associate fellow at think tank Chatham House. “If there were no restoration of democratic structures, the country would not get international aid and would struggle to cooperate with others countries.”
Some Malians agree. Maimouna Dagnoko, a trader in Bamako, told IRIN: “The government must do all it can to hold these elections in July. Only through them can we put in place a legitimate authority which can take charge. The longer the transition government persists, the further we sink into the abyss.”
But while all agree that elections are needed, many say rushing them will further destabilize Mali. Inter-communal violence, suicide attacks and roadside bombs recur in the north, while France plans to bring its troop count down to 1,000 (from 4,000 in April) by election month, creating a security vacuum, some say. While MINUSMA is set to fully deploy in July it will take time to establish itself.
“What makes elections highly complicated is the situation in the north - not only Kidal, which gets most of the attention, but in Ménaka, Gao and Timbuktu, which have not been sorted out,” said Yvan Guichaoua, international politics lecturer at the University of East Anglia, mentioning the continuation of exactions against light-skinned people in parts of the north - inter-communal violence between the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Arab fighters in Ber (Timbuktu Region) and Anefis (in Kidal Region). “Distrust between communities is still very high. Just think back to the 1992 national pact, which was ambitious but still led to three more years of communal violence.”
The Kidal question remains controversial: Malian troops this week wrested control of Anefis, midway between Gao and Kidal town, as part of a military offensive that is assumed to aim to take back Kidal Region from the MNLA. This offensive will have stymied the Burkina Faso-led negotiations currently under way between members of the MNLA, the High Council of Azawad (formerly of MNLA and then Ansar Dine) and the Malian authorities.
One problem is that while the Bamako political landscape has changed a bit since the March 2012 military coup, newcomers have by and large not shown any more concern for addressing the country’s core problems than their predecessors, said Guichaoua. “The godfathers of Malian politics are still in the game - there are no game-changers there,” he told IRIN.
Elections must be a beginning not an end, he added. If they are rushed, then after them, the problems of alienation in the north, the collapse of the Malian state, an inability to provide quality basic services such as health and education, and impunity for abuses that took place both recently and in previous conflicts over the north, will all persist.
Truth and reconciliation
All analysts IRIN spoke to stressed the importance of community and national-level reconciliation and dialogue. “For generations, tensions between nomadic Tuaregs and other ethnic groups have caused deep wounds that can only be healed through a truth and reconciliation process,” said academics Greg Mann and Bruce Whitehouse in a March article. “The scope of this process should not be restricted to events in northern Mali, but should encompass misdeeds committed throughout the country, including by the previous government and the soldiers who overthrew it a year ago.”
But the Commission for Dialogue and Reconciliation (already set up) has yet to gain momentum, and its mandate is overly broad, said Guichaoua. Further, several communities, including the Bella and those represented by COREN (a northern Malian group calling for unity amid rebellion) do not recognize it.
One risk is that, once elected, no politician will want to adopt a transformative agenda that might destabilize their hold on power, he said.
The general feeling among many southern Malians is that they are tired of Tuareg rebellions, and have little appetite for further reconciliation moves, said University of Ghent history lecturer Baz Lecocq.
Mali has rarely done truth and reconciliation well, so there is a dearth of models to draw on. One successful attempt discussed at a gathering of Mali experts at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London last week was in 1996 in Bourem in the Gao Region, where leaders from various communities joined forces to put an end to mutual distrust and violence. There are few present-day examples, though some community-level dialogue is going on in Burkina Faso’s refugee camps, according to one analyst. “But just because there is no clear bottom-up approach at present, does not mean there should be a top-down one,” said Guichaoua, “It is unlikely to reap long-term dividends.”
Election supporters say elections are the only way to restore some sort of legitimacy for Mali. “Elections will not solve everything… but not having a democratic process will not make it any easier,” said Chatham House’s Melly.
Elected officials have long struggled with legitimacy in Mali - both in the south and the north, where only 40 percent of the electorate on average turns out to vote, said Gregory Mann, lecturer in African studies at Columbia University in a blog conversation with academics and Mali experts Bruce Whitehouse, Baz Lecocq and Bruce Hall. And this support for politicians grows weaker still when the state is unable to deliver basic services.
“We tend to think of this as a problem between Bamako and Kidal… but what seems much more problematic for the future is the fact that the health service collapsed, that the state completely delegitimized itself, and its infrastructure was destroyed in 2012,” said Bruce Hall, who lectures on African history at Duke University in the USA.
International diplomats and local authorities should be wary of partial credibility, said Guichaoua. “Either you are legitimate or you are not… What if a candidate who has lost, tries to inflame the situation and argue elections have been manipulated or rigged. You need something serious if you don’t want to pay the price afterward.
“Veneration for elections on the part of the international community has led to failures in the past… [he mentioned the Democratic Republic of Congo] “Why not wait a bit?… “We faced a pretty dramatic crisis over the past 15 months, and this could have been an eye-opening experience. If we let things go on as usual, what will the next crisis be?”
Putting questions of security and sustainable peace aside, no one can agree if it is even feasible to hold elections in July. It is not an ideal month, given the start of the Ramadan fast, and the rains which will prevent many rural voters from participating - something that could lead northern pastoralists not to see the elections as legitimate. “Even under the best of circumstances, July is a terrible time for elections in Mali,” said Baz Lecocq.
Much of the voting in villages in the north takes place through mobile voting booths, which would probably be blocked by the rains. “If you want low voter turnout, organize elections in July,” he said, noting that July elections in the past have led to low voter turnout.
Figuring out a way to enable the 174,129 refugees in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania to vote is crucial, said Guichaoua, not to mention the many unregistered refugees who are getting by in capital cities such as Ouagadougou, Niamey and Nouakchott. “How do you identify these people?” he asked.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will allow the Malian authorities to conduct voter registration in the camps on a voluntary basis, it said in a communiqué.
Youssouf Kampo, a member of the national independent election commission, is optimistic: “We are in full preparation… Materials are already in place, except in some parts of Timbuktu and Gao, where they were destroyed. Voting booths, ballot boxes, ink and others things are all in place. I believe we will succeed in time.”
Gal Siaka Sangaré, a member of the government’s General Office on Elections (DGE), told IRIN they are making progress towards biometric voter registration despite some technical glitches. “We have to respect the 28 July date and pray to God that it all works out,” he said.