While we wait for election results in Mali

Here's a selection of articles that go the extra mile and poke holes in the narrow frame of the "Malian crisis."

Radio Raheem.

Malians voted yesterday to elect a president for the next five years. Based on the first news reports and the echo chamber of Twitter, large numbers went to vote for this first round, making the possibility of the largest participation in Malian elections credible since the highest it has ever been is 40%.

Participation was particularly high in Bamako but significant numbers were also unable to vote due to registration problems and logistical mishaps. This is particularly true of Malians outside of Mali, whether refugees in Burkina Faso or members of the diaspora in France.

Information about how the first round went in northern Mali is sparser, which in itself is a sign of the difficulties left to solve. In Kidal, the pointiest thorn in Mali’s side, some MNLA members protested around polling stations with flags of Azawad while few Malians were seen inside the polling stations; in Gao, numbers were reportedly higher, with significant presence of women according to RFI.

Overall, as presidential candidates and international observers are keen to highlight, there was no “major incident”. This is a security assessment more than anything else, meaning no one died at the hand of MUJAO, which had threatened to attack polling stations; or was publicly prevented from voting by MNLA and HCUA, as some feared. Whether the lack of security breach makes this election “peaceful” remains up for debate, given the heavy presence of French and MINUSMA military to enforce the quietness on the northern front.

While we wait for official results, which aren’t expected until tomorrow, it might help to remember where Mali is coming from. Over the last 18 months, a number of simplifying narratives cropped up with their accompanying shorthands: Jihad, terrorists, corruption, neocolonialism. Emptied from their substance and plastered out of context, those words hide intricate realities. Which is why we rounded up a selection of articles that go the extra mile and poke holes in the narrow frame of the “Malian crisis”.

The background

Tuareg migration: a critical component of crisis in the Sahel by Merise Jalali:  The Tuareg have no country of their own but instead migrate throughout the western Sahel, crisscrossing the countries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger, and Mali. […] For the Tuareg, continuous migration — the constant, unrestricted movement for trade and agricultural purposes — has been a primary means of survival and an integral part of their culture. During and after French colonization, restricted freedom of movement contributed to severe economic difficulty and the formation of deep-seated antagonism toward certain state leaders.

Of shrines and synchretism by Alex Thurston: How long must a city be Muslim, and how much Muslim scholarship must it produce, before its Muslim credentials can be taken seriously? Or is it impossible that any place south of the Sahara can ever be fully Muslim, only “syncretist”? That anyone wishing to impose shari’a, to destroy shrines, to “purify” Islam, must be an outsider? That the resulting conflicts are not intra-Muslim, but Muslim outsiders versus local syncretists?

Cocaine flows through Sahara as al-Qaida cashes in on lawlessness by Afua Hirsch:  How many young Malians are drawn into drug trafficking by the prospect of earning big money in short periods? In a region where youth unemployment and poverty are high, the prospect of traveling for days at a time through one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth offers little deterrent. […] In the beginning, the trade was mainly dominated by Tuaregs and middlemen who guided traffickers to water and fuel dumps in the desert. But after al-Qaida got involved around 10 years ago, we saw a massive increase in the quantities of cocaine involved. They had the networks, and they had the logistical know-how.

Hungry again by The Economist:  This is the third big food crisis to hit the region in seven years. This one has been triggered by drought, a poor harvest last year, high food prices, and insecurity in Mali, one of half a dozen Sahelian countries. The reasons were much the same in 2005 and 2010. Even in non-crisis years, Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, says it deals with 870,000 cases of extreme malnutrition in the region. This chronic insecurity is a result of policy failure, not nature.

The rebels

Mali’s rebels and their fans – suffering and smiling by Gregory Mann:  Strange bedfellows in the Malian Sahara of late. The Tuareg rebel movements that took control of northern Mali last month looked to have struck a deal over the weekend, only to have it come into question since. The supposedly secular, progressive, and multi-ethnic MNLA shook hands with the Ansar Dine, the Salafist movement that has been more or less playing host to sundry terrorists, criminals and hostage-takers like AQIM, MUJAO, or Boko Haram.

Algeria: the real roots of AQIM by Omar Ashour:  AQIM is not a product of the Arab Spring. AQIM exists because of the military coup that ended the ‘Algerian Spring’ two decades ago. And it has not been strengthened by the Libyan revolution, but rather by the failure of state-building in northern Mali, the absence of post-conflict reconciliation and reintegration in Algeria, and a lack of accountability for a shadowy Algerian security establishment whose brutal methods have proven woefully inadequate to the challenge.

The Jihadi from the block by Peter Tinti:  Though much of the media attention to date has focused on the French and Chadian battles against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — the al Qaeda franchise whose core membership is thought to be made up of Algerians and nationals from other Arab countries — it is Mujao that may prove to be the most durable and destructive group going forward.

The Coups

What went wrong in Mali? by Bruce Whitehouse: The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. […] Whether Sanogo intended to save Mali’s democracy or confiscate it is an open question. But he and his men could never have hoped to overthrow Touré, and win support among Malians, had the country’s core institutions – the police, the courts and the electoral process – been sound.

The president and the putschiste by Bruce Whitehouse:  In a series of televised interviews and addresses, Sanogo excoriated the corruption and incompetence of the ousted regime. His critique of Mali’s political “old guard” resonated with ordinary Malians, enabling the junta to shift public discourse in Bamako from the illegality of the coup to the failings of the previous administration. Although Sanogo officially handed the reins to an interim civilian government just three weeks after the putsch, he never fully gave up power

Mali’s Coup 2.0: adjusting to the new normal by Peter Tinti: Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra’s forced resignation put to rest any questions about the power dynamics in Bamako. The military men in Kati are still in charge, and having concluded that Diarra’s individual political ambitions were an impediment to their own objectives, they removed him. […] Though there have been reports that the junta has been targeting political and military opponents for months with secret detention, harassment and even torture, Tuesday’s events mark the most open display of power by Sanogo since the coup.

The military intervention

Welcome to Mali by Gregory Mann:  Necessary as it was, France’s intervention never offered a real solution to any of Mali’s problems. It did, however, create a preferable set of problems to the ones this country would otherwise have faced. […] So if French and Malian interests have begun to diverge, the question is how greatly and for how long they will do so. The answer to those questions depends on another, deceptively simple one: How many wars are being fought in the Sahara? […] France can make war in Mali; it has done so in more ways than one, and (counting Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency) more than once. But France can not make the peace.

A Mystery Airstrike and Mali’s “Inevitable” War by Joe Penney: In Western nations so used to using military force in sovereign Third World countries, the idea of yet another intervention in an African country way off the American public’s radar does not raise eyebrows. But why, more than 50 years after independence, do leaders of some African states still plead for help from their former colonial powers to ensure control of their territory?

Is Mali the next Afghanistan? No by Andrew Lebovich:  There are a number of structural and local particularities that may inhibit the emergence of northern Mali as a new “safe haven” for jihadist groups. For one thing, northern Mali is a rather isolated place, with large, relatively barren distances between population centers. […] It is worth keeping in mind that while Afghanistan in the 90′s was bordered by at least one state that tolerated or may have even supported the Taliban, who then gave shelter to al-Qaeda and the numerous jihadist groups who used the country as a training base, northern Mali is surrounded by countries that are not exactly disposed to welcoming a jihadist-controlled state next door.

The elections

A glance at Mali’s 2013 presidential candidates by Bruce Whitehouse:  Malian and UN officials keep saying this election won’t be perfect, which is a little like saying that a Metallica concert won’t be quiet. The real question, of course, is whether Malians will regard its outcome as legitimate. […] While we wait to see what happens, let’s consider Mali’s field of presidential candidates. In the interest of completeness I’ve researched all 28 of them, and written a brief profile of each below. My purpose is not to identify and comment on the likeliest winners but to make some observations about Mali’s political system.

Malians educating Malians ahead of elections by Phil Paoletta:

While Mali’s democracy was often celebrated by the international community as a model for the region, many Malians living in the country look at the past 20 years and see poor governance and a series of predatory politicians. […] SOS Democracy has three primary objectives: to raise voter turnout, which until now has never exceeded 40% in Mali; to educate voters on their choices; and to hold both the Malian government and the candidates accountable to the Malian people.

Mali has war in January, elections in July. Is this too much? by Peter Tinti:  One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the elections as a “calculated gamble,” suggesting that delaying the vote would “do little to fix any of the current problems and would potentially pave the way for new ones.” In June, the International Crisis Group report warned that July elections “would likely be shambolic,” with eligible voters likely to protest their inability to cast ballots. “The vote’s results, would almost certainly be challenged,” the report continued, as “losers would have plenty of ammunition to contest the results” in the event of a disorderly vote.

The road ahead

Afropositivism by Gregory Mann:  Did Mali lose fifty years of sovereignty in two days in January, when French forces went to war on Malian soil at the behest of the government in Bamako? […] Many outsiders reached for the familiar language of neo-colonialism, but that analysis was a lazy one. […] Wouldn’t we all be better served by some form of “Afro-positivism,” in the narrowest sense? By that I mean a real, empirical and ethical commitment to perceiving African societies—and when possible and appropriate ‘Africa’ as such—as lived, by Africans, now.

The return of Françafrique by Pierre Haski:  With new generations rising and high global growth rates in many countries, Africa offers new opportunities for a European nation with diminishing global clout. The challenge for the French Socialist president in a time of a global reshuffling of cards is to create a clean and ethical “Françafrique” — to recover some of France’s lost influence in Africa without reviving the negative aspects of colonialism.

Mali Aforethought by Hannah Armstrong:  Donors merely create façade democracies, skeptics like Traore argue, masking structural flaws in the countries they claim to be helping. Perpetuating the same problems invites the same responses. During the meeting in Algiers, the Malian journalist Chahana Takiou reminded participants that back in January ordinary Malians had largely supported the French intervention. “African solutions are not viable right now,” he said. “We have no other option but to turn toward the colonizer. And this hurts.”


Singing the coup by Rose Skelton:  One afternoon, while the griot, myself, producers and the musicians clutching ngonis—stringed Malian lutes—all sat outside the studio and waited for a power outage to end, the shooting began. We heard about it from our friend, who was trapped in a bank watching it all unfold from a window. By late evening, the country was under the control of the army and Amadou Toumani Touré, the griot’s beloved President, was nowhere to be found.

Trouble in Timbuktu – Multimedia project by IRIN:  Almost five months after French troops liberated Timbuktu from Islamist fighters, the ancient desert town, like much of northern Mali, is struggling to recover from the effects of the nine-month occupation as well as longer-term security and development problems. Few of the things a city needs in order to function – electricity, fuel, banks, marketplaces, and basic government services such as the town hall or judiciary – are fully up and running.

The conflict in Mali – Photo series curated by Alan Taylor.

Further Reading

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The cemetery of cinema

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Whose democracy?

In Israel, tens of thousands have demonstrated against the new right-wing government’s plans for judicial reform. But what of the Palestinian question? In this episode of the podcast, we discuss.