Yalla S. Sangaré and Jason J. McSaprren
The conflict at the senior levels of the State between former President of the Transition Bah N’Daw and the head of the junta, Assima Goïta, the UNTM strike led by the National Workers’ Union of Mali (UNTM), and the mistakes made by the junta were connected to the particular circumstances. It is difficult to understand why the transition is at an impasse without looking at what preceded it.
Mali is contending with serious challenges. They came before the arrival in power of the junta, and they will continue after the premature elections that must be held in February 2022. Cracks are threatening the very underpinnings of the country. While politicians from the democratic movement are being held responsible for the collapse of the country, some problems can be traced back to the first coup d’état in 1968. This second paper summarizes some of these challenges. It is impossible to comprehend the current impasse without taking into account these elements of a structural nature.
An initial assumption that doesn’t hold water
The security architecture in place in Mali is based on questionable assumptions. According to this system, the Malian conflict pits the southern-based State dominated by sedentary people against the nomadic communities in the north. There is an assumption―albeit couched in subdued and academic language―that the conflict lies between the Blacks in the south and the Whites in the north.
Very quickly, the facts contradicted this interpretation along “ethnic” and even racial lines. The separatist MNLA movement (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) was defeated by the Mujahideens. The latter then attacked the Malian army. The crisis, which had been confined to the north, spread to the centre and even to the south of the country. In the centre, brutally violent conflicts are occurring between “Black” populations.
The Algiers Peace Agreement signed between the Malian State and armed groups in the north is supposed to be a miracle cure for all ills. The best established and most militarily powerful groups in the north are not signatories to this Agreement. Nor are the many self-defence militias in the centre of Mali. Finally, the northern population is comprised of Songhai people, Arabs, Tuaregs, Peuls, Toucouleurs and Bellas. All of these communities have their own caste system and are beset by conflict and strife.
An inappropriate tool for defence
At the time of independence, the Malian army was designed to fend off external threats. Soldiers were trained for conventional warfare. They were not prepared to deal with assailants who carry out attacks from bicycles or motorcyles, and then disappear into the local population. There has never been a national security policy that took into account the new world reality after the cold war.
Mali has a surface area of 1,240,000 km2. Currently, the number of security force personnel is not sufficient to cover such a vast and sometimes inhospitable territory. The lack of an air force has made the need for more personnel even more glaring.
The biggest challenge for the army has to do with recruitment, training and promotion. The recruitment system is too politicized and is not merit-based. The promotion system is meeting with opposition from within, and many soldiers are expressing their displeasure with this system. Mali’s press is having a field day with the plethora of generals for such a small army. Training is overseen by several countries. The end result is inconsistency.
The army is under-equipped, and the salaries are very low. Since the 2011 rebellion, emphasis has been placed on re-equipping the military. The work of reconstruction has been made all the more difficult by the scandals involving overcharging for supplies, and the diversion by officers of hardship allowances intended for the soldiers. The intelligence component has been neglected.
Setbacks experienced in the north and the centre of Mali have led soldiers and non-commissioned officers to raise questions about the officers, as well as about the political class. Finally, since 1968, the army has not hesitated to become embroiled in the political arena. From the time of independence to the present day, the military has been at the helm of the country for over thirty years.
The biggest challenge for the army has to do with recruitment, training and promotion. The recruitment system is too politicized and is not merit-based. The promotion system is meeting with opposition from within, and many soldiers are expressing their displeasure with this system
In summary, Mali does not yet have the appropriate tool for addressing new threats and novel types of conflicts. This is an institution that is trying to wage war against a formidable enemy, while instituting reforms at the same time. The army feels that it has been betrayed by the political class.
An economy that creates little added value
The most profitable sectors belong to foreign interests. This is the case for the banking, telecommunications and mining sectors. Mali has great potential as an agricultural country. Agricultural products are exported with very little added value. The political crisis has contributed to worsening a precarious economic situation.
The conflict in the Centre is having a negative effect on Mali’s two core economic sectors: agriculture and livestock production. Finally, the transfers of funds from the diaspora are not directed to the most productive sectors of the economy. These transfers have slowed down since the start of the pandemic. Tourism, which was previously flourishing, has come to an abrupt halt. Endemic corruption is killing entrepreneurship and is pushing everyone to look for government contracts.
Emergence of a criminal economy whose significance is underestimated
Since the beginning of the 1990s, a criminal economy has developed in the north and gradually in the centre of Mali. From the early 2000s, these increasingly criminal activities have intensified. Initially, there were four pillars underpinning this economy: the trafficking of Western hostages that has brought in billions of African Financial Community francs (CFA francs), narcotics trafficking, the trafficking of migrants headed for the Mediterranean, and cigarette smuggling.
Mali does not yet have the appropriate tool for addressing new threats and novel types of conflicts
Added to these, since the 2010s, are artisanal mine development, fuel trafficking and livestock theft. It is standard practice to accuse armed groups of being the sponsors and beneficiaries of this underground economy. This trafficking quite likely has illicit drug supply networks in Bamako and in most of the capital cities of the Sahel countries. In some ways like in Latin America, the criminal economy has infiltrated the upper levels of the State.
It is widely known that, in the various negotiations to free hostages, a number of drug dealers have been freed by the Government of Mali. A new economic counter-elite is appearing. This elite, whose ripple effects extend from Bamako to the northern tip of Mali, has no interest in the country becoming stabilized.
The first conflicts connected to climate change
Climate changes and their impacts in Mali are rarely analyzed. In the north and especially in the centre, the different droughts and particularly the one in 1973 have had a devastating effect. Population movements have followed. The conflicts between sedentary and nomadic peoples can be explained by climate change.
Because of major droughts, it is no longer possible for Peuls (Fulani) and nomadic people to move their herds to graze in distant pastures depending on the season. Ill-advised land-use policies have contributed to worsening a problem that is connected to the environment. The discourse of the “war on terrorism” flies in the face of this reality.
A Constitution and laws that are never applied
There are gaps in the Constitution of Mali. It is a pale imitation of the French Constitution. Consequently, executive power is dominant, and power is centralized in Bamako. Most of the presidents have attempted to amend the Constitution and/or to institute deep reforms.
The conflict in the Centre is having a negative effect on Mali’s two core economic sectors: agriculture and livestock production
There is no doubt that the Constitution is imperfect. In Mali, neither the Constitution nor the laws are applied. The Charter passed after the coup d’état was violated by the junta. This is not a new phenomenon: this non-application of laws is at the root of Mali’s problems. Impunity is the norm. Economic crimes are rarely punished. There is no follow-up to reports by the Office of the Auditor General. Most of the protagonists of the conflict in the country commit crimes.
The perpetrators are never punished. The clichés about bad governance conceal this simple truth: the laws are not applied. In certain regions of the centre and the north, people find that the jihadists are more just and equitable. The debate about judges’ salaries masks a deeper reality: the Malian system of justice does not have the means to do its work.
Democracy is not paying any dividends
In 1991, a popular uprising that culminated in a coup d’état overturned the regime of General Moussa Traoré, who had been in power since November 19, 1968. Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) headed the transition before relinquishing power to a civilian government. The Malian political class that originated in the uprising of 1991 has fallen short of expectations.
The participation rate in elections is very low. Elections are manipulated in favour of the candidates and the outgoing majority. Corruption has become endemic. Mali’s education system has collapsed. As stated before, the defence apparatus has not been adapted to face new threats. We have witnessed the emergence of more than 200 political groups.
There are, without a doubt, women and men of great quality in the political class. On the whole, the political class that emerged from the changes of 1991 is very corrupt. It has brought the country to the current situation. It is not capable of dealing with the issues that are currently at stake.
In certain regions of the centre and the north, people find that the jihadists are more just and equitable. The debate about judges’ salaries masks a deeper reality: the Malian system of justice does not have the means to do its work
As a result of this situation, a number of Malians would like to have a regime comparable to that of Jerry Rawlings in Ghana or Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. The population is stunned by the recent events. Malian opinion tended to be favourable towards the coup d’état that took place in August 2020.
Human capital with underutilized potential
Mali has a diaspora whose potential is underutilized. In Western Europe, in Africa and within international organizations, some of Mali’s best minds yearn to use their talents in the service of their country.
Domestically, the most promising young people are entering the private sector, such as in the subsidiaries of multinational firms, or are joining development agencies. The Malian Government is stuck with a public service that no longer attracts the ‘crème de la crème’. Typically, the public service is politicized. Career civil servants are marginalized in favour of political appointees.
Each new government appoints its supporters, consequently extremely competent civil servants are often pushed to the side. Just like in the army, recruitment in the public service is done along political lines. The strike led by the UNTM (National Workers’ Union of Mali) is a reminder of the precarious working conditions of Malian civil servants.
As a result of this situation, a number of Malians would like to have a regime comparable to that of Jerry Rawlings in Ghana or Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore
Different perceptions between Mali and the international community
Through the well-orchestrated protests in front of the Embassy of Russia in Bamako and the threats made by President Macron to withdraw the Operation Barkhane troops, public attention is being drawn to the profound differences between Mali and its allies. The French object to dialogue with jihadist Malians. Beyond France, the international community sees Islamists as the greatest threat to the Sahel.
The Malian State and, in particular, public opinion are more afraid of partition. Malians are in favour of negotiating with the Islamists. Within public opinion, all sorts of conspiracy theories and myths are developing. One of the most entrenched myths is that there is no difference between the various armed groups that operate in the north, and that they are in agreement with each other.
This phenomenon is amplified by the existence of social media and the blurring of the lines between journalists, commentators, activists, influencers and simple citizens giving their opinion. While censorship is neither possible nor desirable, what is happening on social media is one of the catalysts of the crisis.
An education system in disarray
Social needs are high in Mali. The most urgent problem is youth unemployment. The school system is in disarray. It is not training people for the job market. Even in the current context, Malian entrepreneurs need to go abroad to recruit specialists for technical positions.
The Malian State and, in particular, public opinion are more afraid of partition. Malians are in favour of negotiating with the Islamists
There is a mismatch between what the educational system provides and the demands of the labour market. Widespread labour unrest and student strikes have paralyzed the system. Because of inadequate salaries offered to teachers, the profession is not attracting enough people. If there is one sector where the system has failed, it is definitely the education sector. In a knowledge-based economy, the country is not preparing for the future. This is more than a challenge―it is an issue of national security.
And now what?
During the last decade, the country has had five presidents, three coups d’état, and eleven prime ministers. In the past year (from June 2020 to June 2021), the country went for more than 140 days without a government. Mali is under the trusteeship of the international community.
In addition to the conflict between the central government and armed groups, the regions in the north and the centre of the country are experiencing widespread, brutal conflicts, both within and between communities. In this context, the country is preparing to “rectify” the transition. The new president, who will inherit a scene of ruin, will need to start with these structural problems.
Crédit photo : Sikafinance.com