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Mali elections: in search for national unity

The parliamentary elections in Mali will take place amid a severe security crisis.

Last updated: 22 Nov 2013 11:17
Acheikh Ibn-Oumar

Acheikh Ibn-Oumar is a former Chadian minister of foreign affairs and High Representative to the UN.
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The upcoming parliamentary elections in Mali, like the July presidential vote, will help legitimize post-coup state institutions [Reuters]

Following the much-commended presidential elections in July, Malians are expected to go back to the polling stations again to elect a new parliament. The first round of elections is due on November 24, while the second round is planned for December in the constituencies where there would be a need for runoffs.

The elections come at a time when Mali is experiencing severe security problems which will constitute a serious challenge to the long-term stability of the country. In this unstable environment, while it is important to conduct the elections for the sake of the democratic process, the ballot box , however, cannot be expected to yeild immediate change.

Pervasive insecurity

Mali's security situation continues to be fragile, with recurrent violent incidents, the most publicised of which being the abduction and killing of two French journalists. Suicide attacks against the Malian armed forces and MINUSMA have become a daily routine. It is becoming more evident that the victory chants, following the successful recapturing of the main northern towns by the French troops and their Malian, Chadian and other African allies, were a bit too precipitous.

The myriad of armed groups labelled "narco-terrorists" (i.e. al-Qaeda affiliates), though defeated and seriously weakened, have not been eradicated.

One of the key challenges is that it is impossible to draw a clear line between the foreign "terrorist" groups which have no local agenda, on one hand, and the so-called "secular" indigenous movements, with legitimate social and political demands, on the other hand. Hybrid groups, which have both local Tuareg roots and an Islamist/jihadist agenda are growing in number. A typical example of these hybrid groups is Ansar Dine, founded by a historical figure of the Tuareg rebellion: Iyad Ag Ghali.

The presidential vote gave a clear sign that the state institutions were being gradually restored.

At the same time, within al-Qaeda networks, we have seen the emergence of katibas (combat units) led by and composed of local Tuaregs. The confusion is further compounded by two factors: the emergence of new groups as offshoots from existing movements; and the constant movement of fighters from one organization to another, from one ideological stance to another, with seemingly great ease. As a result, alliances shift overnight, and so do the ideological inclinations and the political claims: Tuareg separatism, Arab separatism, secularism, Islamism, autonomy, secession, Malian unity, etc.

Because of such dynamic changes, alliances with some of these groups can become problematic. The French troops, for example, have been harshly criticized for their friendly relationships with some Tuareg rebel groups, especially the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the main separatist movement. The French advocated an alliance with the MNLA, in order to reduce the number of hostile forces, and benefit from the local affiliations of MNLA's members, their familiarity with the terrain, and their grudge against the Islamist/jihadist gangs.

As a result, the town of Kidal and large swathes of territory surrounding it remain the battle ground for the French and Chadian troops, the so-called "secular" Tuareg rebels, the scattered Islamist/jihadist goups, and a multitude of splinter factions with changing attitudes and creeds.

Currently the French would not allow Malian troops into these very sensitive areas for fear of retributions against the local population, collectively suspected by the rest of the Malians of supporting the MNLA rebels. The Malian army, in general, is not able to assert its presence in the Northeast (Kidal region) because they still do not have the capabilities to do so.

On a technical level, the French troops are replicating the mistakes made by their American counterparts in Afghanistan and Iraq, i.e. transforming their mission from a military to a policing one. The foreign troops run the risk of being perceived by the local population as an occupying force rather than a liberating one.

The importance of elections

It is not difficult to conclude, given the problems mentioned above, that the conditions for the upcoming parliamentary elections are far from ideal.

The MNLA leadership has made it clear that it would not allow its leading members to take part in the elections, their main arguments being that this issue was not part of the Ouagadougou agreement. In reaction, the authorities in Bamako managed to co-opt some members of the MNLA into the electoral process, thus creating grounds for internal dissensions.

At the same time, there is a great number of refugees from northern Mali living in camps in neighbouring countries. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 200,000 refugees in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. These refugees had very limited opportunities to participate in the presidential elections in July, and there are no indications that the situation will change for the upcoming parliamentary vote.

Despite all these challenges, postponing elections is out of question. This is because the vote can be an important step for establishing the legitimacy of state institutions.

The presidential elections in July were held under similar conditions, or even worse, and despite the numerous deficiencies, they did have a positive impact. The majority of the people within the country were able to cast their vote.

The new president gained legitimacy which the previous transitional government, put in place after Captain Amadou Sanogo's coup d'etat, so critically lacked. The presidential vote gave a clear sign that the state institutions were being gradually restored. This institutional rehabilitation will certainly gain a renewed credibility after the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the same time, Mali's international partners, whose aid is so crucial to the country's recovery, will feel more comfortable giving the needed help to democratically elected institutions.

Challenges ahead

Therefore, the elections should be seen as a necessary step towards institutional normalisation, and not as the magic wand that would solve all the problems.

However, as the democratically elected presidency has so far done very little to eliminate the security threats, the upcoming parliamentary elections will certainly not bring a dramatic change in that respect. They will probably have little effect on the protracted political, economic, and social problems.

Stability and peace are preconditions for the implementation of any national rehabilitation program. The roots of the recurrent Malian crisis lay in two fundamental issues: economic development and political inclusiveness.

On the ground, the immediate obstacle to resolving these issues is the lack of trust between members belonging to different components of the nation. Some elements within the Malian army tend to see the whole Tuareg community as a single hostile entity, and don't hesitate to engage in acts of collective punishment. On the other hand, some members of the rebel movements nurture the same preconceptions against the rest of the Malian society.

Restoring an atmosphere of mutual trust requires decisive steps from the elites, whatever the political price. Political negotiations, as well as agreements between the central authorities and some rebel groups, may lower the intensity of the conflicts for some time, but cannot bring a lasting solution to this destructive crisis.

Confidence at the grassroot level is the key to any progress, which requires the inclusion of local actors and the empowerment of basic social entities. Peace, stability and unity are better achieved through bottom-up processes than the other way around.

Therefore, the elections should be seen as a necessary step towards institutional normalisation, and not as the magic wand that would solve all the problems. The people in charge should understand their electoral mandate as a responsibility to deliver solutions to the vital challenges facing the nation, and not as a green light to implement whatever policies suit the interests of their followers.

Acheikh Ibn-Oumar is a former Chadian minister of foreign affairs and High Representative to the UN. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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