The role of governance and aid in Mali’s crisis

Specific donor recommendations and conditions have destabilised – rather than “aided” – Mali since 2000.

Malian junta leader, Captain Amadou Sano
When Captain Amadou Sanogo orchestrated the coup in March in Mali, President Amadou Toumani Toure had lost most of his support, in a context of degrading governance [AFP]

Dominant media accounts about crisis in Mali, which focus on ethnic or religious factors at play in the country’s North, ignore that the crisis of the state and governance were central grievances of both pro-putschists and pro-insurgent Malians countrywide.

Indeed, when Captain Sanogo orchestrated the coup in March, President Amadou Toumani Toure (known as ATT) had already lost most of his support, in the context of degrading governance. In March 2012, putschists blamed the former president for his laissez-faire policy in the Sahel, which allowed narco-traffick and Islamist groups to prosper.

In Mali, democratisation has gone hand-in-hand with what scholars Jean-Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Beatrice Hibou called “the criminalisation of the state” in a book published in 1999.

Under ATT, governments were accused of handing over thousands of acres of fertile land near the Office du Niger (irrigated agricultural area near Segou in south-central Mali) to international firms

After a Boeing 727 – carrying six tonnes of cocaine from Latin America – crashed near Gao in November 2009, the president and his “clan” were suspected of having connections with and protecting drug-traffickers.

In this context, promises of moral purification and order, made by putschists and Islamists alike, appealed to some Malians in North and South. 

ATT’s politics of “consensus“, a coalition of all political parties and some civil society representatives, was partly responsible for that. This system was weakly structured from an ideological point of view. It was not based on a common vision, but on a fragile compromise between political forces willing to share power.

A few years down the line, it appears that consensus has hindered efficient decision-making, boosted corruption and annihilated the political opposition. This is why political parties are deemed opportunistic and deeply discredited by their constituencies. 

Crisis in Mali

The crisis in Mali is also a crisis of extraverted development and state-building, or what a Belgian aid worker based in Bamako once called “donor-driven ownership” – that is, international efforts to build a state committed to their definition of development and efficient management through foreign aid, conditionalities and daily contacts with African governments. 

Given the country’s dependence on foreign aid (between 1996 and 2005, aid represented three quarters of the special investment budget and 27.6 percent of the state’s general budget) and close “partnership” with aid agencies, donors have undeniably played a role in – and thus bear responsibility for – the disastrous turn of events in the country. Here is how it happened in practice.

On the one hand, donors marketed Mali as a model of democracy and treated it as a “donor darling” receiving more external funds than its poorer neighbours – Niger and Burkina Faso. External funds and recommendations, officially directed at reducing poverty, were appropriated by public actors in such a way that aid fuelled bad governance.

In spite of their sophisticated monitoring tools and constant dialogue with the government, donors actually had little visibility and control over how aid funds were used, especially when provided through budget support, that is, directly through the national budget.

Voluntarily or not, donors also nurtured ATT’s strategy in Northern Mali, which promised a peaceful solution to the Northern issue – but was a key rationale for putschists in March 2012. As part of the US counterterrorism programmes, the country received millions of dollars from the Pan Sahel Initiative, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Operation, in military equipment and training. 

  UN warns of continued humanitarian
need in Mali

The inability of the Malian army to resist insurgent attacks shed some doubt about the programme’s efficiency. So did the fact that Captain Sanogo had participated in US-provided military training. And the corruption of high-rank generals – suspected of having “eaten” the money and constructing spectacular houses for themselves in Bamako – was a central grievance of putschists and their supporters in low or intermediary military ranks. 

People who have worked closely in development cooperation in Northern Mali over the past decade counter that development and aid money was poorly used and instrumentalised in local politics.   

Since humanitarian aid started flowing in Mali after a drought in the 1970s, the central government in Bamako has systematically filtered and limited the allocation of aid to the north. 

Under ATT, aid was most probably provided through the networks of influence and clientelism tied with certain local leaders identified by International Crisis Group in a report called “Mali: Avoiding Escalation” published in July 2012. 

Daniele Roussselier, writer and staff of the French embassy in Bamako from 2007 and 2009, recently revealed that donors actively participated in corruption practices with political leaders on the grounds that “this is the way things work in Mali”.

On the other hand, specific donor recommendations and conditions have destabilised mali. For example, Nordic donors, the European Union and Canadian diplomats insisted on modernising Mali’s Family Code to balance gender relations and improve women’s rights. As a result, the National Assembly voted a new Family Code on July 3, 2009.

The new Code introduced a minimum marriage age (18 years) for women, besides giving status and rights to children born outside of marriage. Moreover, the possibility of men getting several wives without the consent of the first spouse was compromised. 

However, the adoption of new Code was considered as an external imposition and an attack on Malian tradition, religion and way of life. As many as 50,000 supporters of popular Wahhabist Imam Dicko gathered at the Modibo Keita Stadium in Bamako on July 8 and 9 to oppose this and the president had to pull back. 

In the process, some imams consolidated their power as legitimate spokespersons of average citizens against politicians and foreign influences in a broader context of “re-Islamisation” of Mali’s society, as described by French anthropologist Gilles Holder.

Aid dependence

Finally, aid dependence has helped the government to adopt a technocratic language to gain donor support and to closely associate aid agencies to policy-making, sometimes behind closed doors. This has widened the gap between Malian rulers and their constituencies, as illustrated in Bamako, a political fiction by Abderrahmane Sissako, setting the scene for an imaginary popular trial of international financial institutions. 

Interestingly, Malian political scientist Mahamadou Diawara observed re-politicisation of important fractions of society that had deserted conventional politics since the 2012 coup (less than 40 percent of registered voters had casted vote in the last presidential election in 2007). 

Opinion polls carried out by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Southern Mali in February 2013 showed that “citizens have high expectations from international community” – mostly to help refugees to return, to build national security and to conduct free and fair elections.

But before that, a critical assessment of both ATT’s regime and foreign aid must be completed. If Mali’s ruling elite and donors’ way of doing business do not significantly change, the same perverse political process will develop – with international support.

Dr Isaline Bergamaschi is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.