Mali’s ill-timed and inflammatory election

Holding elections in Mali as planned may undermine the legitimacy of the victor and raise tensions in the fragile state.

Mali conflict
Proceeding with elections in Mali may actually cause more problems than the vote hopes to solve, with a lack of preparation and information threatening to render a result that is far from legitimate [EPA]

Mali looks as if it is definitely going ahead with a presidential election on July 28, in spite of the fact that many ‘experts’, probably the majority, have advised that it should be postponed, certainly by three months, perhaps longer.

On June 26, the highly-respected International Crisis Group (ICG) urged Mali’s politicians to delay the election for no more than 3 months. It argued that this would allow the authorities adequate time to prepare and ensure that those citizens who wished to vote could do so.

Pressing ahead with the July 28 schedule, as the authorities have decided to do, could lead to a chaotic and contested vote, and a new president without the legitimacy essential for the country’s recovery. Holding elections in the current state of tension and unpreparedness risks continued instability and further internal conflict. 

The Kidal ‘problem’

Since February, when France in particular, began pressing for an early presidential election to provide some semblance of a legitimate government, the separatist Kidal region has effectively been ruled, with the backing of the French military, by the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the predominantly Tuareg group who began the rebellion for an independent Azawad (the Tuareg name for northern Mali) in January 2012.

This situation angered the transitional Mali government in Bamako, as it meant that a national presidential election would clearly have no credibility if Kidal remained under the control of the ‘rebels’, who were boycotting the election. The French military, however, had little choice in the matter.

Although the French action may have prevented a bloodbath in Kidal, it angered Bamako on two counts

If they had allowed the Mali army to move into Kidal behind France’s military campaign (Operation Serval) to drive the Islamists out of Mali, as the Bamako government wanted, it would almost certainly have triggered renewed fighting between the army and the MNLA, and a likely bloodbath that would have taken Mali backwards to a situation as bad or if not worse than had prevailed in January 2012.

In early June, the Mali army had in fact advanced as far north as Anefis, just 108 kms SW of Kidal, where, in addition to killing at least 15 MNLA fighters, it slaughtered a number of innocent civilians. Any further advance northwards would have been catastrophic. Hence the French protective blockade of Kidal.

Although the French action may have prevented a bloodbath in Kidal, it angered Bamako on two counts. Firstly, as long as the Mali army was being denied access to Kidal, the Malian government could not claim to have authority, let alone control, over the entire national territory. Secondly, as long as the MNLA retained authority over Kidal, there was no chance of the region and its peoples participating in the July election.


The Ouagadougou peace deal

However, on June 18, after several weeks of intense negotiations, a peace deal was signed in Ouagadougou between the Malian government and the MNLA and the more recently formed HCUA (Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad). These two groups represented the Tuareg rebels who had begun the rebellion in January 2012. The accord, which called for an immediate ceasefire and for government troops to return to the rebel-held northern town of Kidal, paved the way for the July 28 presidential election.

The deal comprised two basic components. One was an immediate ceasefire and the return of the Malian army into Kidal, but with a continued French military presence there to protect the MNLA. The other was that Kidal would take part in the July elections.

Electoral shortcomings

The situation could deteriorate, especially in the northern regions, with the result that the elections simply collapse into illegitimacy, leaving the country in a far worse situation than it is in today.

The ICG’s concerns about the election, expressed in the wake of the Ouagadougou deal, were mostly technical. With only a month to go, preparations for the vote were still a long way behind schedule. There was insufficient time to distribute new voter ID cards in all regions and to make the inevitable corrections involving changes of residency and the like.

Moreover, the electoral roll, based on the 2009 census, contained many errors. In addition, some 500,000 potential voters had either fled to refugee camps outside the country or been displaced within Mali.

With only a few days to go before the election, the technical-administrative situation may have improved a little, but still verges on the chaotic. The Interior Ministry now claims that 68 percent of the population has received their voter cards, although many experts and analysts on the ground believe that figure is inflated. In the critical Kidal region, the figure is only 20 percent.

Data from amongst the 500,000 displaced persons looks indicates that few of them will get the chance to vote, even if they should wish to do so. Thousands of Malian residents in France will be deprived of their vote. In Paris, the situation is chaotic. Reports indicate that only 13 of 1,500 people in one region had registered to vote. Such ‘technical’ problems could lead to chaos and legal challenges.

Mali does not have a good record in either inspiring its citizens to vote or in managing elections. Since its independence, voter turnout has never exceeded 40 percent, meaning that only some 15 percent of the country’s population vote. In 2002 nearly one ballot out of four was cancelled, while in 2007 some 40 percent of voters did not receive their cards. The July 28 election will not be an exception to this dismal record. In addition, the rainy season and Ramadan will pose constraints on potential voters.

Equally serious is that there has been insufficient time to prepare the population for this election. Neither the candidates nor their positions and policies are well known to the electorate. Indeed, most of the country, including most of Bamako’s political class, is still ignorant of the true facts of what has happened to the country over the last 18 months.

Nor do most Malians really grasp the country’s deeply-rooted and institutional problems that led to last year’s rebellion, and least of all how they might be addressed. The bulk of the population in the country’s South is still living in a world of propaganda, prejudice and ignorance when it comes to what is going on in northern Mali and what happened there during the course of the rebellion and subsequent Islamist incursion.

Many experts are of the view that the country needs several months of peace, stability and political education before an election can be held. But that political time and space has not been granted. The needs of France, the US, EU, UN and other international agencies for a semblance of a legitimate government able to receive international funds  has taken precedence over the real political needs of the country’s people. The appointment of an elected government is a prerequisite for the release of much needed foreign aid, most of which was suspended following the March 2012 coup.

Until July 15, 13 days before voting, not one of the 28 presidential candidates had even visited Kidal. It was not until that same day that the new governor of Kidal, Colonel Adama Kamissoko, was able to set up an office in Kidal’s mairie, the governor’s official office being in the hands of the MNLA. Two days later, on July 17, one of the few candidates with some credibility in the region, Tiébilé Dramé, withdrew his candidacy on the grounds that the conditions for the election were not suitable.

Even at the highest levels, there is an admission that the situation is not really suitable for such an election. General Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, head of the French armed forces in Mali, has admitted that “Mali is not completely stabilised”, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “even if imperfect, the results must be respected”.

The very real danger is that if these many administrative technicalities lead to the sort of chaos that some people predict, or if political situation deteriorates between now and during the period of the election (with the second round on August 11), there may be few reasons why people should follow Ban Ki-moon’s wishes and respect the results. Worse still, the situation could deteriorate, especially in the northern regions, with the result that the elections simply collapse into illegitimacy, leaving the country in a far worse situation than it is in today.

Tension high in Kidal

Mali to vote for new president

Although such a disastrous outcome of the elections is less than likely, it certainly is not impossible. Although MNLA and HCUA delegations held positive talks in Bamako with Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré on July 21st, the Kidal region is fraught with tension.

On the night of July 18-19 four people were killed and at least ten wounded in fighting that broke out in Kidal, ostensibly between Tuareg and ‘blacks’ (although one Songhai that was killed was said to be sympathetic to the MNLA). The market and many shops, notably those belonging to traders from Gao, were set on fire.

On the next day six people (five election officials and an official from the local government) were kidnapped at Tessalit by unknown persons driving a vehicle flying the MNLA flag. The officials were released unharmed shortly afterwards. But, while the local préfet (head of the administration) accused MNLA of the kidnapping, several senior Tuareg have accused both Algeria and Malian government agents of being behind this and other such recent incidents.

There also unverified reports of Malian militia, such as the Ganda Koy, being sent into the region to ferment trouble. Indeed, there have been several reports in recent weeks of Malian political leaders and the country’s armed forces inciting and even being complicit in acts of ethnically motivated violence against Tuareg populations. The Malian government has also accused the MNLA and HCUA of committing similar acts of violence against non-Tuareg ethnic groups residing in the Kidal region.

Whatever the truth behind these incidents and rumours, it is clear that tension in Kidal is high and that the town and region will be lucky if the election passes without further incident. The fear is that any further violence in the Kidal region could not only derail the Ouagadougou accord but could see the election becoming a platform for more collective and sustained outbreaks of ethnic violence across the country.

The election is likely to be shambolic, with many eligible citizens protesting their inability to cast ballots and with the results being challenged. Worse is that the election risks being so technically deficient, and with such a low turnout, that it will fail to bestow sufficient legitimacy on the new president and could feed a new cycle of instability.

The big question is what happens after the elections. Will the Ouagadougou deal last? There are a number of inherent weaknesses to the Ouagadougou deal. Three stand out: the calibre of the Tuareg signatories, the views of the MNLA/Tuareg rank and file and the seeming intransigence and poverty of ‘progressive’ thinkers amongst Bamako’s political classes.

Weaknesses in the Tuareg leadership

How will the idea of Mali, un et indivisible go down with the MNLA rank and file? The answer, according to some local experts, is “not very well”

The Two Tuareg signatories of the Accord were Alghabass Ag Intalla, son of the traditional chief of the Iforas clan, Intalla Ag Attaher, and Bilal ag Acherif, General Secretary of the MNLA. Although the heir apparent to the leadership of the Iforas, many believe that Alghabass is not the ideal person to lead the Iforas and the other Tuareg clans in the Adrar-n-Iforas region out of their current predicament and into a more peaceful and productive future.

Many of those who know him well believe that the choices he made in siding with Iyad ag Ghali and his Islamist Ansar al-Din during the course of last year’s rebellion betrayed a serious lack of judgement and a scant grasp of both geopolitics and local realpolitik. He allowed himself to become a mere pawn in Iyad’s games of power and devilish alliance. His split from Iyad and Ansar al-Din shortly after France launched Operation Serval was deemed by many as merely opportunistic.

Alghabass’ standing within his own community has been diminished considerably by his lack of good judgement over the last 18 months. Thus, although he is a signatory to the Ouagadougou Accords, it is doubtful whether he has the innate capacity to really lead his people. It is unlikely that his leadership will remain unchallenged for very long.

Views of the Tuareg rank and file

There are also questions as to how long the Tuareg rank and file will go along with a peace deal whose fundamental principle is adherence to the national unity and territorial integrity of Mali.

As recently as February, several of the MNLA’s leaders were adamant that a return to the pre-rebellion frontiers of Mali was not an option for them or many of their troops. They felt that relationships had broken down to such an extent that the old cohabitation was no longer viable. Since then, much pressure has been exercised on the MNLA along no doubt with some handsome inducements.

One inducement could have been a promise by Mali, supported and ‘witnessed’ by France, to implement a road map towards some level of regional autonomy. Most of the more realistic minds in the upper echelons of Tuareg society have accepted that an independent Azawad will have to remain a dream for a long time yet. Has Mali, under pressure from France, secretly agreed to consider some form of regional autonomy? Only time will tell.

But how will the idea of Mali, un et indivisible go down with the MNLA rank and file? The answer, according to some local experts, is “not very well”. Palpable apprehension of self-serving leaders selling out has existed amongst the lower ranks of the MNLA for some while now.

The best that can be hoped for is that MNLA fighters will see the Ouagadougou deal as a tactical move to buy time and breathing space, rather than a solid foundation on which future peace and happiness can be built. And perhaps the leaders, in their hearts of hearts, share the same view.

A dearth of progressives

The biggest risk of the deal breaking down comes not from the MNLA and the Tuareg but from Bamako. Both the interim government and popular opinion are far from ready to contemplate any kind of major concession to the MNLA, whose image in the south has been described by one journalist as “the devil incarnate”.

But, as with the MNLA leadership, there are signs that a certain realism has been seeping into the minds of at least a few senior politicians in Bamako, no doubt aided by a certain ‘gentle’ pressure from France, the US and EU (of the $4.2 billion that has so far been pledged to the region’s redevelopment and security). This may prompt some in Bamako’s political classes to consider a form of devolution/regional autonomy as the price that has to be paid for long term peace.

The real danger, as a leading writer and expert on the region said, “is that such ‘progressive’ thinking remains in a minority and out of step with the seeming intransigence of mass opinion”. The youth wing of SADI (Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocracie et l’Independence) has already denounced the Ouagadougou accords as “a heinous plot to carve up Mali, aided and abetted by France”. Daniel Tessougué, chief public prosecutor of the Court of Appeal in Bamako, declared that if the politicians sign these accords, they will have to answer to history.

The fact that some of the most vociferous opposition to the accords is coming from presidential candidates and from members of their parties does not bode well for the future. As one local expert concluded: “If the candidate who wins the elections … is one who chooses to base his or her political strategy on the popular mood in the streets, the accords will not be worth the paper they are written on”. If that is the case, then another rebellion, in five, ten or twenty years’ time, is almost inevitable.


Jeremy Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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