Sahel or high water: Mali’s political fatalism

Mali's presidential election will determine the country's future path either toward stability or a return to violence

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita used to be known as “the man who keeps his word”, befitting the vision many held of him as a strong, steadfast leader. Now, many Malians refer to him, with sarcasm or respect (or both), as “the old one”. Mali’s presidential election, the second round of which will take place on Sunday, is in many ways a contest over Keita’s political legacy. But it also raises profound questions about Mali’s future and whether the country’s voters can have a real impact on it.

The stakes appear to be high for both Mali and the European Union. Since the crisis that followed the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, the collapse of Mali’s government in a military coup, and the seizure by armed groups of more than two-thirds of its territory, there has been a sharp increase in international aid and attention directed at the Sahel. The EU plans to spend as much as €8 billion in the region by 2020 on development aid alone – and to fund an array of programmes and three different Common Security and Defence Policy missions there. The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali costs more than $1 billion per year. Operation Barkhane, France’s largest foreign military deployment, maintains a tight focus on Mali, even though its 4,500 troops are spread across a vast area stretching from Mauritania to Chad. In short, the EU and its member states have a great deal of resources, effort, and political capital bound up in the stability of the Sahel.

In the lead-up to the election’s first round, international reporting on Mali tended to focus on intercommunal violence in the centre of the country – violence linked to the state’s weakness in the region – and jihadist groups battling UN peacekeepers and domestic security forces there and in the north. This focus makes sense. The escalating conflict is indeed worrying, while the mission in Mali has proved to be the United Nations’ deadliest deployment. Meanwhile, the G5 Sahel Joint Force has had a rocky start, enduring a major attack on its headquarters that led to the dismissal of its commander, a renowned Malian general.

Yet this focus on security and violence misses a great deal of the issues Malians believe to be at stake in the election. Although security issues are important to them, they are even more aware of an existential crisis of corruption and inequality – to which many are so inured as to be indifferent. Rather than asking “what is to be done?”, many Malians seem to be saying “plus ça change”. This would help explain why voter turnout in the first round of the election, which took place on 29 July, was well under 50 percent.

Indeed, the results reaffirm the status quo, even with the numerous and sometimes credible allegations of fraud. The two candidates who advanced to the second round also faced off against each other in the 2013 election. This time, Keita – always the favourite in a system heavily weighted towards the incumbent – won a comfortable 41.4 percent of the vote while his main rival, Soumaila Cissé, gained only 17.8 percent, in a field of 24 contenders. These figures are unsurprising, if still suspicious. In the 2013 election, Keita was the hands-down favourite – widely regarded as the right man to deal with Mali’s problems during a difficult time – yet he won 39.2 percent to Cissé’s 19.4 percent in the first round.

There are probably more hardware stores than pharmacies in Bamako

In 2018, amid numerous accusations of voter fraud and the closure of hundreds of voting booths due to security concerns and other problems, Mali’s opposition has cried foul and filed a series of challenges in Mali’s Constitutional Court. The EU election observation mission has also issued a strong statement reiterating its calls for a release of vote totals by bureau, perhaps signalling that it also finds the fraud allegations credible. Still, so far, the opposition has no plans to systematically boycott the second round of voting – although that may change. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the roughly 40 percent of people who voted for neither Cissé nor Keita will show up to support one of the candidates in the second round.

In the absence of a clear shift in voter behaviour, other areas of Malian life can tell us something about the Mali that might emerge after the election. For instance, even before the first round, many residents of Bamako were talking about real estate. There was a mild uncertainty in the real estate market – which, in the context of an election, is no bad thing. Some people who bought up government property in cramped central Bamako via shady – if relatively small-scale – deals hurried to demolish buildings on their newly acquired land before 29 July. They did so in case Keita (and his influential son, Karim) lost power.

Nonetheless, the thousands of building sites across Bamako, especially on its fringes, reflect optimism about the future. There are probably more hardware stores than pharmacies in the city, while the value of undeveloped land is rising by as much as 20 percent year. Malians are investing in land and construction. The fact that many of them continue to buy land and build houses is a good sign.

Former leaders of the secessionist northern rebellion of 2011-12 are constructing huge villas in Bamako rather than, for example, Algeria (although many Kidal Tuaregs continue to own houses and land in the country). And northern Malians living in Bamako neighbourhoods such as Golfe joke about the new “drug villas” – some allegedly owned by these same northern leaders – climbing into the sky like the bougainvillea that snake the walls of many compounds there, an anecdotal sign that conflict has not been too bad for business after all.

But much of the building is undertaken by Malians based abroad, who invest what they earn in Africa, Europe, or the United States in Bamako or other Malian cities, such as Kayes and Segou. This does not jibe well with the media narrative on an intensifying struggle against terrorism, nor with the idea of Mali as a failed state. But it does suggest a disconnect in which Malians continue to invest and ensconce themselves in centres of power even while the country slowly crumbles around them.

When Malians do talk about violence, they invoke rumours of “militias” linked to Keita and, to a lesser extent, Cissé – who was minister of finance when his rival was prime minister during the 1990s. Before the voting started, many Malians suggested that these groups would either disrupt the election in precincts where their opponents were strongest or, should Keita lose, contest the result on the streets. While some supporters of Cissé and others threatened violence if Keita won outright in the first round, the actual result had only a limited impact. Few people seemed to protest, even when the government reportedly moved to shut down popular commentator Ras Bath’s radio network – likely in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the government and his support for Cissé.

These rumours, as well as the relatively muted public outcry following the first round, reveal Malians’ deep cynicism about their country’s political class and their lack of enthusiasm for going to the polls. All of this points to two long-term trends that will remain relevant no matter who wins the election.

One relates to the apparently widespread perception that the national government is not responsible for ensuring citizens’ security. There has always been some truth to this. Relative to the broad spectrum of armed actors in Mali – ranging from peacekeepers to communal militias and jihadist fighters – the national army has only moderate capacity and effectiveness. Not only is it dangerously weak as a fighting force, it is also flat out dangerous to the population – having been credibly accused of killing civilians and allowing militias ostensibly aligned with the government to move around freely and to attack citizens with impunity. This is despite promises by Keita and Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga to aggressively tackle the security situation in central Mali. Thus, in security matters – which ought to be at the very core of the role and responsibilities of the state – the political leadership would seem to be impervious to accountability. This is not because people do not care about security, but because they think it is not the preserve of their leaders.

The second long-term trend is that, as in many other parts of the world, the capital city is pulling ever further away from the rest of the country. In some ways, Bamako’s elites are more connected to the realities of cities outside Mali than to what is happening in the centre or north of the country. And what ought to be a thoroughgoing debate about the nature of the state and government often instead turns on narrower questions of development and growth that fail to address many of the country’s deeper problems.

The second round of voting has already alleviated one potential problem: a widespread fear that a first-round win for Keita would precipitate protests and violence. Now, despite the controversies of the first round, one can only hope for a healthy turnout in the second round so that the results reflect the genuine desires of Mali’s people. Because if Mali’s road back to stability and security does not begin in the polling booth, where does it begin?

Gregory Mann is professor of history at Columbia University. Andrew Lebovich is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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