Voters in the West African nation of Mali will go to the polls this weekend for legislative elections that may offer insight into the country’s uncertain political trajectory. Mali descended into chaos last year
, when a coup d’etat in the country’s south paved the way for Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida to take over the northern two-thirds of the country.
In late-July, Malians turned out in record numbers for a presidential election that the international community—particularly, France and the U.S.—had been calling for as a condition for unlocking nearly $4 billion in pledged assistance. That election came just six months after a French-led military intervention
drove the mosaic of Islamist and Tuareg nationalist rebels from their northern strongholds. Despite calls for delays by prominent NGOs and some local politicians who feared that a rushed vote might further destabilize the country, the election was ultimately deemed free and fair by international observers.
But serious questions remain regarding Mali’s political transition, and lingering security concerns in the north have many analysts wondering if Mali—once wrongly considered a model democracy in Africa—is actually on a viable path to stability, or rushing headlong back toward the failed “politics as usual” that characterized the pre-coup period.
Mali’s new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, has long tried to cultivate a reputation as an independent thinker and a tough negotiator. His detractors see Keita as an opportunist who is too close to powerful religious figures and the junta that overthrew Mali’s previously elected government. His supporters, however, refer to him as “kankelentigui,” a phrase that means he is a man who says things once and means it.
Having struck a chord with voters
by promising to unify the nation and restore Mali’s honor, Keita has vowed not to make the same mistakes as his last elected predecessor, Amadou Toumani Toure, known by his initials, ATT.
One such mistake was ATT’s style of governance, which has been dubbed “ATTocracy” and “artisanal governance” by local observers. Toure was not technically a member of any political party, but managed to win elections and govern through “consensus politics,” which built broad coalitions by co-opting potential rivals.
Through a mix of horse-trading, patronage and outright corruption, ATT had ostensibly removed any incentives for political parties and civil society groups to form opposition movements. The end result was an incestuous, self-enriching political class in Bamako, a proliferation of state-supported militias tied to business interests in the north and the hollowing out of state institutions.
Keita, who is very much part of the political establishment, initially expressed little interest in forming a “unity government,” prompting analysts to wonder if such a mentality might actually allow the political space for an opposition to take root.
This weekend’s elections may provide the first indicator of whether anything representing a vibrant opposition might emerge. There are already several signs that such an outcome is unlikely. While parties that opposed Keita in the presidential elections, such as URD and ADEMA-PASJ, are running candidates nationwide, an odd assortment of alliances and agreements suggests that consensus politics might be alive and well.
In northern Mali, for example, several individuals with ties—direct and alleged—to the rebel groups that gained control of northern Mali last spring are seeking seats in the national assembly as candidates for RPM, Keita’s party.
One of them, Ahmada Ag Bibi, represented Ansar Dine—an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida that implemented a brutal form of Shariah law in areas it controlled before the French intervention—in political talks with the government before the presidential election. Another, Mohamad Ag Intalla, was a senior official in the MNLA, the separatist Tuareg-led group that kicked-off last year’s rebellion, and later went on to form the High Council for Unity in Azawad (HCUA).
Finally, Mohamad Ould Mataly, an Arab businessman and alleged trafficker from Bourem, has been accused of collusion with MUJAO, another armed Islamist group operating in northern Mali. Ould Mataly, who is also thought to have had close ties to ATT, denied the allegations, telling WPR that Arabs are uniquely “targeted” for these types of accusations.
Voter turnout may also offer a glimpse into the underlying health of Mali’s resuscitated democracy. The presidential election in September saw a record participation rate of close to 50 percent. Turnout for the legislative elections may not be that high, but a turnout lower than previous legislative levels would underscore concerns that the Malian population is apathetic and dissatisfied.
Recent protests in Gao, northern Mali’s largest city and one that by and large opposed calls for separatism, suggest that populations in the north are increasingly frustrated. Tensions came to a head on Nov. 1, when thousands of protesters took to the streets, clashing with police officers and torching the mayor’s office, claiming that Gao’s citizens have been shut out of the dialogue concerning the future of northern Mali.
As French and Chadian forces look to withdraw from Mali, Minusma, the U.N. force meant to maintain security in the north, is struggling to find its footing among troop shortages and a complicated mandate that may exceed its capacity. The force currently stands at just more than 6,000 troops, well short of the 12,000 called for by the U.N. In July, Nigeria announced that it would be withdrawing its troops from Mimusma, a setback that was further compounded by the fact that the Nigerian forces were expected to guide Liberian troops participating in their nation’s first peacekeeping mission.
Earlier this month, the Netherlands announced that it would partially fill the gap, contributing about 380 personnel to Minusma, which sources within the mission suggest are likely to be deployed to the volatile Gao region. To date, however, no other countries have pledged substantive commitments to the mission.
Politically, it remains to be seen whether Mali is on a new path or is set for a return to the untenable, pre-coup status quo. Meanwhile, lingering insecurity in the north, combined with the unresolved status of Kidal, the heart of Tuareg separatism, highlight just how incomplete Mali’s political transition is to date.
Peter Tinti is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and security in West Africa and the Sahel. He is currently based in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter at @petertinti.
Photo: Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Aug. 14, 2013 (photo by Wikimedia user Nimissatou).