Friday, August 9, 2013

May the odds be ever in their favor: Mali’s Beleaguered Presidential Candidates

By Allyson Clancy

The West African country Mali may find hope at last in moving forward from its most recent conflict. Early last year an ethnic-based group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebelled against the government and joined with various Islamist groups to create a separate state for the Tuareg people in the north Mali region. By March 2012 factions of the military, dissatisfied with the government’s response to the rebellion, ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in a coup d’état.  Shortly thereafter, the MNLA claimed the conquered territories of North Mali as an independent state, while the Islamist groups began to travel southward, hoping to establish shari’a law throughout the country. Even though the international community pledged to respond in October 2012, it wasn’t until France decided to lead the intervention in January 2013 that the country began to recover lost ground. Now, 18 months since the last president was overthrown, the country is able to improve its conditions with new leadership to guide development and recovery.

Mali is currently facing a second round of presidential elections, with results expecting to be announced this Sunday.  Of the 27 candidates who campaigned for the position, two remain. Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, popularly referred to as IBK, and former finance minister Soumaila Cisse are facing one of the most pivotal political battles in the country’s history. According to Malian election policy, outlined in a recent BBC article, if no presidential candidate receives over 50% of the popular vote, a second round of voting will occur. IBK leads the campaign with 39.2% of the vote, running under the Rally for Mali party (RPM), which he established in 2001 under the banner “For Mali’s honour.” Cisse holds 19.4% of votes and represents the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD), which he founded in 2003. While France and members of the international community applauded the peaceful election process last week, the African nation has many issues to tackle regarding reconstruction and development as it faces the aftermath of the 2012 conflict and French intervention.  Whoever wins the presidential election has a very tough road ahead.    

One of the greatest issues that the future president of Mali will face is how to handle the tensions that still remain in northern Mali, specifically with the Tuareg people, who make up 10% of the population and who also sparked the 2012 conflict. Prior to the coup in April 2012, the MNLA claimed independence of northern Mali following a violent takeover of major cities such as Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. The MNLA dream of one day creating a state for the Tuareg people in the Sahel region, and argue that northern Mali is their ancestral homeland, called “Azawad.” When the 2012 conflict began, the MNLA allied with Islamic groups such as Ansar Dine and the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in a campaign to separate from Mali. However, when the Islamic groups began to dominate much of the Tuareg territory, the MNLA changed its tune and re-aligned with France and the Malian government against the Islamic groups.  Although peace has been made between the MNLA and Malian government, the long-standing desire of the Tuareg and MNLA for a separate state remains.  The establishment and preservation of peace in the country could come from the future President’s actions to address this separatist ideology, as well as his strategy to unify the north and south.

The future leader of Mali must also address the remaining Islamic activists who wish to see the country ruled under shari’a law. In the aftermath of the 2013 French intervention, many who belonged to Islamist terrorist groups faded into the population or dispersed into neighboring countries. Close to 95% of the population is Muslim, and there is growing fear that a strict policy against the terrorists will cause resistance in the communities that sympathize with extremist causes.  Furthermore, while France removed the majority of troops from the country, its paternal stance in support of the regime of its former colony has been widely criticized and stokes Islamist-nationalist sentiments. If the President were to lean too favorably on France or other western countries for assistance, there may be a backlash from the Sahel and North African region, which could lead to greater instability in an already fragile country.
Not only are opposition groups an obstacle to peace, but the rebuilding of many cities and towns is not going to be a walk in the park, either. Businesses, homes, schools, markets… all were destroyed amidst the fighting, and many people in the northern region were left with little to live on. Mopti, one of Mali’s economic centers, has not recovered from the conflict due to the fall of neighboring towns to Islamist groups.  The World Food Programme estimates 475,000 people are displaced, and Mali is now ranked 182 out of the 187 countries by the Human Development Index, with major issues such as a lack of potable water, agricultural drought, food shortages, and government corruption.  Effective programs must be implemented and monitored in order for the country to make any strides toward improvement. The international community pledged € 3.25 billion, or $4.32 billion for a recovery plan, which is estimated to cost €4.3 billion for relief and reconstruction. However, with a history of corruption in government and business, doubt remains throughout the population that the promises of development will be fulfilled.
The future President, whether it is IBK or Cisse, must restore faith and hope in Mali. Over 18 months passed with violence, conflict, destruction, and violations against Mali’s citizens.  He will have to restore the Malian people’s trust in state-run programs and projects. He will have to make strides in resolving the tensions with the Tuareg people, and he will have to establish proper security forces to protect the country from insurgency.
It is going to take Mali more than just one election to recover from the recent civil conflict. But a President that the country believes in and who is committed to regaining peace and stability throughout the country is a great place to start.

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