Can Mali’s democracy wait?

Mali cannot afford another rushed and destabilizing election process. Sustaining and strengthening international cooperation should be the first priority, even if this implies a temporary military regime.

Scene from a polling station in Bamako during Mali’s presidential election on 29 July. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

No surprise, but very inconvenient

Mali’s recent coup – the third in three decades – came as no surprise. An escalating civil war, high levels of popular discontent, increasing popularity for the opposition, violent response to peaceful protests, and a government without legitimacy nor loyalty among its own enforcement authorities. In other words, the recipe for a military coup.

At the same time, the military coups in Mali have been relatively peaceful. In each case, the coup-makers’ ambitions were merely to clean up the government on behalf of the population, while also maintaining their commitment to democratic and civil principles. In fact, it was the junta leader of 1991, Amadou Toumani Touré, who spearheaded Mali’s democratic transition, earning him the nickname “The Soldier of Democracy”. Likewise, the current junta has promised to abide by the country’s international obligations and to ensure a timely election of a civil government in collaboration with the opposition.

Yet, the current context is far more perilous compared with the coups in 1991 and 2012.

There was a similar – albeit more serious – civil war during the coup of 2012. Starting as a Tuareg rebellion, the conflict was quickly hijacked by militant Islamists, whose capacity and ambition posed a far greater threat for the state and the broader region. Nevertheless, a transitional government had already been established, and France’s military intervention offered considerable (yet short-lived) stability during the 2013 election.

Today’s junta will find it extremely difficult to organize democratic elections within reasonable time. During the 2018 election, a significant increase in violent attacks from militant Islamists was a contributing factor to low turnout in several regions. Since 2018, the conflict has escalated and is increasingly embedded in social and cultural structures, combined with diminishing confidence in state institutions and international actors. On top of this, Mali is struggling with Covid-19, which is further exacerbated by large public gatherings.

The establishment of a transitional government will also be challenging. On the one hand, the junta is determined to collaborate with the opposition, while on the other hand, it has promised to uphold Mali’s democratic principles. Meanwhile, the candidate for an interim presidency – according to constitutional procedures – is among those the opposition wants to depose.

A new government may weaken international cooperation

While the junta and opposition may reach an agreement, it is difficult to say what a new (transitional) government would look like, and how this will affect stability in Mali, the Sahel and ultimately the global security situation.

The leading opposition figure is Mahmoud Dicko, a conservative and charismatic imam. Over the last couple years, Dicko has effectively mobilized popular protest against a government accused of widespread corruption, electoral fraud, and its inability to improve the country’s economy and to deal with an increasing jihadist violence. Among other things, Dicko’s agenda has been to depose the government and reform the wider political class, to strengthen traditional values, and to negotiate with jihadist leaders.

Although Dicko appears unwilling to seek any political role, there are currently few feasible candidates to fill the political vacuum, and public opinion may also have a persuasive effect. In any event, Dicko and the opposition will have a considerable influence on the formation of a transitional government or an eventual election. Furthermore, the outcome of a democratic election would be subject to an uneven turnout, with the capital and the surrounding region – where support for the opposition is greatest – having a decisive impact. This may lead to a more radical government, which would complicate cooperation with regional and international actors, including the UN, the EU and France, with the latter contributing 5,000 soldiers to the G5 Sahel regional security task-force.

Stability first, democracy later

Behind the international condemnation of the military coup and any unconstitutional process, there is a much greater concern for Mali’s stability and its effect on regional and international security.

Further isolation from the international community would be a worst-case scenario. So far, Mali has been suspended from the African Union, sanctioned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and has lost its military support from the United States. France has confirmed its obligation and military presence despite the coup. Yet, France’s involvement has relied on close cooperation and would be incompatible with a government actively seeking to negotiate with the current jihadist leaders, whose demands include the withdrawal of French and UN forces. This approach would also risk strengthening the influence of jihadist movements and thereby complicate future security cooperation. The G5 Sahel is particularly vulnerable as it relies on cross-border operations to combat transnational jihadist organizations.

Mali cannot afford a destabilizing election process. The first priority should be to establish a transitional government able to sustain and preferably strengthen international and regional security cooperation.

This will be a difficult balancing act between public opinion, international expectations and critical needs at a national level. The junta and opposition have yet to present a plan for a transitional government, and there have been various signals including the potential for a partial military regime for up to three years. In the absence of a strong alternative for a transitional civilian government, a partial military regime should not be dismissed despite its unconstitutional implications, as it may be the preferable solution with regards to national and regional stability.

An alternative solution would be to establish a UN-led transitional administration with a strong mandate from the UN Security Council, as previously implemented in East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo and Yugoslavia. The challenge is that Mali has an ongoing civil war involving high risks for potential contributors, while the population’s skepticism of external actors and the fear of neo-colonialism eliminate states with sufficient will and capacity.

This piece was originally published in Vårt Land in Norwegian, with the title “Kanskje kan demokratiet vente”. You can find it by clicking here.

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