Both the position of the AU for the junta to relinquish power to a civilian-led National Committee to conduct elections within six to twelve months and that of the junta requesting a three-year period to stabilise before relinquishing power through the usual elections, has very limited chances of leading Mali on a new path of inclusive nationhood. A prerequisite to this should be a referendum on the existence of a Malian state…
In recent weeks, global news updates have focused heavily on the political imbroglio in Mali.
This might seem like yet another struggle between democracy and autocracy, familiar to African Countries, but with deep introspection, one perhaps begins to unravel a fundamental politics of identity and the attendant mistrust that it breeds as the underpinning variable. This is the singular greatest threat to the relationship between us as a people, and our relationship with our community and the state as a whole. It is a relationship problem in which historical experience has consumed trust, compromise considered weakness, and fault lines exacerbated.
In the case of Mali, I will attempt to shed some light in view of my post-graduate research at the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. Some of the views I will be sharing are an extraction from a paper I wrote on ‘Why Interventions in war torn countries fail’, with Mali as my case study. What I believe to be playing out today in the form of the political impasse between the military and the ruling elite is owing partly to a historically fractured nationhood between north and south of Mali, which at independence from France in 1960 shared nothing in common with each other, asides a few decades of mutual colonial subjugation before their amalgamation into a modern nation state.
The subsequent domination of the Malian military and civil service by southerners and its reflection in the development indices of both regions heightened identity based differences and fueled mutual distrust between the north and the south. This was then further exacerbated by the Machiavellian tactics of ‘divide and rule’ explored by the leaders in the south, while playing up sub-ethnic identities to divide the north against itself, as a strategy to keep them in check. And this played alongside a general breakdown of law and order, which created a breeding ground for cross-border extremist groups from Algeria and the expansionism of the former Muhammad Gadaffi of Libya, who started recruiting and funding Tuareg and Arab militants in northern Mali, who were the leading clans in the northern agitation.
Between Mali’s independence in 1960 till date, there have been at least five major rebellions/uprisings, with the first four emanating from the north. The first rebellion lasted from 1962 to 1964; the second was in 1990, which was occasioned in large part by the famine and drought of the 1970s and 1980s. This decimated the livelihood of the northern dwellers, making the ‘taking to arms’ a matter of survival. The third rebellion lasted from 2006 to 2009, starting out with periodic militant raids against military patrols and government installations. Between all of these rebellions were periods of flirtation with ‘cease-fires’ through internationally facilitated peace accords that were never sustained, nor which addressed the root causes of the problem. The fourth rebellion, which precipitated the present crisis, started in 2011 and erupted majorly due to the fall of Libya under Gadaffi, and resulted in Tuareg and Arab militants making their way back to northern Mali and spreading across Niger, Central Africa Republic and northern Nigeria, under what we now know as ‘Boko Haram’.
However, the fifth rebellion in 2012 was a full-blown coup right in Bamako, southern Mali, led by the rank and file of the Malian military who were protesting shabby work conditions, the lack of necessary ammunitions to prosecute the war in the north, which was fast becoming a death sentence for them, and the frosty relationship between the ethnically diverse but progressive people in the south and their ruling elite.
This led to the ousting of then President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 21, 2012, after a stand-off at the presidential palace with the protesting soldiers. Subsequently, 40 year-old Captain Sanago appeared on the scene as the head of the new military government, suspending all democratic institutions and arresting all leading political figures, with the exception of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was subsequently ‘elected’ president in September 2013, after having served as prime minister from 1994 to 2000, and president of the National Assembly from 2002-2007.
Make no mistake about this, the towering influence of France has been the most consolidating factor of the minority ruling elite of the south. The French have had boots on the ground in Mali since 2012 till date. It started out with ‘operation Surval’, which supposedly ended in 2014, but was rebranded as ‘Operation Barkhane’ in the same year, and which is still ongoing with over 5,000 French troops on ground to root out Islamist fundamentalist in northern Mali, while working closely with the Malian military.
I have gone through this history to provide the context for my present assessment of the situation.
I believe the recent capture and resignation of the President Ibrahim Boubbacar Kieta by mutinous elements of the Malian military was with colonial backing. It had become politically expedient to do so, as President Kieta was losing grip of the situation, further compounding his legitimacy issues.
This is a familiar playbook of colonial powers in the territories they bestowed on themselves. The present negotiation between the African Union Envoy to Mali, in the person of Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan, and the military junta, under the auspices of the National Committee for the Salvation of the people, headed by the 37-year old Colonel Assimi Goita is a familiar charade. Col. Goita is a French trained soldier with experience working with the United States Special Forces. It is reminiscent of how Colonel Yakubu Gowon was foisted on Nigeria in the aftermath of the coup that ousted General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in 1966.
Both the position of the AU for the junta to relinquish power to a civilian-led National Committee to conduct elections within six to twelve months and that of the junta requesting a three-year period to stabilise before relinquishing power through the usual elections, has very limited chances of leading Mali on a new path of inclusive nationhood. A prerequisite to this should be a referendum on the existence of a Malian state, since a clamour for the independence of the region of Azaward to the north has been a recurring agitation. All approaches, moving forward, must take into cognisance the history of national and inter-community violence in Mali that has accompanied its post-colonial state-building process.
All past peace agreements have failed, mainly because of the politics of identity and the difficulty in that context, of satisfying the interests of all communities, which would in turn guarantee some sort of post-conflict stability.
Excessive militarisation of the challenges in the north, blind-eye to the economic dimension of the crisis, and discretionary benefits to small numbers of affiliated or friendly clans made things worse. Previous interventions have also further complicated genuine political conversations and postponed viable debate on Mali’s national equilibrium.
Where the conversation needs to begin at this junction is if there should still be a Mali, according to the present geographical expression. Without addressing the fundamental issues of the past and the exercise of the right of self-determination, there will be no future for the country.
Opeyemi Oriniowo is an International Development Practitioner and Analyst. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria. He can be reached on email@example.com