OP-ED: What next for Mali’s post-election leadership?

by Phil Champain, International Alert | International Alert - UK
Tuesday, 13 August 2013 14:03 GMT

A woman carrying her baby and wrapped with a shawl walks through a sandstorm in Timbuktu July 29, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mali's new leadership can build peace by ensuring justice for crimes committed during the recent conflict, and building reconciliation and dialogue

The second round of the presidential election in Mali was held on Sunday 11th August. Despite continued political instability, the atmosphere in the country was generally calm. The turnout amongst the 6.8 million citizens eligible to vote (out of a population of about 15.8m) was higher than expected. There seems to be an appetite for restoring peace and order in the country, following a rebellion in the north, a military coup and an Islamist uprising that led to French troops invading in January.

However, the newly elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, will not be underestimating the difficulty of meeting the expectations of citizens wanting change.

Mali’s people have demonstrated enviable resilience in the past. They have pulled through previous cycles of instability to sustain diverse ways of life, expressing different values and aspirations – from the nomadic lifestyles of the isolated north to the more cosmopolitan and urban lifestyles of the capital Bamako. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and spontaneous political debate at the community level remain widespread and there are even annual TV programmes on which government ministers are held to account by their public. This demonstrates significant capacities for peace. 

Yet, recent developments have stretched community resilience to the limit. Some commentators were not surprised at Mali’s quick descent into chaos during 2013 and fear it may happen again.  The new president will have to address the expectations of a nation facing many problems and pressures. Key among these are drought, failed development, destructive alliances between drug traffickers, extreme Islamist groups and independence fighters in the north (exacerbated by the fallout from the conflict in Libya), and a contest for political and economic power that has hollowed out state institutions.

Based on my recent trip to Mali and research at the peace-building organisation International Alert, where I work, I would suggest five key, interconnected priorities the new leadership will need to get to grips with as it works to fulfil the expectations of its people and build peace following the election.

The first is justice. There were an estimated 2,800 (unconfirmed) cases of gender-based violence and capital and physical punishments reported during the recent war, with many more unreported. Tense debate remains about how to balance criminal and restorative justice. Knowledge and experience of how to deal with this tension needs to be accessed and consultation between political and civil society representatives and people affected by violence needs to be facilitated.

Second, the new president should create spaces for dialogue and reconciliation. There is some doubt as to whether the Commission Dialogue et Réconciliation (CDR) has the capacity to oversee the kind of programme that Malians expect. Clear information and a communications strategy outlining the immediate steps the CDR is going to undertake are key to managing the expectations of the population.

Third, the voices of Malians must be heard, meaning they should be encouraged and supported to ask the right questions, to enter fully into their part of the social contract. The unexpectedly high turnout in this election suggests there is a groundswell of interest in political processes. It will be important to build on this and further strengthen citizens’ political participation.

Fourth is the northern issue. This is complicated by alliances between Islamic, nationalist and criminal groups, as they work out how best to assert their control of the region and the three key northern towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. While mediation and security responses try to create some stability, these efforts should be complemented by broader discussions about what kind of Mali people want. National unity must be emphasised. This could be a role for the CDR, given its composition (all its members are civil society actors) and skill set.

Finally, attention must be paid to development and the economy. With international agencies once again lining up development assistance to Mali in response to the 2013 crisis (an estimated US $4 billion pledged), Mali’s leadership, and the international community, need to remember that it is not ‘how much’ but ‘how’ aid is delivered that is the key to its success. The failure of past development points to the need for a shift in attitudes to development assistance, and for deeper and broader conflict sensitivity. Furthermore, creative alliances with the business community can help shape a peaceful economy and tackle thorny issues such as corruption. The private sector generally has a strong interest in supporting stability but is often neglected when it comes to peace-building strategies.

The presidential election in Mali offers an opportunity to usher in a period of change. A high turnout suggests expectations are high. The challenges are clearly huge. The current conflict has pushed national and international observers to question the nature and viability of Malian democracy, heralded for years as an example for the region and beyond. The new president has an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. It is unlikely to be a smooth or quick ride.