Author: Stephen L. Esquith - Professor of political theory and global ethics, Michigan State University
Stephen L. Esquith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Prior to the military coup in 2012, Mali was praised for its transition to democracy in West Africa. That is no longer the case.
Malians are caught between the stubborn legacies of a colonial past, a global political economy that has left them impoverished, a dysfunctional government, violent inter-ethnic conflicts, and attacks from terrorists and their own armed forces. It is considered the epicentre of violence in a violent region. It is, therefore, no wonder that the prognosis for peace and human security for Mali has become so dire.
In 2020 as jihadist and inter-ethnic violence escalated, support for Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had plummeted. This was despite the fact that he had been elected by a large majority in 2013 and re-elected five years later. By August 2020, as elections were approaching, he resigned after being detained in a military-led coup.
Then, by May 2021, the country experienced its second coup in nine months, this time by some members of the transitional leadership itself on the grounds that the transitional government wasn't following its own charter. Weeks earlier, a former rebel leader who had been part of the peace process was assassinated.
Violent groups, including those linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, frequently unleash attacks in north, central and eastern Mali, and their presence is spreading into the country's south and across borders.
It is against this background that Malian prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga announced a government action plan to the governing National Transitional Council to prepare for presidential and legislative elections in February and March 2022. The plan was approved quickly by the governing council.
The plan includes the contributions of 25 ministerial departments under the chairmanship of the prime minister, with the support of the United Nations Development Program.
The basic components of the plan fall into four categories -- strengthening national security, driving institutional reforms, holding elections and promoting good governance. These are the key areas that must be addressed to increase trust in the peace process set in motion by the 2015 Algiers Peace Accords which brought a partial ceasefire to parts of the country.
In my view, it is unlikely that the plan will reduce armed conflict and reform political institutions enough to achieve its goals. It will not lead to a more sustainable peace unless it is more inclusive and can connect what a professor of conflict resolution, Pamina Firchow, describes as everyday peace at the local level with measures to ensure national security.
But that doesn't mean the plan should be ignored or opposed. Rather, it means that more needs to be done to achieve its goals.
Strengthening national security
This is the central component of the plan. The prime minister praised the peacekeeping efforts of the Malian Armed Forces and emphasised the need to respond to terrorist attacks, especially in the northern and central regions of the country.
Nonetheless, the plan calls for better military training and equipment. At the same time, there is a commitment to demilitarise the country, to reorganise economic production away from military purposes, and to reintegrate former state and non-state armed combatants into the civilian economy by providing vocational training and job opportunities.
To carry out these security plans, the government promises to make the 2015 Algiers Peace Accords more inclusive.
One way to do this would be to integrate some of the non-state armed forces into the national army to better protect local communities from criminal violence and intransigent insurgents. This would create the kind of everyday peace in the markets, schools and neighbourhoods that is now lacking.
Yet the plan does not go this far.
Political and institutional reforms
There have been a number of meetings in recent years for this purpose. Based on the recommendations that have come out of these forums, the plan calls for a series of national meetings that will give voice, without censorship, to all citizens from the local to the national level.
The prime minister gave the assurance that the recommendations resulting from these meetings will be enforceable during the remaining six months of the transition period and afterwards.
According to the prime minister, there is an
...urgent need for reforms to renovate not only the political framework and adapt the fundamental texts of the Republic, but also endow our country with strong and legitimate institutions that will allow lasting political stability and social peace.
But this language alone is unconvincing coming from him. He has shown very little interest in democracy, local or national, throughout his career, beginning with his early association with the former authoritarian leader Moussa Traore.
A general election
The action plan calls for "transparent, credible and inclusive general elections" to lead Mali's return to a "normal constitutional order". It stresses, in particular, the inclusion of refugees and displaced people. To this end, a single election management body will be established to ensure free and fair elections.
While a highly desirable goal, the mechanisms for conducting such elections do not exist. And it is unrealistic to think they could be created in such a short time.
One might even ask whether the president and prime minister are simply setting things up for an extension of the 18-month charter for the transitional government and their own leadership roles within it.
Good governance and a stability pact
To root out corruption, the plan calls for a "social conference" that will produce a new "social stability pact". This will be the basis for a new social contract between citizens and the government that will "improve the living conditions of the populations and ensure a fair distribution of national wealth".
Through negotiations and compromise, the conference will address the root causes of violence and inequality, not merely their symptoms. Ample funds will be provided for "basic social services" such as health and education, and bring civil service salaries into "harmony".
This too, albeit vague, is a laudable goal. But it ignores the way in which heavy reliance on foreign aid can short circuit the relationship between citizens and the state, replacing political loyalty with clientelism.
Another telling silence is the absence of any mention of the work of the Malian Commission for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation, which has been interviewing refugees and displaced people for the last five years to prepare the ground for reparations.
I have been involved in the peacebuilding process, working with Malian teachers, artists and activists since 2004 to develop university-level peace-building courses and community programmes in the country. Since 2016 our team has worked with the commission to disseminate information on the causes and effects of armed violence in Mali, and creating materials to prepare citizens for local peace-building dialogues.
At a minimum, the plan should have referenced the work of the commission, especially its involvement with refugees and internally displaced persons.
Even though confidence in the 2015 peace agreement and in the 2020 provisional government has faltered, many Malians still prefer democracy over one-party and military rule. This is an encouraging sign.
There is much that needs to be done before a new government can be elected, however. The action plan's generalities may buy the president and prime minister a prolongation of the transition, but that may be all. New elections under the current circumstances might only heighten political frustration, and lead to more inter-ethnic violence and an increased terrorist presence in the region, with Mali as its epicentre.