By Paul Ejime*
Malian voters go to the polls on 29 July to either elect a new president or renew the five-year mandate of the incumbent leader from a field of 24 candidates, with just one female contender.
But those conversant with the political history of Africa’s eighth-largest and the World’s 24th largest country (by size), part of a once-thriving Empire, with well-documented knowledge of astronomy, literature, art, culture and mathematics, among other endowments, know that Mali’s insecurity and governance problems go beyond organising a successful election.
Malians themselves are not under any illusions about the magnitude of the national crisis, which peaked in 2012, making it now almost impossible for the central government in the capital Bamako, to exercise effective control over the troubled northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, and the central region of Mopti.
Land-locked, in the Sahara Desert, and considered among the World’s hottest countries, Mali shares borders with seven neighbours – Algeria to the north-east, Niger to the east, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire to the south, Guinea to the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania to the west.
Tha Mali Empire, was once part of three West African empires, which controlled trans-Saharan trade – the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire (from which Mali derived its name), and the Songhai Empire. At its ascendancy, around 1300, it covered an area about twice the size of modern-day France, stretching to the west coast of Africa.
It might be news to many that Mansa Musa I of Mali is the richest human in history with a personal net worth of US$400 billion. According to a Celebrity Net Worth website’s 2014 publication, Mansa Musa (1280-1337), ruled the Malian Empire, amassing wealth from his country’s vast production of more than half the world’s supply of salt and gold, which he used to build gigantic Mosques that still stand today, some 700 years on. On that wealth list is John D. Rockefeller, ranked 3rd with US$340 billion, the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya 8th, with US$200 billion, Bill Gates, the Microsoft guru, a distant 12th, with US$136 billion, and business mogul Warren Buffett bringing up the rear at 25th, with US$64 billion.
But as with the ironic tragedy of today’s Mali, Musa’s kingdom and wealth did not last much longer after his death, no thanks to a conspiracy of a combination of factors.
Following the 1884/1885 Scramble for Africa, France seized control of Mali, making it a part of French Sudan or the Sudanese Republic, which it joined with Senegal in 1959, but gained independence in 1960 as the Mali Federation with Modibo Keïta as the first indigenous President.
Stories abound regarding the origin of the name Mali, with one version saying it originated from the Mandinka or Bambara word mali, meaning “hippopotamus.” Another version says the name means “the place where the king lives.” But the common thread is the connotation of strength, with a Mandinka folklore holding that Mali’s legendary first Emperor Sundiata Keita changed into a hippopotamus upon his death in the Sankarani River.
History and tradition apart, the reality today is that the political governance temperature in Mali, with an estimated population of 18 million inhabitants, has exceeded the Sahara Desert’s maximum heat level!
Here is a country with such contrasting fortunes — considerable natural resources, with gold, uranium, phosphates, kaolinite, salt and limestone being most widely exploited, but also faces many environmental challenges, including desertification, deforestation, soil erosion, and inadequate potable water supply.
Modibo Keïta’s one-party State, which implemented extensive nationalisation of economic resources, was overthrown in a bloodless military coup led by Moussa Traoré, on 19 November 1968, a day now commemorated as Liberation Day.
The successor military-led regime of President Traoré attempted some economic reforms but was undermined by political turmoil and a devastating drought of 1968-1974 and attendant famine that killed thousands of people.
Growing disaffection crystallised into mass pro-democracy rallies with a nationwide strike by students later joined by the labour movement resulting in the March 1991 Revolution, marked by bloody clashes between soldiers and the demonstrators with over 300 deaths after the Traoré government declared a state of emergency.
Eventually, Traoré and three of his associates were later tried and sentenced to death with March 26 now observed as a national holiday in honour of those killed during the unrest.
Lt.-Col. Amadou Toumani Touré, President Traoré’s personal guard and head of the parachute regiment, seized power from his former boss on 26 March 1991 and announced that opposition parties were legalised. Political groups then met to draft a new democratic constitution.
Touré’s government supervised Mali’s first democratic multi-party presidential election in 1992, won by Alpha Oumar Konaré, who went on to secure a second mandate in 1997, the term limit set by the constitution. Malians remember Konaré’s presidency as very peaceful, and his leadership influence was felt across the ECOWAS region, especially during his tenure as Chair of the Authority of Heads and State Government.
A strong advocate of regional integration, Konaré earned the respect of his peers who chose him as Chairperson of the African Union Commission in 2003.
He could have easily secured a second mandate given his popularity, but Konaré served for only one five-year term and stepped down with honour, although ironically, the AU has been wobbling in search of visionary leadership since his departure.
Back to local politics in Mali. Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), now a retired general, but riding on the crest of popularity for toppling Traoré in 1991, was elected Mali’s president in 2002.
But the legacy of his 10-year reign is defined by the January 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In March of that year, military Capt. Amadou Sanogo seized power in a coup citing Touré’s failure to quell the Tuareg rebellion. This brought sanctions and an embargo on the junta by ECOWAS under its zero-tolerance policy for ascension to power through unconstitutional means.
Meanwhile, the MNLA took advantage of the growing insecurity to seize control of Northern Mali, declaring independence as Azawad. However, Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had fought alongside MNLA against the government, turned on the Tuareg with the goal of implementing Sharia in parts of northern Mali.
The Armed Forces of former colonial power France moved in in January 2013 to contain the rebellion at the behest of the interim government of President Dioncounda Traoré following ATT’s resignation.
The international intervention led by ECOWAS resulted in the 2012 Algiers Political Peace Accord, which enabled the 2013 elections that brought incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power.
Much of Mali’s cultural heritage located in the North, especially in Timbuktu has been destroyed, prompting a trial of the culprits at The Hague. But the security situation remains precarious in Northern and Central Mali with incessant terror attacks on French forces and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA), which replaced an African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), in July 2013.
The signing of a 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement by the government and rebels and the formation in 2014 of the G5 Sahel taskforce of troops from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, have not halted the multiplication of rebel and jihadist groups and their assaults on civilian and military targets in Mali. There are also growing tensions linked to competition for local power and control over natural resources in the troubled regions.
According to a UN report, the violence and insecurity in Mali have unleashed a humanitarian emergency with 4.3 million people expected to be food insecure between June and October this year and almost one million in need of emergency food assistance. There is no surprise that Mali ranks 175th on the UN Human Development Index, only 12 up from the bottom.
It is under this socio-economic, governance and security uncertainty that Malians go to the polls on July 29. Another challenge facing the electoral process is the distribution of biometric voter cards to the 8 million registered voters.
With a few days to Election Day, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, managing the electoral process puts the rate of card distribution at more than 70%, while the distribution sub-committees report lower figures, blaming the situation on the recent strike by local administration workers and “poor remuneration” for the card distributors.
Among the 24 presidential candidates are sitting President Keita, 73, who is seeking a second mandate, and former Finance Minister Soumaïla Cissé, with both as frontrunners. Others are former Prime Minister Modibo Diarra, ex-Ministers Choguel Kokala Maïga and Mountaga Tall, religious cleric Harouna Sankaré, former Minister Mohamed Ali Bathily, and businesswoman Djeneba N’Diaye, the only female candidate.
Assuming the election goes as planned, the incoming Mali government will require more than the strategy of an electoral victory to surmount the Mammoth security and governance malaise holding Mali down.
To lift the “fallen African hippopotamus,” Mali requires a visionary and dynamic leadership with effective negotiating skills to unite the badly divided country. ECOWAS and the rest of the international community should also not stop at observing the on-going electoral process. They should help the troubled semi-aquatic giant mammal on its feet again! Former colonial power, France has a stake in this task.