from Africa in Transition

Mali and Tuaregs: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

September 30, 2013

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The Tuareg rebels and the Malian government reached a peace agreement in June that allowed Mali’s August elections to go forward. They–generally regarded as free and fair–resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has now been inaugurated. At the end of September, however, three separatist Tuareg groups announced that they are suspending their participation in the peace process with the government. They accuse the Bamako government of failing to live up to promises made in June. They provide no specifics, and neither the Keita government nor the UN peacekeeping mission has commented on the suspension.

Post-independence Mali has had difficulty integrating the northern Tuaregs and the southern, more ethnically diverse, ethnic groups. Numerous failed agreements between successive Bamako governments and northerners have led to widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment, punctuated by revolt. In 2012, such a revolt in the north morphed into a jihadist attack that was driven back by French and other African forces. Now, with the suspended talks, Mali’s friends must ask if history is repeating itself. Keita’s rhetoric calls for justice and democracy, but the political-economic structures that provoked the latest round of northern rebellion are still in place.

Joris Levernik in Think Africa Press places contemporary events in a wider Malian context. He suggests that Mali’s essentially false reputation as a democracy made it a donor darling. Foreign assistance flowed in, freeing the political class from accountability. Over time, an economy based on donor assistance and the export of gold, cotton, and other primary commodities acquired an enlarged criminal dimension, including smuggling, the kidnapping of Westerners, and the narcotics trade. The profits were so huge in a very poor country that more and more of the political class participated and was compromised. Meanwhile, he argues, marginalization of the north continued. The rest, as it were, is history: a 2012 rebellion in the north that initially seemed to follow the traditional pattern, a coup in Bamako when the government responded incompetently, and the emergence of a radical Islamic jihad that was reversed by French and other foreign troops.

The donors, Levernik continues, wanted early elections to restore ostensibly democracy that would permit the renewal of assistance flows. Hence the donors led by the French and the Americans, pressed for early elections. But, Levernik concludes, “elections do not equal democracy, aid does not equal economy, an end to the fighting does not equal peace, and promises do not equal development.”

The jury must still be out on Mali. It is very early days for the Keita administration, though thus far other than rhetoric there is little indication that the “system” that led to the current crisis has much changed.

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