Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mali on the Edge: Transitioning one step at a time

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

My first engagement with the Malian crisis was in 2012, when I was in Western Europe and back then, I commented on the role of ECOWAS in the crisis. Recently in July 2013, sitting in Liberia, I published an opinion piece on the role of my own country (Liberia) as a troop contributor to the UN Mission in Mali. Fortunately, this time, I am writing from Bamako, Mali, experiencing the transition first-hand as a member of ECOWAS Election Observer Mission to the Legislative Election. It is this experience and my impression with the entire transition that I discuss in this piece as an activist following political and security developments in Mali.

The Malian state is at a critical stage of transition as it tries to reestablish its authority as the sole user of violence in its national territories. Tuareg insurgency has kept the country unstable and led the state to near collapse. Thanks to regional efforts led by the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) for joining in arms with the government and other international actors to defeat and weaken terrorist elements. The Malian State itself, since the military advancement of the Tuareg separatists and the infiltration of terrorists, has lost much of its legitimacy and become a shadow of its former self. The transition that began with the formation of an interim government to replace the juntas has been well on course and it is probably one of the fastest state reformation projects that have happened so rapidly in less than two years. This intervention facilitated the rapid defeat of terrorist groups and the recovery of territories through military means, and the holding of democratic elections for the reestablishment of state institutions under the constitution. This recovery would not have worked out so fast and progressively had the most immediate regional organization, ECOWAS, not mobilized and cooperatively supported the Malian people. This speaks to the fact that when local knowledge and benefits from proximity are fully exploited, intra-regional diplomacy and cooperation can work as good, and even more productively than superpower diplomacy imposed upon third world countries.

The state of Mali would have disintegrated completely had separatists and terrorists remained in control of the Northern areas. The intervention that constrained the military juntas in Bamako through isolation and sanctions, and the subsequent signing of an accord in Ouagadougou, set the country on the road of moving forward with huge possibilities. An interim government replaced the military juntas and paved the way for the return to civilian democratic rule setting the stage for sustained international engagement with the people of Mali to aid them in their process of recovery. This engagement led by ECOWAS saw the holding of a presidential election in August (2013) and this brought to the leadership of the country a mixed class of technocrats and politicians capable of leading the people through a process of reconciliation and national renewal.

The presidential elections rejuvenated the people and strengthened their courage and confidence in the rebirth of their country. It is this confidence that was taken to the legislative elections held in three months later (November). The success of the legislative elections has reinforced the fact that the state and Malian society are resilient. While isolated cases of pocket attacks and low-scale bombings took place in some Northern areas, the Malian people courageously came out to vote to elect a new Legislature as part of the transition. The third phase of the democratic transition will be the local government elections. What is impressive of the legislative election is that a new breed of politicians, mostly young people, were on parties and coalitions’ list as candidates. Women have not been left out. The participation of women in the process, particularly in the voting was clearly visible and this speaks of an emerging era of active civic participation of women in Mali. This is a remarkable development in West Africa, as evidence in the region speaks to the growing participation of women in political leadership and civic affairs.

The international community and the Malian people must be alerted to the fact that transition processes do not end with elections, and in some cases quick-fixed electoral processes could exacerbate crisis situations. The Malian people, led by the new government will have to chart out a cohesive course for sustainable peace and democracy. The most critical thing to do now is to engage the people in a national dialogue on reconciliation and the way forward to a peaceful society.

The process of reconciliation is an immediate priority, probably even more critical than electoral politics, which is often characterized by fierce exchanges. At this stage, international efforts on Mali will want to pay more attention to supporting not just the Malian government, but also the Malian people in cultivating and maximizing local traditional processes of reconciliation and governance, particularly in the North. Reconciliation is of course a difficult process, particularly when the grievances, like those of the Tuaregs, have historical and traditional roots. Nevertheless, a structural reform of government and governance arrangements in Mali could encourage disgruntled elements to disarm, and submit to the national dialogue. This means decentralizing political and economic powers in Mali and allowing for semi-autonomous governance system will go a long way in addressing the grievances of movements with separatist agendas, like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). Mali is a very big country, and the alienation of Northerners has been due to the inability of the central government to deliver basic services. Many, if not all of the African countries are gravely affected by the overly centralization of power. Decentralized arrangements in which local decision-making and service delivery authorities are vested in self-governing institutions closer to the people are the most appropriate ways of ensuring equity in service delivery and democratic development. Addressing the longstanding grievances and territorial claims of the Tuaregs could be done through constitutional and legal reform processes that allow for the creation of semi-autonomous local or provincial governments in Mali. Therefore, the national dialogue on reconciliation must strongly consider issues of decentralization and local self-governance as part of the national debates.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

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