Mali crisis: resisting the temptation of worn-out political recipes

This is an English translation of an article by NIMD Sahel Director Mirjam Tjassing, and Founder of WATHI Yabi Gilles, originally published in French in Jeune Afrique.

If the ECOWAS heads of state visiting Mali’s bedside on Thursday (23 July) do not go beyond recommending the usual political recipes, the chances of ending the succession of political impasses – as dangerous for Mali as for the entire Sahel region – are slim.

While five heads of state are treading Malian soil to strengthen the mediation undertaken by ECOWAS, it is worth recalling that many years of hasty political compromises have fuelled a widening gap between citizens on the one hand, and governments and elected officials on the other. What is needed is explicit consideration of public aspirations for visible changes in political practices and the management of public affairs. Without it no government of national unity, even with a circumstantial institutional correction here or there, can act as a solution.

A few months ago, our two organizations collaborated in running a series of workshops on political economy in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. In each case, we met and listened to representatives of parties, civil society organizations, citizen movements and analysts, who described real political practices as inseparable from economic, social and cultural practices. We have tried to gain a more detailed understanding of the true sources of political power, such as the mechanisms for the emergence of leaders; the relationship between elected officials and their electoral bases; and the implications of real political practices on democratic governance.

Crisis of confidence

In all three countries, the actors were unanimous on at least one point: with, of course, variations in the manifestations of this crisis from one country to another, the crisis of confidence between the people and those who are supposed to represent them and defend their interests is profound, and dangerous. In Mali, against a backdrop of insecurity and worsening violence, political stability is now under threat – despite the proliferation of international interventions.

In recent weeks, the country has almost descended into a popular insurgency, with uncertain consequences. Massive demonstrations against the regime of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) have degenerated into the destruction of public buildings by protestors. The response has been violent repression from law enforcement, including the deployment of anti-terrorism police against protestors. At least 11 people were killed and about 100 have been injured.

The truce agreed with the opposition M5-RFP coalition due to the approach of Eid al Fitr, will not be enough to end the current crisis. Furthermore, the contestation of the results of March’s legislative elections has fanned the flames of the crisis, with the Constitutional Court suspected of being under the thumb of the executive.

Learning from the past

We have both followed the ups and downs of Malian political history over the past decade. It may be useful to learn from them so as not to continue repeating the same mistakes. The main lesson is that the exclusive focus on appeasement has consistently led to political compromises that do not (or only partially) take into account public desires for change.

This was the case after the military coup of 2012, which raised popular hopes for a change in governance – despite some disturbing signals from the putsch leaders. The framework agreement negotiated by ECOWAS, led by Burkina Faso’s then President Blaise Compaoré (whose own democratic mandate was contested at home) favoured short-term arrangements for institutional standardization of the façade over opening a genuine national consultation.

In the wake of the 2013 presidential elections, planned “inclusive talks” largely gave way to a process dominated by the government and the leaders of northern Mali’s armed groups. Attempts, particularly by the European Union, to broaden the interpretation of the word “inclusive” by calling for inclusion of civil society led to each of the parties being invited to designate its own civil society…

We could see a repeat of this if a government of national unity were formed according to the ECOWAS mission’s recommended distribution: 50% of ministerial posts to be nominated by the President, 30% for the M5-RFP and 20% for civil society. Who will represent civil society if this recommendation were to be accepted by the parties? And above all, what good would such a government do if there is not a prior minimum consensus on its priorities?

Yabi Gilles explains his and Mirjam’s analysis to BBC Afrique.

Consensus rather than compromise

An umpteenth compromise that is no more than a mere redistribution of ministerial posts amongst Mali’s political class would be severely judged by the Malian public, especially its despondent youth. This could dash any remaining hopes of Mali pulling itself out of the multidimensional crisis without sacrificing its centuries-old traditions of dialogue and moderation, democracy, and rule of law.

So far in Mali, compromise has often been limited to concessions by conflicting parties on specific, limited political demands. A more important goal would be finding a consensus that builds on common ground, following a dialogue on substantive issues concerning the future of the national community.

As in any political crisis of this nature, where two identifiable camps each feel they have the anointing of the people, it is difficult to establish how representative they really are.

The M5-RFP is a motley movement that is united only against a common adversary:  the regime of IBK. Its members do not have an agreed strategy for exiting the crisis, making it hard to see how such a coalition could last in the long-term. But the M5-RFP, representative or not, is able to mobilize a following around longstanding issues that go far beyond the political demands currently on the table.

It would be a mistake to assume that the opposite side – the IBK regime – does a better job of reflecting Mali’s diverse population. Anyone who has followed two decades of elections in Mali knows how weak Mali’s political institutions are, and as a result how much genuine legitimacy can be conferred by the ballot box.

Let’s not therefore dwell on the question of who is more representative than who, but rather push for a dialogue between participants who can articulate political ideas and convey genuine public concern.

If the ECOWAS heads of state do not go beyond the usual worn-out political recipes – perceived by marginalized populations as cake-sharing between opportunistic actors – the chances of ending the succession of political crises plaguing Mali, the Sahel and West Africa will be very slim.

Instead they should mobilize all chapters of the additional ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which embodies the regional organization’s ambition to promote democratic systems that make sense and interest to the people.

Article 32 of this protocol could not be clearer: “Member States agree that good governance and freedom of the press are essential for the preservation of social justice, the prevention of conflict, the safeguarding of political stability and peace and the strengthening of democracy.” The price of a minimalist approach to managing this political crisis could be very high for the entire region.


Mirjam Tjassing is Sahel Regional Director at NIMD. Read more on NIMD’s work in the Sahel here

Yabi Gilles is founder of WATHI and former Crisis Group Project Director. Find out more about WATHI’s work here.