Mali: Which way forward? A chat with Bruce Hall, Baz Lecocq, Gregory Mann and Bruce Whitehouse

Domestic politics meets foreign intervention - what future for the Malian state?

A little over a year ago, a few friends met to hang out online and talk about the political crisis in Mali (the text was published here and entitled ‘Mali: How Bad Can it Get?’). We thought of this as a virtual grin, with much debate over who was the dogoni who would make the tea.

It was a blistering hot day in Bamako and the power was out in his neighborhood, so Bruce Whitehouse joined us online from a cybercafe. Isaie Dougnon was in Florida. A year later, when we decided to reprise our conversation, Isaie had returned to Bamako and Bruce to the U.S., and some of the ECOWAS intervention forces had established their headquarters around the corner from where Bruce had been sitting. A lot had changed, but some things stay the same: power cuts prevented Isaie from joining us for the chat. And we still have not agreed on who will make the tea.

This chat was held on-line on 26 April 2013.

Bruce Hall (BH) lectures African history at Duke University, Baz Lecocq (BL) lectures African history at Gent University, Gregory Mann (GM) lectures African history at Columbia University and Bruce Whitehouse (BW) is a a member of the Anthropology Department at Lehigh University.

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Military-civilian relations

GM: What leaps out from the chat from last year for you, Bruce Whitehouse, since you were there then and are here now?

BW: A year ago, I notice, we were expecting the fallout from an imminent clash between “the international community” and the junta, which would either see Sanogo remain in power or exit the scene. Instead what we got was some kind of “third way,” and that confrontation remains unresolved (even if it no longer looms as large as it did back then).

GM: Is Sanogo still relevant?

BW: He proved his relevance in December when he forced Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra to resign.

GM: And post-intervention?

BW: I notice he still gets a lot of airplay on state television.

GM: That’s for sure.

BH: Do Sanogo and his allies have the de facto role of reorganizing the Malian army going forward?

BW: Bruce, that’s his official mandate. But many say Sanogo was set up to fail in his new job, that it was a canny move by Dioncounda, et al. to marginalize him.

BL: The BBC wrote that the now sanctioned UN mission is there to protect the July elections. They probably meant “against Sanogo.”

GM: Just to tweak the response to Bruce Hall—Sanogo has the de jure mission of reorganizing the army—with perhaps a built-in fail by Dioncounda Traore as Bruce Whitehouse said—but the EU has the de facto mission, for different motives.

GM: The striking thing is that the EU training mission is not allowed to have contact with Sanogo and his committee, so the army re-training mission as a priority for outside ‘partners’ and Sanogo’s appointment by Traore to retool that army are on parallel tracks—not touching—and maybe going in opposite directions…

BH: Do we know in any detail how well the Malian army has performed in the North since the intervention? Despite some reports here and there about civilian disappearances, they seem to have behaved in a more professional manner than one might have expected.

BL: They have indeed behaved, but it depends on which units. Some ‘green berets’ misbehaved but not to the extent that people feared, although fear among nomads is still high.  Red berets and Gamou’s men work OK. Most ‘southerners’ remain based in big cities. In fact, Gamou’s men have not ‘misbehaved’ against civilians, but they have taken the opportunity to ‘tweak’ some local economic and political balances.

Elections and the political scene

GM: Can anyone foresee these July elections going forward? Or NOT going forward? Either is an equally valid question.

GM: How long can this hazy special status for Kidal be maintained? Through elections (which the MNLA does not want to see)? Through the end of the year… or through the decade?

BL: How long I don’t know, but until after the completion of the [E.U. military] training mission at least. The excuse [for it] so far is that Malian soldiers risk behaving badly due to a lack of training, command structure, etc.

GM: I have thought one of the key questions around elections was whether or not they would be legitimate if they can’t be held in the North due to general insecurity or due to specific political opposition in the region and town of Kidal in particular.

BL: They can be held in the North, even in Kidal. Maybe not en brousse in Kidal or Gao or Timbuktu to a large extent, but the cities should be no problem in terms of organization.

GM: If France and the US and the UN want elections to be held in Kidal, they will be, but the political scenario will be complex.

BW: A Malian I know was just suggesting today that Malian voters boycott any election that doesn’t extend to Kidal, to signal their desire for the region to remain a part of Mali. Coming back to elections, officials in Paris, Washington and Bamako keep insisting on the July date. But I wonder whether anyone really believes these statements—the French may be simply trying for an ‘effet d’annonce’, like when you give a home repair contractor a deadline to finish the job even when you know he’s not going to make it, you just want to speed the process along. And I notice that the Malian government only announced the winning bid for electoral material (notably voter ID cards) in April, with an eight-month deadline! If my arithmetic serves, that’s about five and a half months too many to be ready for July.

GM: What Bruce Whitehouse says is right, but on the other hand, the campaigns are gearing up… each party knowing that the best organized is most likely to prevail (that is, not the most popular, but the richest and best organized).

BL: The big problem with July elections organization-wise en brousse is the rainy season. Sometimes elections have been organized in July for exactly that reason: to make brousse votes difficult. This was a complaint among nomads in the North against the election system in the first place. So this will make it less likely that elections in the North will be viewed as legitimate among the nomads.

But only among nomads, because the majority of voters are sedentary in the cities and riverine villages. Right?

BW: Right Baz – even under the best of circumstances, July is a terrible time for elections in Mali. This year the rains will be compounded by Ramadan (which begins around July 9th I believe). Add to that lingering insecurity, and logistical problems, and I predict a postponement until at least November or December. Any election held before then would be severely undermined by all the above factors.

GM: Again, the “legitimacy” of elections has never been believed in, in the “North” or “South” and it does seem to be one of those things that is a countrywide problem…

Captain Sanogo and Elections

BH: But does it matter? Is the goal not to dislodge Sanogo and friends?

BW: To do that, it will take a meaningful election with higher-than-usual voter turnout.

BL: I can’t believe international players like France or US think voting will lead Sanogo to retreat or be out of influence and effective power. If they think Sanogo will be gone after elections they are too naïve.

GM: Baz, believe it! They think that guy is done. I think Sanogo and the junta are quite marginalized already, although the arrest of newspaper editor Bakary Daou proved they still have some capacity to defend explicitly corporate and personal interests.

BL: So Greg, you too think that, given AHS being marginalized, a good and well-organized vote (not in July) might make him exit the scene?

GM: I think his marginalization is not an effect of potential elections, but perhaps a permissive factor in them. But I think Sanogo has become unpopular in Mali due to the large privileges he accrued, the transparency of his self-interest, and his failure to actually lead army (or nation). We are a long way from April 2012, and he is also systematically marginalized by outside players who now have much more weight than they did in April 2012.

BL: True.

GM: Any predictions about what overall turnout would look like? Higher than in past? Bruce Whitehouse, any sign for optimism there?

BL: No higher turnout than in the past if elections are held in July for reasons Bruce Whitehouse gave.

GM: If the electoral roll was considered more or less OK by people generally, would they turn out to vote? I know that’s a big ‘if.’

BW: There’s some reason for hope: surveys like Afrobarometer continue to show that Malians prefer elections to any other means of choosing their leaders. They just want better choices and an electoral system that isn’t weighted in favor of the “usual suspects” (parties that were associated with ATT’s rule). Plus, given that turnout in Mali has never reached even 40%, all it would take is a 50% turnout to send a strong signal that Malians support democratic institutions, not juntas or other extra-legal alternatives.

GM: Very good point, Bruce. Any thoughts on who would be favored?

BW: I asked this question to a panel of Malian journalists in Paris a couple of weeks ago, and their responses were all over the map. It’s hard to identify a clear favorite at this point, but perhaps IBK (Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta) is the “establishment candidate” with the “least worst” reputation among ordinary Malians (at least in the south).

GM: There was an interesting internet poll, which is probably not worth much, that showed Sako, IBK, Soumaïla Cissé in the lead. The same article says IBK is considered France’s candidate—that might be true. He might also be the US’ candidate. He also has a strong organization nationally and smart alliances.

BW: Ironic since he was seen as the Islamist’s man in 2002 according to the US and others!

GM: I hear Sako from the inside but never from the outside.

BW: What about Modibo Sidibe? He’s got quite a campaign machine and presumably a big war chest, but is he too tarnished from being ATT’s Prime Minister?

GM: Well, Modibo Sidibe is I think unacceptable to many—too tarnished and the US and others don’t like his history of mega-corruption (see the history of the Global Fund). And, more recently, he was heckled and pelted with projectiles when he tried to raise campaign funds in Paris.

BW: I’ve rarely met a Malian with a kind word to say about Modibo Sidibe.

Elections or a national dialogue?

BH: So there is no serious question around these elections or the future after them of addressing what has happened in the country over the last two years? Addressing the clear alienation in the North, not just among Tuareg nationalists, but more generally in terms of the collapse of the Malian state? It seems to me that [we are looking at] the same political players, and the same rhetoric of democracy and secularism, etc.?

BW: Responding to Bruce’s question: A couple of months ago, Tiebile Drame proposed a wide-ranging national conference-type discussion as a way to lead into elections, but I’m not hearing much support for that idea these days. If elections are held this year, perhaps they will open up an opportunity for such a discussion to take place.

GM: Tiebile has a good argument, I think, but from the outside there seems to be no appetite for such a discussion, whether because of external institutional interests or for fear of results…

BL: Might the ‘Truth and Justice’ procedure that’s slowly starting also address these questions, instead of only focusing on ‘the North’?

GM: The ‘Truth and Justice’ procedure is capacious but also cumbersome and will be slow. It’s too early to condemn it, but there is not much reason for optimism either.

GM: The ‘Truth and Justice’ procedure is meant to be countrywide and to address the more systemic problems of the Malian state, beyond Kidal and Bamako, as would a national conference, if people took part.

GM: BW, would a national conference permit, rather than preclude, such a discussion? No “elected” president would call such a conference!

BW: The only way an elected government would organize such a conference would be if it were elected with the mandate to do so.

GM: Sorry, that seems bit circular, but OK. Wouldn’t the internal pressures of a party (with its competition for posts, etc.), give every incentive to close down rather than open up further discussion? Which winning candidate would put his own mandate in question in such a conversation? I tend to think of elections and a conference as either/or options.

BL: But a ‘Truth and Justice’ procedure would not have that disadvantage as they are organized to focus on the past, where a National conference is focused on the present. So further delegitimization of previous governments might even make present one—whoever it is—look better.

The Malian State

BH: We tend to think of this as a problem between Bamako and Kidal, between Tuareg nationalists and southern Malian elites, but what seems much more problematic and profoundly problematic for the future is the fact that the health service collapsed and was abandoned, that the state completely delegitimized itself and had its infrastructure destroyed in 2012. That doesn’t get put back together easily and it does not recapture the populations of that region, even those who are pro-Mali in Northern terms.

GM: Bruce Hall, very true.

BW: Whatever government gets put in place next, if it can make some progress getting schools and health infrastructure working again nation-wide, that would go a long way to restoring Malians’ confidence in their state.

BL: Not all of the physical health infrastructure got destroyed. [It is perhaps not possible to] further deligitimize the state in the North [because for many] it held no legitimacy in the first place. That is a major issue indeed in the North, as well as in the South… Is the state (so not politicians, but the state) now less legitimate then it was before? Are people in the South en brousse linking legalized land grabbing to the rottenness of the situation elsewhere?

BW: Baz, I think the Malian state took a huge blow in 2011-2012, not only from the coup and rebellion, but the erosion of the rule of law to which you refer. I can’t speak for rural residents, but urbanites were really exasperated by the way the elites under ATT had hijacked the whole state apparatus, from the ministries and the courts on down.

Secularism, Political Islam and Justice

BH: Let me pose a slightly different question: Has the collapse of the state in the North and the relatively successful administration by the Islamists done anything to strengthen the kinds of Salafi voices who have long been critical of the civil servants and agents of the state?

GM: Another great question. I have been asking myself, does the actual lived experience of ‘sharia’ strengthen or weaken broader political support for it? There are two distinct but related questions—vis à vis service delivery and vis à vis ‘justice’ or law-and-order, which Bruce Whitehouse has written about.

BH: I mean in places like Timbuktu and presumably elsewhere, not just in the North, there is a long experience with government civil servants coming and behaving badly. This is the state that many people experience. The Islamists were different, and I always thought that I detected a fair amount of sympathy for what they were doing among people who stayed in the North, even if they were critical of some of the things they did.

GM: Bruce Hall, yes this is a good point. The mujahideen, or whatever you want to call them, provided free electricity in Timbuktu. Diouncounda Traore and Django Cissoko aren’t providing it in Bamako now.

BW: A secular state must be seen as capable of delivering JUSTICE, not only services. And that’s perhaps been the biggest failure of the Malian state so far.

BL: Those people I spoke to were mostly critical of their projects.

BL: The one good thing they seemed to have been able to do was to have food supplies organized sufficiently to avoid total disaster, and they did so by abolishing taxes and bribes etc., and leaving markets open and better situated for international Sahel grain merchants who delivered at lower prices. But all the gendered stuff (women veiling their faces, etc.) and the destruction of ‘teghere‘ (western-style education) and the separation of boys and girls in school, as well as of course huddud… in Kidal it was not welcomed much. But electricity yes, and other infrastructure, they kept it running to some extent.

GM: Re justice, yes—efficacious and rapid justice. All states struggle greatly with this and it is one of the strengths of other systems.

BH: Justice is not what the Malian state has ever delivered. This idea of a secular state is very particular to a group of Malians who constitute the state, and are the product of the French-language educational system. But I don’t think this is representative of Malians as a whole, especially the rather large number of Malians educated in the Arabic schools.

GM: BH, yes agreed. And I’ve been thinking that is one of the things that would emerge from a true national dialogue would be a questioning of secularism and its failures or incapacities (especially vis à vis justice). That is one reason why outsiders might not be too hot on such a dialogue or convention… Also, that dynamic was in my view changed by the French intervention. That is to say, the possibility of a real critique of secularism may have been partly foreclosed by the new disposition.

BH: I think that the point is not that the Islamists’ administration was welcomed as a model for the future, or that everything that they did was well received. But it did provide an alternative experience and it has a constituency still in many places, including in southern Mali. How does this change the national political conversation?

BW: My reading (from afar) over the last several months has been that the Islamists’ political project has suffered a major setback in Bamako, where ‘Wahhabi’/reformist Muslims have had to distance themselves from the Salafists and from armed Jihadists. The more moderate-looking Sufi Muslims have come out strengthened since the French intervention.

BL: The kind of justice the mujahideen gave was ‘petty justice’: catching a thief here and there… forcing food prices down by abolishing taxes will perhaps also be seen as justice but otherwise, what justice did they render? Shouldn’t we make a distinction between Malians thinking about ‘justice’ and about ‘just’ as in ‘just government and just society’?

GM: I think a form of conflict resolution (family and business disputes, civil law) that is quick, efficient, grounded in shared beliefs/texts, and not on bribes, personal connections, etc., is inherently favored. The question is can a secular state provide that, and can it convince people that it can?

BL: Yes, but less so if it starts flogging people for practicing marriage customs differently than prescribed. Some of the sharia-type justice given goes against local visions of sharia interpretation. The strict Salafi view on fiqh is not the view on fiqh that all local ulama hold, or all local people.

GM: Indeed.

BL: So the beliefs/ texts are not all shared.

GM: Let’s say grounded discursively in a shared episteme. While there is a gigantic spectrum within that, arguments grounded in Islam are now much closer to being hegemonic than those grounded in the Malian state, constitution, law books and institutions, and secularism.

BH: What I would suggest – and it is really only a question – is that the secular model of Malian statism has failed. Many people were unhappy with it long before 2012, but it has been proved to be a house of cards now. As problematic as the jihadi-Islamist experience in the North was for so many people, it also opened up a discursive space for a more explicitly Islamist politics in framing how the state works and what it does. We will see if that makes any difference but I think that we might think about northern Nigeria as a reference, because Islamist state governments are not so far away.

GM: I think Bruce Hall and I are agreeing.

GM: Bruce Whitehouse thoughts on this?

BL: Bruce Hall: then there’s also Mali’s western neighbor Mauritania as a model of how to integrate ‘Islam’ into the state, perhaps even more acceptable for people in the North (not saying anything about those in the South) as it is closer to local visions of Islam prior to the introduction of Salafi thought. So it provides good grounds for a compromise between the two (Salafi and local visions of integration of state and Islamic praxis)?

BW: I agree, Greg. As for Bruce’s suggestion, as I’ve spoken to various audiences since January about the situation in Mali, people have frequently pointed out that the same weaknesses I highlighted with respect to the Malian state also apply to states throughout the region. It’s hard for me to verify this since my specialization is pretty narrowly on Mali these days; I don’t have a cross-national lens to look through. But I wonder whether Mali’s crisis might be a sign of things to come elsewhere in Africa.

Outside Actors

GM: Can we turn to the intervention question? Last year, there was great resentment of ECOWAS—Bruce Whitehouse in particular pointed this out. We were in a moment of deep nationalist paranoia (as Roland Marchal called it, maybe a bit dismissively)–has that changed since January?

BL: In Kidal, France is trusted, I don’t know about the Chadians.

BW: France is certainly trusted a LOT more than a year ago—I sometimes wonder whether this would be true if Sarkozy had been re-elected. But the UN has a pretty poor reputation at least according to a recent Friedrich Ebert Foundation poll in Bamako.

GM: Yes, I was struck by that poll result regarding the UN. Any ideas on why that is?

BW: Not really. Greg, I heard you say recently that the only people who wanted the French to pull out of Mali are the French. What do you see happening as they draw their forces in Mali down?

GM: Whew, great question. My fear—worst case scenario—is targeted violence against civilians in cities and villages of the Niger Bend by ‘non-state actors’ to impede ‘stability’ and elections…

GM: The French are very used to the idea of having their soldiers stationed in West Africa for the long term. It will be hard now for Mali to reject that possibility.

GM: Important to remember that they have not actually met their objectives, although they might like to claim otherwise.

BL: Greg, can you expand on ‘not met objectives’ a bit? The main objective of national integrity has been reached.

GM: Has it? Who controls Kidal?

BL: Hasn’t the main objective of AQMI being pushed out of power—although not out of country maybe—been reached?

GM: But have any hostage been freed? Is AQMI no longer a threat?

BL: Indeed, no hostages have been freed and AQMI is still a threat, but do you think the Malian stated controlled Kidal before AQMI did?

GM: Before, say, 2011, the Malian state at least had some claim to power in Kidal region, through proxies, modus vivendi with various armed groups (including possibly AQMI, etc.)…

BL: … and that’s what they’ll get back again, perhaps less of it though, because a number of their proxies are out of power locally.

Intercommunal Tensions in the North

The intercommunal violence committed by all sides in the civil war that occurred in Northern Mali during the first half of the 1990s is a shadow that has hung over our expectations for what the current conflict in Northern Mali might bring. The Ifoghas Tuareg of the region of Kidal were at the heart of a rebellion against the Malian state in the early 1960s, in the 1990s, and again in 2012. But they were ultimately unable to maintain a united front and rebel groups and factions splintered along lineage and social status lines. There are other long-standing tensions in the North along racial and ethnic lines that might create new and very unwelcome possibilities of violence.

GM: Another important theme is possibility of intercommunal violence—Bruce Hall in particular pointing this out in last year’s chat—Baz, does that seem to you still a strong possibility?

GM: Let me put my question another way. In the 1990s, you had a scenario, as Baz has analyzed, of a formal ‘peace’ before the war. That is the ‘91 and ‘92 agreements preceded serious intercommunal violence of 1994. Could we be looking at that kind of ‘peace before war’ scenario again? Baz? Bruce Hall?

BL: I’m not able to say that re. Tuareg / Songhay things (Bruce Hall?) but one conflict that might get out of hand is between Tuareg and Arab communities and especially inter Arab (Bruce Hall, thoughts?) that had been rising in the last decade anyway.

BL: BH: I think 2012 has given Arab communities a lot of bones of contention to fight about on top of the ones they already had.

BL: Inter Tuareg: not so much. Iyad seems really out of the way at least and Alghabbas has lost much credit joining Ansar Dine among at least non-Ifoghas. With Gamou back in the fold of the Malian armed forces he might be able to run a tighter ship and keep inter Tuareg fighting from flaring up

BL: But on Ganda Koy / Ganda Izo…? Bruce Hall?

BH: I think it remains a possibility. In the region around Timbuktu for example, there is quite a bit of pent up anger among Songhay that is directed at local Tuareg and Arabs. The local Arab Barabish in Timbuktu have huge problems among themselves now given what has happened over the last two years, and the role of some Barabich with AQIM. But in the end, the intercommunal violence of the 1990s was orchestrated by the army – at least it was started that way. The danger it seems to me remains a very weak army allying with and arming civilian militias who are much more inclined today to act on their eliminationist discourse about the nomads being fundamentally untamable, than in the past.

GM: Wait, Baz, that’s really interesting—Gamou suppressing inter-Tuareg disputes? Could you expand?

BL: Some bids the Ifoghas tribe might still have had for supremacy in the Kidal area are gone due to the political blunders of the new ‘acting chief’, while the real power holder is gone out of sight and many will not be happy with his recent actions either. This leaves the Ifoghas weaker, and therefore Gamou’s aims to protect and even expand Imghad and other interests.

BL: Also around Menaka MNLA positions have not made them popular either so this may lead to a return to the ‘older’ order of the Ouillimiden coming back a bit, and they are very bent on peace through Malian state.

BL: But on inter Arab violence, you’re right about Berabish internal problems, but I foresee that the Lamhar-Kounta struggle has become more pronounced over their division between MUJWA and Ansar Dine last year and the scraps they had over positions in the area around Al Khalil and the larger Timtarine and Tilemsi.

BL: Responding to Bruce Hall again, I agree that Ganda Koy ‘94 was basically army run, and so is Ganda Koy / Izo now too…

BL: I think this might be a further reason that the French army and AFISMA does not want the Malian army in Kidal and perhaps not very many places elsewhere either. What is the Malian army and what is Ganda Koy right now? Who can see the difference? Maybe exactions [reprisals?] by the Malian army were committed by soldiers who were members of the Ganda Koy or Ganda Izo?

BW: I believe Dioncounda announced some weeks ago that all militia members (Ganda Koy and Izo) had been integrated into the army.

BL: Well… that’s NOT good news! Especially not when it comes to the trust nomad populations will have in the Malian Army.

BH: Well so far, these Songhay militias have not been much of anything, mostly because the army was out of the North. Now that the army is back, we will have to wait and see. But a potential Songhay/nomad problem is not so much of a threat for Kidal, but in the Niger Valley.

BL: Yes Bruce, I think in the Niger valley it’s going to be difficult, and many forget that that’s where most Tuareg live… They will be the last to come back home from refugee camps, I believe.

BL: ma’a salam ya ikhwan

BW: Good night Baz. Good day Bruce!

More analysis of Mali can be read here

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2 thoughts on “Mali: Which way forward? A chat with Bruce Hall, Baz Lecocq, Gregory Mann and Bruce Whitehouse

  1. The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.

  2. Pingback: Wash Out – By Eamonn Gearon | Foreign Policy | Ramy Abdeljabbar's Palestine and World News

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