For 20 years, Mali has been considered a democratic model in West Africa, praised for its relative economic growth and social stability. But in 2012 much of this progress was squandered by a military coup, dismissal of a president, and forced resignation of a prime minister, as well as a surge in the Tuareg separatist rebellion and an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency that has effectively carved out its own country in northern Mali.
There’s some positive news. A new prime minister, Django Sissoko, is now in place along with a “unity government” representing all regions of the country. On Dec. 21, rival rebel groups—the Islamist Ansar Dine (AD) and the Tuareg separatist Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA)—vowed to end hostilities in the north and possibly engage in talks with the interim government. There’s a planned United Nations intervention in the works to rid Mali of what is now the “largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world,” according to Senator Christopher Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs.
And as extremists unexpectedly moved south into government-controlled territory, France hit the rebels with airstrikes on Jan. 11 (partly to help 6,000 French citizens in the country).
Then again, democratic institutions and practices have undoubtedly taken a step back. Although there’s a cease-fire involving AD and MLNA with scope for government talks, it’s unclear how other extremists groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa will interfere.
The UN intervention plan itself is not so straightforward—UN Ambassador Susan Rice called it “crap,” according to Foreign Policy.com–, and troops will not even get to Mali until fall 2013. France’s rushed intervention may succeed in pushing extremists back to their stronghold in the north for now, but may also give them increased anti-West fervor to gain more recruits later.
Either way, in the coming months the existing political, economic, and social crises will only worsen, in addition to the obvious security threats.
There are plans to hold elections in April but there’s already concern about whether this will occur on schedule under a relatively weak interim government. There’s also concern about how involved the military may be behind the scenes. After all, Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned on Dec. 11 under pressure from the military. It’s no secret how complicated it can be to remove a politically minded military from the political sphere (think Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey) once it’s had a taste. Until a democratically elected government is in power, we can expect the military to be involved in politics, further eroding democracy. Drug trafficking, corruption, and ethnic tensions will not help with stability or strengthening government legitimacy.
Mali’s economic struggles are no secret: Growth is expected to rebound to 4 percent in 2013 from 1.5 percent in 2012 (due in part to gold and cotton outputs), according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, but the government is also looking at a $110 million budget shortfall. Foreign aid has been almost 50 percent of government expenditure in the past but is in jeopardy until Mali makes a full democratic reversal.
The IMF has offered an $18 million loan to the poor, aid-dependent country, $28 million less than what was offered before the coup. Unemployment, now at least 30 percent, continues to soar, likely creating more potential recruits for al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north who are expanding their forces (some youth are already being recruited from outside Mali). Tourism— the country’s third-biggest generator of revenue—will continue to decline until security improves. In the past, more than 170,000 tourists visited in one year, but in the first half of 2012 there were only 7,000 visitors.
The existing social crisis will worsen. According to the UN, more than 600,000 children under age five are severely malnourished due to the significant food crisis. Extremists will continue to terrorize civilians, especially women and children, in the north given the extreme form of shariah law that has been imposed. Some children, many who have been banned from schools, are being paid $10 each to become soldiers. The hands of thieves are being cut off. Couples accused of adultery are being stoned to death. Other common punishments include floggings and amputations. Religious and cultural shrines are being destroyed.
These extreme conditions will prompt more to flee from the north. Already, more than 200,000 have fled to the south, while more than 300,000 have taken refuge in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. There’s been an outpouring of humanitarian aid for these refugees, yet many still struggle to get basic food, water, and health care.
These political, economic, and social crises will be compounded by overall security concerns in the coming months. There’s no guarantee foreign intervention will help the country get back on track—and it may make matters worse, with more violence and general instability possibly making the country Africa’s Afghanistan.