Bamako baroke – talking politics and drinking tea

In Bamako, Mali last week, I drank tea and caught up on politics and development challenges. After the French military intervention to push back jihadist rebels in the North early in 2013, the transitional government has agreed with donors to hold presidential elections at the end of July. This election and a military return to barracks have been a pre-condition of aid flows re-starting.

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12 June 2013

A man walks past the river Niger in Mopti, Mali.

The constitutional court has yet to agree which candidates are eligible, but Bamakois are already feverishly debating politicians’ merits and who might win — will it be Mali’s old guard or fresh young blood?

All agree that the future must be different from the past. I asked a dozen people from national and local government, research, NGOs, politics, and donor agencies what they want a new president to deliver in the first term. Although they favoured different candidates, their views were remarkably similar.

Peace is the priority

First, urgent action is needed to build peace and reconciliation between different people and groups: in the north, in the south, and between north and south. Feelings are raw on all sides. Families have divided loyalties, and many people harbour deep resentment and loss of trust because of the killings, conflict and displacement of the past few years.

The newly established National Commission on Dialogue and Reconciliation, led by Mohamed Salia Sokona, one of Mali’s top officials, should start work soon. Many want it to speed up, and demonstrate its resolve, especially in the huge northern region, showing that it can operate with neutrality in this hotly contested area, with its mutual accusations of ethnic cleansing. Bringing customary leaders into the dialogue and listening to all sides are seen as vital, as well as including voices from neglected groups such as women and the Bella people, who were — and often still are  — bonded slaves to the Tuareg, nomadic pastoralists who live in the Sahara from the North Africa interior to northern Mali and Burkina Faso.

A peace agreement between the government and the Tuareg rebel group, the Mouvement National de Libération de L'Azawad (MNLA), also looks very close, following talks in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. But it must allay serious concerns about Mali’s soldiers taking revenge on Tuareg civilians for the rebel Aguel’hoc massacre. Mali’s chief negotiator, Tiébilé Dramé, has demonstrated skill and patience, and is said to be quietly optimistic. And the French government has helpfully got off the fence and confirmed support for the Malian government, after months of suspicion that it had done some kind of deal with the rebels.

A political agreement would let rebel fighters disarm, and let a joint force, from Mali’s army and the UN, occupy and patrol Kidal, the main town in northern Mali still to come under Bamako’s control. Political agreement is key to running elections in the north in six weeks’ time, and in getting grassroots peace and reconciliation.

Army guarantee

The second task is to reconstitute and equip the army to guarantee democracy and rule of law. With more than 50 generals, poor morale and a weak rank and file, it has become ‘flabby’. And there are worrying reports of it carrying out summary executions and targeting northern civilians as it moved north behind the French forces. The EU is now helping train an effective and accountable fighting force that understands the importance of human rights, and can keep jihadist groups out of the north in future.

Revise the constitution

Third, the constitution needs revising before politicians and vested interests get firmly established. Neighbouring Senegal provides a good model — many Malian observers admire President Maky Sall’s early decision to shorten his term from seven to five years. Everyone agrees the Malian constitution grants far too much presidential power, with few checks and balances. Deposed President Ahmadou Toumani Touré is much criticised for getting almost all parties to share in the spoils of power. But people also have harsh words for former opposition politicians who were ‘bought off’ with minor government positions.

Accountability is key

Fourth, people see establishing a culture of accountability and transparency as key. Candidates will probably have to declare their own and their immediate family’s assets at the start and end of public office. Several potential candidates are talking about more open public reviews of budgets and spending, and a much stronger role for the Assemblée Nationale in challenging the executive.

National assets but decentralised power

Making more productive use of land and water is the fifth priority. Despite vast arid lands in the north, Mali has the River Niger flowing through much of the country. The irrigated Office du Niger could boost production, especially with investment and more secure land rights for farmers. Large land hand-outs to politicians, businessmen and foreign powers also need reviewing, for example the 100,000 ha given by the previous government to Libya on the basis of a three page contract.

And sixth (but by no means ending the list), people insist that decentralisation must go much further. Mali’s 1999 reforms never properly transferred resources or built local capacity. Yet most people relate to state structures through their communes. In urban areas, mayors have been more active and effective. In rural areas, the constraints are much tighter. Rural politicians need a commitment of support from the national government to ensure they can deliver on schools, health, and water.

Given the scale of political and economic collapse over the last 18 months, the stakes are high. It’ll take time and political skill to re-build an accountable state that delivers prosperity and services.

But judging by my tea-drinking companions, Malian’s agree on what they want to achieve.

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