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Mali is becoming a failed state and it is not the jihadists’ fault

 Nearly five years since a Tuareg rebellion and coup d’état, normality has yet to return to Mali. Kamissa Camara argues that a focus on regional security masks the root cause of the Malian crisis. Until Mali’s governance and leadership deficits are addressed, attempts to stabilise the country will prove futile.

This September, the UN General Assembly dedicated a high-level meeting to the situation in Mali. This was the fifth general assembly since a Tuareg separatist rebellion and a military coup d’état destabilised Mali in the first quarter of 2012. The international community has focused its attention on the persistent presence of jihadists in the country, and across the Sahel. Many believed that the election of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) as president in August 2013 would prompt a quick recovery. Yet IBK has failed to provide the necessary leadership, occupying himself with superficial ministerial reshuffles and overt nepotism, turning a blind eye to escalating levels of corruption. His inaction may inflict greater damage to Mali than the jihadist threat.

Beyond security

At the UN meeting, officials from the European Union, African Union, regional bloc ECOWAS and the UN itself reaffirmed their commitment to resolving entwined security and political crises. IBK reiterated the threats posed by al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups both to his country and the Sahel. Although the risk is real, external interested parties should be wary of loaded rhetoric. For anyone seeking to understand what is happening in Mali, a security bias is not only erroneous but dangerous.

The jihadist threat narrative has obscured a proper assessment of the Malian government’s performance and its ability to deliver basic public services and create jobs. Poor health infrastructure, high levels of youth unemployment and endemic corruption need to be addressed. If they are not, these shortcomings could have deeper and longer-term influence for the stability of Mali. The spotlight needs to be turned the spotlight on key governance institutions such as the Bureau du Vérificateur Général” (National Corruption Commission) as part of a concerted push for reforms.

Concerns from afar

Mali has retained close ties with France since independence in 1960. The Malian diaspora is one of the largest in France. Born in France to Malian parents, I personify this link. But I, like many others in the diaspora, was concerned by the recent pronouncements of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy when he declared that he did not quite understand France’s military operation in Mali. Operation Serval began in 2013 to liberate northern Mali from the jihadists. Sarkozy questioned how 3,000 soldiers could have a significant impact across such a vast area.

Perhaps Sarkozy meant to imply that the French contingent currently stationed in the country cannot do the job alone. France has a key role to play in supporting the resolution of Mali’s political and security quagmire, but Malians need to be at the forefront of an indigenous effort to resolve the crises. However, this has so far proved less than straightforward.

Slow progress

Three years into IBK’s regime, demonstrations against bad governance have become a regular occurrence throughout the country. In May 2016, scores of protesters came together to denounce high levels of corruption and express their disappointment with the rule of a man who was elected with 77.6% of the popular vote in 2013. Several opposition figures attended the protest and lambasted the government for not addressing the growing economic misery and social suffering. Two months later, youth from Gao, Timbuktu and Bamako came together to protest that the 200,000 jobs promised by IBK during the presidential campaign had not yet been created. Issa Karounga Keita, President of the Executive Bureau of TRIJEUD, a Malian youth civil society group, raised similar concerns when I spoke with him last week: “job insecurity in Mali particularly affects the youth. Malian youth, when and if they are lucky enough to get a job, are underpaid, undertrained and underestimated”. The longer the IBK regime is unable to improve the living conditions for ordinary Malians, the more potent the threat from disenchanted youth to peace and security.

Poor governance also poses a bigger risk to foreign investment than the precarious security situation. Since the 1990s Mali has privatised many of its profitable sectors in an effort to attract external capital. Despite recurring terrorist attacks throughout the country since 2012, inflows have remained constant. However the purchase of a presidential jet for US$40 million and the uncovering of inflated defence contracts led the IMF to temporarily suspend assistance in 2014. Allegations of mismanagement of donor funds also halted the disbursement of US$4bn pledged in 2013 by 55 countries and international institutions for Mali’s reconstruction – by December 2014 it was estimated that only 50% of funds pledged had been received. These resources were intended, and desperately needed, to stimulate the economy, repair damaged infrastructure, rebuild government institutions and train the military.

Towards transparency

Within just four years, Mali has gone from being a “beacon of democracy” to the 29th most fragile state in the world. Continued military action against jihadists is certainly important for security, but of equal importance to the stability of the nation and the future of its citizens are rapid improvements in the transparency and effectiveness of governance. This essential truth must not be overlooked.


Kamissa Camara is the Senior Program Officer for West & Central Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a Fellow with Foreign Policy Interrupted but she writes here in her personal capacity. Kamissa blogs at and tweets @kamissacamara

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