It’s hard to mistake Bamako for the capital of anything but one of the world’s poorest countries. A handful of austere towers disrupts the monotony of this resolutely low-rise city sprawling along the flood plains of the Niger River. Its streets are dusty and potholed, lined with open sewers and clogged with traffic.
There are fragments of weathered beauty amid the crumbling buildings and tree-lined avenues — and when night falls, the city bursts into irrepressible life, even during these difficult times. However, it doesn’t make Mali’s poverty any easier to ignore.
Less obvious was the precarious state of Mali’s democracy, before its government suddenly came crashing down in March 2012. The combined pressure of a rebellion in the north and a poorly planned military coup in the south caused the country’s institutions to collapse like a house of cards. As political turmoil gripped Bamako, Islamist radicals annexed the north — until a French-led military intervention this January scattered them into the desert. Today, Mali’s internal demons have transformed it into the latest theater in the seemingly endless war on terror.
Mali turned out to be far weaker than it appeared, its fragility cloaked in the trappings of a stable democracy. Outside forces played a role in the country’s deterioration; most notably, the fall of Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime benefited both rebels and jihadists, who eagerly scooped up the regime’s arms stockpiles on the black market. But the roots of the deterioration are deep in Mali itself — in its two decades of corruption, mismanagement, poor governance, nepotism, and sham democracy.
With the French government claiming that it will withdraw its troops within weeks, Mali soon faces the prospect of assuming a larger responsibility for its own security. European and African powers met in Brussels this week to develop a “road map” for the country’s future, which reaffirmed the government’s aim of holding elections by July 31. But Mali’s return to democratic rule will not solve all its problems; in fact, it could simply reproduce the untenable order that existed before the coup. If Mali has any hope of achieving long-term stability, it begins with fixing its broken political system.
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“Our democracy was a facade,” explained Issa Ndiaye, a philosophy professor and former education minister, when I met him for a lunchtime coffee in one of Bamako’s smarter neighborhoods in January. “The state was already collapsed before the rebellion and the coup.”
It’s not hard to see his point.After street protests and a military coup ended the 23-year reign of Gen. Moussa Traoré in 1991, Mali held elections with clockwork regularity — but it was more a carousel for the country’s power brokers than a genuine competition. Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Touré led the ouster of Traoré and backed Alpha Oumar Konaré for the presidency, an office he served for two terms. Konaré then handed the presidency back to Touré, who went on to win elections in 2002 and 2007.
Each election saw foreign observers turn out in large numbers to sign off on polls, despite the fact that they were regularly disputed and marred by allegations of rigging and corruption. Elections were mistaken for democracy.
“The international community is partly to blame. They promoted Mali’s democracy when they knew it was not really democracy,” Ndiaye said. “The foreign diplomats knew what was going on but said nothing.”
Malians themselves showed meager enthusiasm for their fledgling democracy. In the four elections since 1991, voter turnout never exceeded 38 percent.
At the same time, corruption flourished. Touré himself provided a huge opening for graft when, facing the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions, he signed a peace deal in 2006 that effectively removed the army from the north. As a result, the desert became even more of a Wild West economy, where just about anything was for sale: people (whether Western hostages or West-bound migrants), contraband cigarettes, Moroccan hashish, diesel, guns, and cocaine.
Politically connected Malians eagerly jumped into this new black market. In a recent paper, researcher Wolfram Lacher concluded, “nowhere in the region were state institutions more implicated in organized crime than in northern Mali.”
And nowhere was this clearer than in the burgeoning drug trade, whereby South American cocaine was channeled to its European users by way of West African intermediaries. It took an accident to reveal the Malian elite’s complicity in this trade: In November 2009, a Boeing 727 filled with cocaine flew from Venezuela to the town of Gao in northern Mali — where it crashed in the desert. A recent investigation by Le Monde Diplomatique implicated Touré’s close allies in the cocaine business, alongside army and intelligence officers and northern parliamentarians.
The corruption rotted Mali’s democracy from the inside; its collapse in 2012 was merely the final stage in a process begun long ago. Even as the country’s problems persist, however, so does a sense of hope. It can be found on the streets of Bamako, where people welcomed last year’s coup because it ousted a corrupt and self-serving government, and where people have enthusiastically cheered the French military intervention that has swiftly returned the jihadists to the desert.
I met Salif Togola at the Universityof Bamako outside the human sciences department, where he was smoking a cigarette by the bike shed. The solidly built, 40-year-old anthropology professor and political analyst commandeered a corner of a colleague’s ramshackle office for our interview. The lights didn’t work, and most of the bookshelves were empty, save for some dusty box files and loose papers.
“Mali’s democracy was an empty institution. When you look inside it, there was nothing there,” Togola said. Last year’s coup was “inevitable,” he said.
With talk of elections at the end of July, some Malian activists fear that the mistakes of the past are about to be repeated. Civil society activists and academics have tried to focus attention on building a transparent and accountable state, rather than the details of the next election. And Togola thinks that the current tumult may just provide an opening for a new generation of leaders to come to the fore.
“Absolutely there is hope that something good will come from all this,” said Togola. “We are in a transitional phase. One era is ending and another is starting, so there is hope where before there was not.”
The candidates who put themselves forward come July’s mooted vote, whether old guard or new blood, will be an indicator of whether those hopes are to be realized.
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Hope can also be found in Mali’s mosques, where practitioners of the country’s traditional form of moderate Islam look forward to the weakening of the radicals in the north.
Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara is wildly popular among his followers, thousands of whom spilled out of his mosque in Bamako on a recent Sunday afternoon. As head of the Sufi sect Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”), he claims 2 million devotees.
I had to pass through three layers of security officers armed with metal-detecting wands and prying fingers before sitting down with Haidara. After I had been certified bomb-free and harmless, Haidara’s head of security — a spectacularly tall man dressed in a blue race-car driver’s jumpsuit — led me upstairs to a vast anteroom, dimly lit and so full of overstuffed sofas and armchairs that it resembled a furniture store.
The reason for all the security, an advisor told me, is that Haidara has received death threats “from those in the north.”
Among the jihadi groups in northern Mali is another, altogether more violent Ansar Dine, one that is allied with al Qaeda’s North African affiliate and that had captured the city of Timbuktu, holding it for most of last year. The fundamentalists implemented strict Islamic law, demolishing historic shrines, banning music, and forcing women to veil themselves. Its fugitive leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is now on the run in the desert, hunted by French special forces and warplanes.
Haidara’s outspoken disdain for the jihadists in general and the ones who took his group’s name in particular are what drew the death threats. But he remains unbowed. “Malians are not violent,” he said. “We are a poor country, and those who came to the north brought money to persuade people to join their sect, which is terrorism.”
Like others I spoke to, Haidara believes the time has come for a clean start for Mali. This, he said, might be the unexpected opportunity the last year of turmoil has offered. As he put it: “The hopes of Malians today is to end the war in the north — then we can begin to imagine how to start again, to build a new future.”