Mali Election: A Final Conclusion or a New Beginning?

Earlier this month, Mali held what has been called one of the most successful elections in the history of West Africa. In an important step forward after the recent crisis, Mali has elected a new president. After over 25 candidates were placed on the ballot, former Finance Minister Soumalia Cissé conceded defeat to the front runner, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The Threat of Violence

These elections come at an important time for the transition of the country. The campaign by French and Malian troops that took place earlier this year to liberate the northern provinces of the country from Islamist groups has largely subsided, while a new UN peacekeeping mission arrived in early July. It is the first chance for the country to prove to the international community that it has begun the process of undoing the political turmoil that enveloped the government last spring, as well as to placate some of the concerns of the northern population that they are being disenfranchised by the government in the south.

While the bulk of security operations has ended, incidents of violence still occurred in the north as the elections drew closer. In the last few weeks, there have been numerous ethnic clashes between ethnic Tuareg rebels and black Africans, in which at least four people have died. In addition, five polling officials were kidnapped by a Tuareg nationalist group. As this was happening,the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa”issued a threat to strike local polling stations should the election be carried out.

MNLA fighter.

In the lead up to the election critics accused the Malian government of pursuing an election prematurely in order to qualify for further development assistance. With these security concerns in mind, as well as criticism from domestic and international observers, the Malian government undertook a number of measures to both ensure security and sustain the legitimacy of the election. Over 2000 election observers were brought in to ensure legitimacy, while the newly deployed peacekeeping force helped maintain security alongside Malian troops. Finally, a ceasefire was struck in early July between the government and the Tuareg rebels, who had retaken some areas in the north after the Islamists were driven out by French and Malian forces.

New Realities

 In the wake of the final result, it appears that these measures have been successful. Not only were the threats of violence at polling stations overblown, even in the north, but voter turnout reached historic levels. The election has been hailed as a success by the international community, with French President Jean-Marc Ayrnault declaring it a “great success” for France.

With the success of this election in mind, as well as the defeat of Islamist forces in the north, one may argue that Mali has finally begun to move past its most-recent political crises.

The situation in Mali is now reverting to its pre-2012 situation, in which latent talks of secession, mainly among Tuareg ethnic groups, is still taking place. However, there are important differences. The unprecedented success of the rebel advances last year, coupled with the severe weakening of Islamist forces in the region at the hands of the French and Malian military, has changed the way in which Tuareg nationalists operate. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg rebel group which initiated the crisis last year alongside the Islamist group Ansar al-Din, is still very active today.

The Tuareg aspirations of creating this new state – Azawad –dates back to the early 1960s. With grievances that go back generations, they will not be alleviated with this election, regardless of outcome. While the MNLA is currently the largest Tuareg group, it was only formed in 2011 by Tuareg mercenaries that were formerly employed by Gaddafi. It is simply the latest manifestation of this struggle. It is also important to remember that the alliance between the AQIM and the MNLA broke down before the international coalition intervened, after which the MNLA soon came out in support of the intervention in order to regain control of northern territory. The MNLA’s goals of independence diverged from the goals of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was more interested in imposing sharia law in the region. One of the founding claims of the MNLA was to rid their territory of the AQIM, which it considered to be one of its primary deterrents from creating a new state. Indeed, while it was the MNLA that initiated the rebellion, it was the intervention of Ansar al-Din, which ended up leading the rebellion, which brought it to such success.

An Evolving Struggle

Unlike previous uprisings by Tuareg nationalists, this last push by the MNLA was not a strictly military-oriented endeavour. Increased access to communication has led to a more politically coherent and organized effort by the organization to both convince the nation of the need for independence and interact diplomatically with the government in the south. It is no longer simply a fighting force that conducts raids on military bases and towns before escaping back into the countryside. Indeed, the MNLA’s political arm, which is comprised mainly of young anti-government activists, was instrumental in creating a political platform from which the MNLA based its actions in 2012.

Here is where future developments of this issue are most likely to be manifested. The very real cultural and social differences that exist between the south and north, two regions that are bound only by a shared religion and national history, are likely to be highlighted in what may turn out to be a largely political – as opposed to military clash. If the MNLA and any other affiliated groups are able to take advantage of this divide, without further alienating the southern population, who largely consider the northern regions to be distant and isolated, then in the next few years we may see more developments from Mali as the north is contested yet again.

About Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. He recently completed his undergraduate studies in International Relations and English at the University of Toronto. In light of his studies concerning the history of the United Nations and NATO, his current research interests include topics related to Canada-US relations and diplomacy, the politics of intervention and human security in Africa, and energy security and cyber warfare in the global context. In the future Chris hopes to continue his studies in International Relations at the graduate level.