July 25, 2013
Mali is set to host its first election since the 2012 military coup and subsequent Tuareg and Islamist rebellion. Although the French and African intervention was able to repel the Islamists, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb lies in wait for an opportunity to make their return. This election, regardless of the results, may provide the chance they’re looking for.
The international community, primarily France and the countries of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) have been pressuring Mali to conduct elections as soon as possible. The original date scheduled, July 28, is likely to hold as the Malians seek to acquire billions of dollars in aid contingent upon elections occurring this month. There are currently 27 politicians in the running for president but two major frontrunners, Soumaila Cisse and Ibrahim Keita. These two have agreed that they will respect the results of the election regardless of the outcome. The Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, have agreed to a temporary peace agreement and will discuss a longer agreement with the elected president. The nature of Malian politics, internal security, and French and African forces’ withdrawal will collide to thrust Mali back into deadly conflict.
The Malian election is being rushed and many watching the events surrounding the election worry that it will be flawed and not very representative. While this is an unfortunate issue, the rushing of the election will also bring about greater concerns. Regardless of the results of the election, the new president will be saddled with negotiating the demands of the ethnic Tuaregs in Mali’s north. The Tuaregs have long advocated for the liberation and independence of Mali’s Azawad region, more than half of the country’s landmass. After the military coup in 2012, the Tuareg took advantage of the political turmoil to launch a rebellion in which they captured much of the north, with the help of Islamists such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. After the Islamists turned on the Tuareg, they allied with the government and French and ECOWAS forces to expel the Islamists. If the new president cannot satisfy the demands of the MNLA and the Tuareg, they may continue the rebellion. Mali’s security forces are weak and untrained, as are the forces of most of the African nations assisting in Mali. The French would like to withdraw their forces as soon as possible and are likely to deal so soon after the election is conducted. Once the French leave, the Tuareg may be emboldened to act. A much worse situation is the possibility that a French withdrawal will trigger a return of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group remains the wealthiest branch of Al-Qaeda and they emerged a big winner in the free-for-all over Libyan weapons leftover from the Gaddafi regime. They have been calling for Muslims in Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Algeria to join the Jihad in Mali, even going so far as to condemn Syrian group Jabhat Al-Nusra, claiming the group is a “Western ploy” to siphon Mujahidin away from the Malian conflict. Thus, Mali possesses subpar security forces, retreating French forces, a rushed election, and potentially angry rebels. Violent Islamist groups thrive in political turmoil and chaos where governments cannot adequately control all the territory of their country. Mali is having trouble doing that now, and those conditions will only get worse after these elections. If the French do not have a plan for maintaining support of the security forces in Mali, they will have a difficult fight on their hands. The United Nations may send peacekeepers, but UN peacekeepers tend to be no more effective than “don’t shoot me” signs posted across the country. Three years after Mali was touted as a model for democratic success in Africa, it will likely be ensconced in violence and instability for years to come.