Mali’s not out of the woods yet*

Mosque in Timbuktu (Emilio Labrador/Flickr)

Today’s inauguration of Diouncounda Traoré as Malian interim President formally brings to an end the country’s Constitutional crisis triggered by the coup d’état on March 22nd led by Captain Sanogo and which intalled in power a military junta. Exactly three weeks later, a semblance of normality is returning to Mali, but before when reading celebratory statements about Mali being “brought back from the brink” , two points should be remembered. Mali’s troubles are far from over. And the situation today is considerably worse than it was three weeks and a day ago.

Beginning with the most immediate set of political obstacles, it needs to be noted that Traoré’s interim mandate will last for 40 days, in which he’s tasked with nominating a prime minister, seeing a return to the political order, including dealing with the Touareg rebellion, and organising elections – although holding them within this period seems quite a long shot because of the situation in the North. And all of this with the junta seemingly not willing to go out of the picture just yet.

In addition, the situation in the North is now extremely complicated. The chaos created by the coup greatly benefited the Touareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) who have taken control of the three main cities in the North (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu all fell in three successive days) and declared independence for the Azawad. In their fight they have been supported by radical Islamist and terrorist groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the salafist group Ansar Dine led by Iyad Ag Ghali, the AQIM breakaway group Movement for the United Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and even, according to some reports, members of Nigeria’s terrorist group Boko Haram. The presence and apparent strength of these radical groups (despite the MNLA efforts to distance themselves) presents an important obstacle to any potential negotiation with Touareg leaders about the situation of the North. Although things are still moving really fast to make a clear analysis.

To these two immediate political problems, one needs to add the longer-term deeper problems faced by Mali before the coup and worsened by it. The first is the looming food crisis in the region. According to UN figures, the food shortages in the Sahel affect over 15 million people in eight countries (Burkina Faso, Chad Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal). In Mali, the Touareg rebellion has displaced over 200,000 people and is making the delivery of aid more complicated.

And finally, the troubles for Mali’s democracy did not start with the coup – and will not end with the return of constitutional order (or even the holding of elections). The coup, although improvised, has been described by some as “foreseeable” and a result of the shallow character of democracy. Elections have indeed been regularly held in a free and fair manner, but politicians appear to the population as a corrupt elite looking only after their own interests. Problems which will only be solved if formal democratic progress is accompanied by improving basic services and the streghthening of state institutions in the Northern part of the country.

All in all therefore, Mali’s formal return to Constitutional order is good news, but not the end of its troubles. Mali may soon disappear from our TV and computer screens, but the challenges for the country will not. The next 40 days will go a long way to see how the return to civilian power is managed, but the situation in the North, the humanitarian crisis and, crucially, the challenges for Mali’s democracy will take a much longer time to be solved.

*This post originally appeared on The FRIDE Blog

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