After Mali's elections, tempered optimism for a fresh start

Malian presidential candidate Yeah Samake speaks to a crowd after a rally for his candidacy in the 2012 elections. The country's presidential elections will be held on July 28, 2013. Photo by: Renninrebel / CC BY-SA

Once hailed as a bulwark of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been gripped by conflict since the March 2012 coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure. At the time, the West African country was just weeks away from its fifth consecutive election. Separatist rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants later wrested control of northern Mali, but were repelled by a French-led military intervention which began in January.

Eager to turn the page on a prolonged period of instability, Malians trooped to the polls Sunday to elect a new president. Amid fears that the elections could spark widespread violence, voting went off peacefully. The contest may well go to an Aug. 11 runoff between the two leading contenders.

“Bamako was rather calm overall … In some centers, there were so many people that people parked not only along the streets, but even on the roadway in some areas,” observed Khady Coulibaly, a Mali native who is a senior education adviser for World Education in Bamako.

Aid groups on the ground make the case that if Mali — which was aid-dependent even before the conflict — is to fully recover from the recent turmoil, foreign donors must renew their commitment to the impoverished West African country for the long-term.

“Donors should commit to providing aid to Mali for at least the next 15 years — to overcome the structural challenges of poverty across the country and to offer a sustainable resolution of the current crisis,” said Mohamed Coulibaly, Mali country director for Oxfam, one of the largest humanitarian aid groups in the country.

Obama administration on cusp of normalizing aid relationship

Immediately after the March 2012 coup, the United States — Mali’s top bilateral donor — announced that it was suspending the bulk of its development assistance program in Mali in accordance with U.S. law. Since then, the United States has suspended and terminated approximately $160 million in nonhumanitarian aid for Mali, including all assistance to the government in Bamako.

While the suspension of U.S. aid to the country has taken a toll, Devex has learned that the Obama administration will take steps to resume direct aid engagement with Bamako as soon as a new Mali government is formed.

“Following the return of a democratically elected government to office, the United States will seek to normalize its foreign assistance to Mali and resume some of the programs that were terminated or suspended following the coup,” a U.S. Agency for International Development official in Washington revealed to Devex.

The monthslong seizure by al-Qaida-linked militants of northern Mali has been a wake-up call to the administration, and analysts contend that the West African country will remain high on the U.S. foreign policy and development agenda for the foreseeable future.

“Mali is considerably more important now [to the United States] because there is an acute awareness that the coup, the insurrection in the north, opened up parts of the country to penetration by jihadist groups,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and former U.S. ambassador John Campbell argued.

For fiscal 2014, the Obama administration has requested $180 million in U.S. foreign aid to Mali, 40 percent above current levels. Expected to kick in once a new Mali government is established, the money will be focused on supporting peacekeeping operations and health programming.

Amid security concerns, European and other key donors step up aid

Other major international donors such as the European Union, France and the World Bank also suspended development assistance to Mali following the coup. In contrast to the United States, however, the three donors quickly normalized aid relations with Mali’s interim government after its adoption of a transition road map in January 2013.

At a donors’ conference in Brussels in May, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced 520 million euros ($690 million) in assistance to Mali through 2014. The EC has earmarked 225 million euros as budget support for the Mali government. Meanwhile, the World Bank pledged 480 million euros in aid through 2014 while French President Francois Hollande promised an additional 280 million euros over the same period.

In Brussels, a host of other donors announced more modest 2013-14 aid commitments for Mali including the African Development Bank (240 million euros), Germany (100 million euros), the Netherlands (100 million euros), Denmark (87 million euros) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (83 million euros). Overall, 56 bilateral and multilateral donors pledged 3.3 billion euros in assistance to Mali and in support of the interim government’s multisector sustainable recovery plan.

Northern Mali remains a challenging operational environment for donors and their partners. Emilie Jourdan of the EU delegation in Bamako clarified that Brussels has delayed some of its development programming in northern Mali, citing lingering security concerns in the region.

“The program to build a paved road between Goma Coura and Timbuktu, as well as the road between Bourem and Kidal, could not restart at this stage because of security conditions,” Jourdan said.

Earlier this month, pockets of violence erupted due to tensions between the local Tuaregs and the majority black population in Kidal province. On July 1, the United Nations took command of a 12,600-strong African peacekeeping force for Mali as France continues the drawdown of its troops which once numbered approximately 4,000.

No more business as usual?

As aid money pours into Mali once again, many caution that Sunday’s elections might only augur a return to business as usual in Bamako.

“[Past elections] were essentially a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic by the political elite who ran the country and were increasingly isolated from the Malian people,” Campbell asserted.

Some of the leading contenders for Mali’s presidency are veteran politicians linked to Toure’s decadelong regime. Despite the ousted government’s democratic credentials, analysts say Toure and his associates turned a blind eye to rampant corruption and poor governance. In late 2010, the Global Fund temporarily suspended aid to Mali following allegations that Toure’s health minister had mishandled the fund’s grants.

Toure also gained a reputation of reticence toward the country’s long-running government decentralization process. His apparent reluctance to devolve power seems to have fueled northern resentment against the south.

Prodded by key aid donors, Mali’s interim government has taken steps to clean house since assuming office in August of last year. The interim government has signed off on a draft law against illicit enrichment. Decentralization has also emerged as a hallmark of its development agenda.

“Decentralization is a way to give enough power to communities,” Malian foreign minister Tièman Hubert Coulibaly emphasized in a recent interview with Devex.

Now whether Mali’s next government will build on this momentum remains to be seen. What is clear is that on the streets of Bamako, there’s little appetite for a return to the way things used to be.

“What has happened over the past year and a half has changed people’s mentality about the way government’s supposed to work. People are asking more questions,” World Education’s Coulibaly said.

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About the author

  • Lorenzo Piccio

    Lorenzo is a former contributing analyst for Devex. Previously Devex's senior analyst for development finance in Manila.

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