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Mali struggles for a grassroots democratic refoundation of the state overcoming neo-colonialism

The West African Economic Community imposes tough sanctions on Mali. France, the EU and the USA support this. The majority of the Malian population, however, supports the actions of the military-civilian government. It plans nothing more than a new foundation of the state once created by the colonial powers, supported by the population as a whole. This is a glimmer of hope for a region where violence, flight and displacement continue to spread. Mali's new government believes that it needs more time to first give its citizens the opportunity to create stronger grassroots democratic foundations for elections. The government also wants to get serious about initiating peace negotiations with jihadist groups in order to be able to end the violence. This has been demanded by civil society for years, and French policy has so far prevented it: It only relies on military force and has thus further escalated the contradictions. There are also measures by the representatives of the new power that can be criticised. But the sanctions are rather harmful. They cannot be about democracy for the initiators, but about securing their influence and raw materials, considering that just a few weeks ago France in particular openly supported a military coup in Chad, and there was no criticism of it from the EU and the USA either.

We reprint here a report by Olaf Bernau, who is very familiar with Mali and is active in the Afrique-Europe-Interact network. He will be publishing a book on the causes of flight in West Africa in the next few weeks. We have linked one of his lectures below.

23.12.2021 | Contradictory situation in Mali: Despite violence and repression, broad participation of the population in national assemblies

The social situation in Mali remains dramatic: on the one hand, the escalation of violence continues to worsen - especially in the centre of the country. For example, on 3 December at 8 a.m., a truck carrying local traders from the village of Songho was blown up. It was on its way to the market in Bandiagara and 31 people died, including children. Secondly, the interim government, which emerged from a double coup, has recently come under considerable pressure, despite the fact that it continues to enjoy strong support among the population at large. Among other things, it is accused of unnecessarily dragging out the transition process until the next regular elections. Prime Minister Choguel Maïga is at the centre of the criticism, not so much Assimi Goita, officer and actual head of state of the country. In addition, members of the political class are increasingly facing charges, a rather unusual phenomenon for Mali. Mostly it is about bribery and embezzlement, but also unwelcome criticism is to be silenced.

The most spectacular case is certainly the imprisonment of Oumar Mariko. The 62-year-old doctor is the leader of the socialist party SADI (Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et l'indépendance) - sister party of the local LEFT. Actually, Oumar Mariko - just like the current prime minister - was a prominent member of the opposition alliance M5, whose mass protests in August 2020 led to a widely welcomed coup against the then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. But recently, the SADI leader has been critical of the transition process on several occasions - including the fact that many of the agreed measures have not been implemented as agreed. Meanwhile, Oumar Mariko's undoing is a private telephone conversation that was leaked to the public through unknown channels: In it, he criticises Choguel Maïga as a "liar", adding crudely that he wants to stick his foot up Maiga's "backside". What appears to be half-assed behaviour has a long and quite serious history: Choguel Maïga was a student leader under the longstanding military dictatorship of Moussa Traoré (1968-1991), while Oumar Mariko belonged to the democratic opposition. The SADI leader reacted all the more indignantly - including in the aforementioned phone call that led to his arrest for insult - when tape recordings emerged in early December in which (allegedly) Choguel Maïga disparages the democracy movement of the early 1990s and blatantly praises dictator Moussa Traoré, who died in 2020.

Meanwhile, the West African Economic Community ECOWAS sees itself confirmed in its hard line towards Bamako: ECOWAS suspended Mali's membership after the second coup in May 2021 (which was more of a changeover within the transitional government than a genuine regime change). In November 2021, sanctions were then imposed after the transitional government declared that it would not adhere to the originally agreed election date of 22 February 2022 - partly because the precarious security situation in many parts of the country did not allow elections to be held. Specifically, ECOWAS imposed a travel ban on 150 people from the transitional government for the entire ECOWAS zone - with the exception of transitional President Assimi Goita and Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop. In addition, the assets of the 150 sanctioned persons have been frozen, provided they are in bank accounts within the ECOWAS zone.

Nevertheless, there is much to suggest that the sanctions are wrong - and this also applies to the decision taken by EU foreign ministers on 13 December 2021 to sanction in future all those actors in Mali who would (supposedly) sabotage the transition process.

This is because these sanctions ignore important facts: Firstly, the trials of public figures should not be reduced to mere political repression - as is evidently the case with Oumar Mariko. Rather, the government is finally getting serious with the legal prosecution of bribery, embezzlement or forgery of documents, which has been demanded for decades (also from abroad). For example, at the end of August, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga - one of the most active string pullers of the political establishment in Bamako - was arrested. He is accused of having embezzled money in 2014 - as prime minister under President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita - for the purchase of a new presidential aircraft, an event that already made waves in the public at the time. On the other hand - and this point is much more important - the transitional government of Prime Minister Choguel Maïga has kept its initial promise and organised so-called "national assemblies for the refoundation" of the state and society ("Assises nationales de la Refondation") between 11 and 30 December. In a first step, these national assemblies took place in a decentralised manner throughout the country. In a second step, the local results will now be compiled or synthesised at the national level at the end of December.

National assembly in a district of Bamako. The video is on edge, but it gives a good impression of what the atmosphere of such an assembly must be like.

The video was made by a member of Afrique-Europe-Interact. Such

such assemblies are not new. Already during the transition to a multi-party system in the early 1990s, there were "national assemblies" in numerous African countries, often in a smooth transition to constitutional conventions. Even more: in times of crisis and upheaval, national assemblies are a proven means of reorientation. But time and again, their results are not implemented. In Mali in 2019, for example, the then "National Dialogue" overwhelmingly decided that the state should enter into negotiations with terrorist groups. Unfortunately, this failed due to a kind of French veto, which is also the reason why the transitional government has announced that it wants to proceed more seriously this time. This means three things: firstly, that the assemblies will be held both locally and nationally to ensure that all those who want to can actually make their views known; secondly, that it is necessary to wait for the recommendations of the overall process before holding new elections, also in case fundamental changes in the institutional structure are demanded; and thirdly, that the concrete results will be recognised as binding.

This new seriousness is also reflected in the guide to the national assemblies published by the government. It describes the current situation in no uncertain terms and calls for nothing less than the re-foundation of Malian society, which should be based primarily on the (pre-colonial) political-institutional heritage and those values that are already shared by the Malian population. On 20.12.2021, the first reports of the local assemblies were published by the transitional government, and the overall results are not surprising: In individual places, the practical organisation showed numerous deficiencies, often there was not enough time to comprehensively discuss all 13 proposed topics, and in addition, the participation of women, young people and people with disabilities was partly unsatisfactory - a shortcoming that is probably also related to the fact that many of the established parties had already announced their absence in advance, among other things with the argument that Mali's fundamental problems were sufficiently well known.

Regardless of this, the holding of the national assemblies should be seen as a respectable success for the transitional government, especially since many of the recommendations contain very concrete measures - for example, the creation of a High Council of traditional authorities (which includes councils of elders, village chiefs, etc.), the establishment of various monitoring mechanisms against corruption, etc., the renegotiation of the mining agreements between the two parties, and the establishment of a new government, the renegotiation of mining contracts between the state and the mining industry, the reduction of the hardly manageable number of political parties (in order to make the different programmes more recognisable), the better equipment of the security forces, the foundation of public universities throughout the country, the establishment of training centres for youth etc..

What of these demands can actually be implemented remains to be seen, especially since the final consultations are still pending. But it should become clear how inappropriate it is for the West African Economic Community to impose sanctions - ignoring the obvious efforts of the transitional government to ensure democratic participation of the population on a broad front despite the highly precarious security situation. Against this background at the latest, it should also become clear that the critical public in Europe is suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding if it classifies the events in Bamako as undemocratic solely because the transitional government emerged from a military coup. The majority of the population supports its course, simply because they know that hastily called elections would only play into the hands of the established parties, while new parties and alliances would not be able to get into position in time.

Despite all this, as questionable as the EU's offensive support of the West African Economic Community is, it would be wrong not to mention the undesirable developments mentioned at the beginning. These include not only arrests such as that of SADI chief Oumar Mariko or Prime Minister Choguel Maïga's cynical flirtation with the decades-long dictatorship of Moussa Traoré, but also inadequate coordination in the fight against terrorist groups in the centre and north of the country (cf. the blog entry "Marebougou in central Mali: How the population is defending itself against the siege of villages by jihadists" of 26 November 2021).

In addition, the M5 protest alliance, from which the transitional government originally emerged, is deeply divided. This becomes particularly clear in the example of the popular preacher Mahmoud Dicko, who contributed significantly to the success of the M5 protests in the early summer of 2020. In the meantime, Mahmoud Dicko has increasingly distanced himself from M5 and thus also from the transitional government. On 28 November 2021, he criticised in a widely noticed speech that the transitional government had neither a vision nor a concrete strategy for the further development of the country. And this included the criticism that Choguel Maïga was isolating the country too much internationally through his pointed anti-French, hence anti-Western speeches - a criticism shared by many people in Mali. Specifically, Mahmoud Dicko said that he "won't stay in the mosque forever while the country is drifting and people are complaining." Unlike other popular preachers - notably Ousmane Madani Haïdara as well as Bouyé Haïdara (also known as Cherif of Nioro) - Mahmoud Dicko is also in favour of a relatively early election date - not as early as February 2022 (as the international community is calling for), but not for two years either (as parts of the transitional government are seeking).

It remains to be seen whether these different approaches will further divide Malian society or whether the political ambitions of all three of the religious leaders mentioned will mutually thwart each other. What is clear, however, is that all those observers who hastily boil down the complexity and contradictions of political developments in Mali to seemingly unambiguous tendencies such as "military dictatorship", "escalation of violence" or "anti-Western resentment" are mistaken.

translated from 23.12.2021 | Widersprüchliche Lage in Mali: Trotz Gewalt und Repression breite Beteiligung der Bevölkerung an nationalen Versammlungen – Olaf Bernau

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