Earlier this month, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won the presidential election in Mali and promised to unite the country. After the elections, the French general who led the military campaign to restore order headed home, leaving Mali’s future in the hands of UN peacekeepers. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, pledged to support the newly elected Government in their efforts to address the root causes of the conflict.
Mali’s political system had deteriorated from mismanagement. In the north, the state was overrun by extensive criminal networks often involving local dignitaries. Beginning in early 2012, Mali experienced a coup d-etat, renewed fighting between the government and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of northern territory by radical Islamists. The Tuareg-led Mouvement National for the Liberation de l’Azawad began fighting for a state of their own.
Malians embraced the French intervention in the conflict in January of this year. Other nations, including the United States, offered aid to Mali under the pretense that Mali would hold free elections and choose civilian leaders. After a seven month French campaign, known as Operation Serval, to destroy the Islamist enclave in the north, hundreds of fighters have been killed and many others displaced across the Sahara.
France was able to pull out the country with relative ease, but many are concerned that this may not be the case for the UN. Unlike France, the UN faces an open-ended mission, limited resources and the difficult task of state building in Mali. According to a UN Special representative in Mali, “The UN is here to facilitate the return of the state to north Mali and provide security until the army is ready to take over…It’s a mission which is likely to last a few years.”
The UN will act as a buffer between the government and the north and facilitate discussions in order to broker a peace deal. However, the tasks laid out for the UN are numerous and broad. Realistically, a mission such as this could take up to ten years to complete.
Since the coup, 350,000 Malians have been internally displaced and over 175,000 have become refugees in neighboring countries. The conflict in the north disrupted economic activity and the delivery of basic social services. In addition, public buildings and services were often looted in the North. All three regional capital cities in the north lack the pre-conflict levels of electricity, water, and medical services.
As the refugees and internally displaced persons return to the north, the already damaged infrastructure will inevitably become more strained. The average Malian lives on $2/day. Due to the conflict, most of those displaced do not have the capital to return home and start over. Support from the international community is critical because it is unlikely that the infrastructure in the north will be capable of meeting the needs of the current citizens, let alone the return of the displaced.
If Malian forces fail to secure the north, the Islamists will return. The problems in the North are caused by poverty, corruption, and underdevelopment. One main issue that the UN and the newly elected government will have to address is the illegal economy. With over 300,000 youth entering the job market each year, the youth have found it difficult to find jobs and instead turn to the illegal market to make a quick profit.
This economic marginalization of the youth only fuels the illegal market, which is especially present in the north. The illegal market funds the rebels of the north and disarmament is impossible without first addressing the cause of youth unemployment. The UN and France are working together on several development projects in the region which will create jobs, support local suppliers and benefit the economy.
In Mali, foreign aid has become a recurring cycle – generating jobs present, but leaving the country incapable of sustainable economic growth. Between 1996 and 2005, 27.6% of the Malian state’s budget came from official development assistance. During the 2012 coup, NGOs left and so did their aid, further crippling the nation. The country is a frequent recipient of foreign aid, but corruption prevents the aid from getting to those who need it most.
Due to a lack of oversight and accountability, aid resources are diverted to those at the top. These problems related to aid tie in directly with Mali’s problematic institutions. In order for aid to be more effective in Mali, aid management should be decentralized.
The single largest increase in public perceptions of the public sector’s integrity came after the 2012 coup. The Malian people attribute a ‘lack of patriotism’ and ‘weakness of the state’ as reasons for the country’s ever-recurring crises.