Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mali: Resolving the Political Stalemate in Mali

Resolving the Political Stalemate in Mali
Source: ISS

Resolving the Political Stalemate in Mali

David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

The latest developments in Mali, coupled with the coup on 12 April in Guinea-Bissau, have left the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) overwhelmed by an extremely challenging situation. Among the important issues that urgently need to be resolved is finding consensus over who should assume the interim presidency in Mali. Failing to resolve the political confusion in Bamako could have disastrous consequences, especially for people living in the north of the country.

On 8 May, ECOWAS representatives travelled to Mali to negotiate with the leaders of the military junta that had seized power in Bamako on 22 March. Foreign Ministers Adama Bictogo from Côte d’Ivoire and Djibril Basssolé from Burkina Faso were tasked with ironing out a major disagreement with the coup leaders over the modalities and timeframe for the transition to an elected government – a transition already agreed to by the junta following a deal in early April. According to the deal, ECOWAS would lift sanctions against the junta if it agreed to hand over power to civilians.

The bone of contention now appears to be the interpretation of the constitution and of this political agreement reached on 6 April. The junta’s fear that it might be stripped of its powers and influence if the transition lasts too long, seems to be at the heart of the dispute. Many are now asking whether the political elite and the military are making deals to stay in power without elections and are taking their compatriots for a ride. All this while the country is disintegrating.

While the junta initially agreed to step aside and accept a civilian government, they now want the leader of the coup, Amadou Sanogo, to become the new interim president once the term of the current interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, expires. Due to the junta’s ongoing resistance, the authority and credibility of ECOWAS could be at stake, as could the credibility of the Malian political elite. Meanwhile, groups operating in the northern region have enough time to consolidate their control with a potential risk of protracted proxy conflicts.

According to the Malian constitution, the current interim president, Traoré, was to govern for the initial transitional period of 40 days, following the premature stepping down of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Traoré’s role was to elect a new government and to lay the foundation for the return of constitutional normalcy. Neither the constitution nor the political agreement reached with the junta, however, prevents an extension of the interim period from 40 days to a year if the transition is to usher in a coherent political dispensation. In line with the constitutional provisions, the political agreement also provides for the transitional arrangements (article 5) and calls upon key actors to work out major tasks to undertake within the transitory period (article 6) to restore the democratisation process in Mali. However, it is unrealistic to expect any government in the current context to accomplish a political and security miracle in just 40 days. Most of this short time has already been wasted in the search for a ‘consensual’ prime minister. Meanwhile the political instability in Bamako is prolonging the agony of those in the north of the country, caught in the crossfire between the Touareg independence movement the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, its splinter group the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad, and the Islamist fundamentalists Ansardine backed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It is not the first time ECOWAS has to face obstacles while trying to assist a member state in crisis. It has always been a challenge to overcome resistance from certain actors in the country and their interference in the process. Past interventions by the regional body in Guinea, following the coup by Captain Dadis Camara in 2008, in Niger against the attempts by former president Mamadou Tandja to stay in power, and in Cote d’Ivoire following the contested 2010 elections, were full of problems. In the end Camara was shot by a close collaborator, creating an opportunity for the completion of the transition in Guinea, while Tandja was deposed through a coup that paved the way for Niger’s return to democracy. Cote d’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo exited power through a French-backed United Nations military intervention and is currently standing trial in The Hague.

While the political agreement between ECOWAS and the military junta was celebrated as a breakthrough since it paved the way for the return to civilian rule, it might have escaped the negotiators’ attention that nothing substantial could be achieved in 40 days, given the deterioration of the security situation in both Bamako and the north and the complexity of the issues at hand after the military coup.

ECOWAS obviously has remained faithful to its 2001 Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, particularly article 45, which provides for the normative framework to respond to political crises emanating from unconstitutional change of government and a series of sanctions in case of non-compliance. Initially, two important factors provided the regional organisation with the leverage to act decisively and press for a quick return to civilian rule in Bamako. Firstly, the firm stance taken by regional leaders against the coup and the threat of sanctions forced the junta into negotiation. Secondly, the rapid deterioration of the situation both in Bamako and in the northern region clearly exposed the unpreparedness of the junta to govern and its inability to establish its authority in Mali.

However, the seeds of the current stalemate were planted with the decision to immediately lift sanctions without any serious guarantees that the junta leaders would allow the transition to be completed without major hindrance and interference. It has become a classic pattern that military junta very seldom hand over power and ensure a peaceful and coherent transition without regional and extra-regional pressure. As was the case with Camara, Sanogo, the leader of the junta in Mali, has become a major threat to peace and stability. His insistence on remaining in control and defying the regional leaders and development partners makes the transition process extremely difficult. Meanwhile the humanitarian situation in the country is deteriorating rapidly.

Sanogo’s call for a national conference to chart a new path for Mali’s future is a fallacy that exposes the ambiguities of the junta’s real intentions at a time Mali needs a coherent and responsible leadership. It is seen as an attempt to neutralise the current interim president and his prime minister while paving the way for Sanogo to impose himself as a head of state. A precipitated national convention will certainly contribute to further confusion while citizens in the occupied regions need urgent humanitarian assistance.

In such a scenario, ECOWAS will be justified to reactivate its sanctions. While new sanctions may have some effect, the old ones should never have been lifted in the first place, nor should the junta have been granted amnesty. The junta is largely responsible for how the security situation has deteriorated in Mali. Its unwillingness to honour the original ECOWAS deal, which excluded military rule, calls for a very firm response from ECOWAS. And the political elite also needs to clearly identify where the priorities are for a speedy recovery of one of the most promising democracies in Africa.
As a political organisation, ECOWAS’s effectiveness largely depends on its member states’ willingness to abide by norms and guides. Bowing to resistance from the junta in Mali or in Guinea Bissau could undermine the commitment of the regional organisation to its zero tolerance stance on unconstitutional change of government – unless of course if the regional organisation accepts the idea of a new transition without any of the current political and military actors to save what can still be saved in Mali. If Bamako does not manage to regain control of the north soon, the future could very well see a terrorist belt developing not only in the north of Mali, but stretching across the entire Sahel region.