Mali as Mirage: State Failure and Regional Turmoil

Just two years ago, many outsiders were still praising Mali for its democratic credentials and relative stability.  The democracy monitoring group Freedom House categorized Mali as one of the few liberal democracies in West Africa. We can now see more clearly that the Sahelian state’s status in early 2012 was something of a mirage.

The Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, recently held a lively panel discussion, entitled “Managing the Crisis in Mali and the Sahel.” The discussion was re-broadcast on CSPAN.

For those of you unfamiliar with CSPAN – especially non-American readers of this blog – this is the television network that shows sessions of the U.S. Congress, government press conferences, and other public affairs programs. Most Americans could truthfully tell you that they have never watched more than five minutes of CSPAN programming at one time. Even for me, a politics junkie, many CSPAN programs are quite dry and uninteresting.

In contrast, this Atlantic Council panel on Mali and its neighbors was lively and compelling. The full video is worth a look. If you don’t make it through the full video, here are a few high points, with some of my own commentary.

  1. Cote d’Ivoire’s instability in the 2000s is an underappreciated factor in Mali’s current crisis. Cote d’Ivoire’s turmoil disrupted and rechanneled Mali’s ties with the coast. This sequence of events is another reminder of the vulnerabilities of landlocked states. The panel also discussed the unintended and harmful effects of Libya’s upheaval for Mali.
  2. Mali’s economic foundation is now extraordinarily weak. Reconstructing the Malian state will require the emergence of legitimate economic activities that can supplant illicit trading and smuggling. In the years ahead, climate change will be an intensifying economic constraint for Mali and other Sahelian states.
  3. Mali’s civilian leaders did not adequately fund the military’s fight against northern rebels. As panelist Ricardo René Larémont bluntly stated, Mali’s military leaders had good reasons for launching their coup in 2012. Lack of weapons, equipment, and pay will lead many soldiers to leave the barracks and topple governments.
  4. International military training programs are worth doing, even if they don’t always have the desired results (e.g. Mali’s coup). On this point, particularly see the contributions of panelist Rudolph Atallah, who was formerly a top Pentagon official dealing with African affairs.
  5. Europe should be very concerned about intensifying flows of migrants and refugees out of this region.
  6. There is a debate about how threatening the region’s Islamist militants are to the West and the wider international community, contrary to the views of David Cameron. The Obama administration’s back-seat approach on Mali seems to reflect an ambivalence about how dangerous these militant groups actually are to the wider world.
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