What Went Wrong in Mali

The Editors

Bruce Whitehouse in the LRB, 30 August 2012:

What does Mali’s spectacular slide from celebrated democratic model to failed state augur for the rest of Africa? The number of electoral democracies on the continent has fallen from 24 to 19 in the last seven years. It may be that Mali is a portent of state collapse to come, as the façade of democracy erodes, exposing the informal government mechanisms that really run the show. What if, as the historian Stephen Ellis has argued, the increasing fragility of African states is ‘an early sign of a wider problem with the system of international governance’ built after World War Two? Western powers are discovering that in Africa, as in Afghanistan, there are limits to their ability to impose or even reform state systems. It may be that the way to help these societies sort out their conflicts is to let them do it on their own.


  • 16 January 2013 at 1:31am
    Jeff Dorsey says:
    Democracy in Mali really was a facade used by two presidents and the political class who surrounded them for their own benefit. Why it took outside observers so much longer than it took Malians to understand this fact is disturbing. For two decades, Mali was the darling of the donor community while its rating on the issue of corruption plunged from 77th in 2004 to 118th in 2011 (on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index). Under the Transitional Government, Mali improved to a ranking of 105th, which has gone largely unnoticed, as real attempts have been made in Government and in the Army to reduce corruption and to eliminate impunity from prosecution.

    Donors big and small contributed to the growth of corruption by lax supervision of their own funds and over funds provided to the Malian Government as budgetary support. When fraud was discovered, donors out of embarrassment or for political reasons of their own went to great lengths to cover up their losses. One huge project by a major donor finished without ever having been evaluated or even audited. Only the Global Fund for Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis took those involved to task, with limited results due to the failures of the judiciary to act in a transparent manner, something Malians also understand but no longer condone.

    Mali allowed the former president to leave, which his fortune if not his reputation intact. Many of those who shared the largesse of his two terms in office still enjoy these benefits and have not been unduly molested with a few exceptions. The US State Department after 28 days of deliberation labeled the change-over a "military coup," triggering the automatic suspension of military and development assistance which is still in force. Other major countries followed suit, eliminating the country's investment budget, depriving Government of current resources and the ability to operate, causing a disastrous depression and leading to massive unemployment. Donor policy also left the Army without the resources it needed to rearm and to restructure along US lines following the forced retirement of most of the 78 generals who formed the etat majeur. As Dr. Whitehouse correctly concludes: a return to the status quo in terms of treatment of the Malian Government and a modicum of assistance would allow the Malians to sort out their conflicts on their own.

    The North is a separate story. Following its liberation a massive program of assistance along new lines will be required if this vast territory is to become an integral part of the national economy and to offer its diverse ethnic groups a chance of personal dignity and financial well-being.

  • 16 January 2013 at 9:07am
    philip proust says:
    'It may be that the way to help these societies sort out their conflicts is to let them do it on their own.'

    The problem with this sentence is that African nation states do not in general constitute 'societies' in the way that term is normally understood; so 'society' can't really do anything to help itself. Instead of societies, there are agglomerations of people that contain groups which are able to arm and organise themselves so as to dominate and exploit the population - for whatever purpose.

    Tragically, the dominated segments of the populations - as in the case of the masacres of Rwandan Tutsis and out-group Hutus in 1994 - are often relatively defenceless and suffer appallingly. Does Bruce Whitehouse want to say that in this kind of situation it should be left to Rwandan 'society' to work out its own solution?

    What is required is a renewed and effective system of international governance that respects human rights. This is a very tall order but one which is worth working towards; the 'washing our hands of it' alternative is morally untenable. It was applied to Rwanda in 1994 and the outcome could hardly have been worse.