Former labor union activist Dioncounda Traore assumes Mali’s interim presidency today with the intimidating task of repairing the country’s fragile democracy following the recent military coup and countering a secessionist rebellion by Northern Tuareg rebels and their allies.
While many Malians see Traore, 70, as a prime example of the establishment figure which failed for years to deal with the rising lawlessness in the desert north, Reuters reports, backers say he is the safe pair of hands needed.
A softly-spoken polyglot who trained as a mathematician in the former Soviet Union, Algeria and France, Traore was one of the generation of politicians behind the “African Spring” of the early 1990s that saw strongarm leaders across the continent fall to pro-democracy movements. Traore’s trade union activities had cost him his freedom in the 1980s as he was repeatedly jailed by the regime of Moussa Traore (eds: no relation) before he was ousted in a coup 1991.
Traore fared well in the multi-party politics of the 1990s, becoming a founder member of the ADEMA umbrella group of anti-dictatorship activists and holding key ministerial positions including defence and foreign affairs in the government of President Alpha Oumar Konare.
Political prescience is evidently another of his attributes as he warned of a possible putsch a few months prior to the recent military takeover.
“Everything is possible, even a military coup,” Traore told journalists back in February:
“If the elections are not held on the expected date, anything can happen. Anything can happen… even a coup,” he said, adding that a long transition of at least two years could ensue from such a crisis, which he said would be a setback for Mali’s democratic credentials.
“In the wake of the coup, several questions remain,” notes Susanna Wing, an associate professor of political science at Haverford University and the author of Constructing Democracy in Africa: Mali in Transition.
“The first is whether the Tuareg’s new Azawad state will last. Unlikely,” she writes in Foreign Affairs. “Divisions in the north are a serious challenge. Mali’s Tuareg population is composed of several distinct clans and castes, and is nomadic; it is hard to know how the majority of its population perceives current events.”
The second question concerns Mali’s status as a regional paradigm of democratic development (the country recently chaired and played host to the Community of Democracies):
If the political class ignores the needs of Malian citizens, unrest in Bamako will re-emerge. If it takes this opportunity to begin a democratic dialogue across the country — one resulting in concrete steps toward reducing poverty, corruption, and insurgency — then stability and democracy will have a chance to take root. Indeed, the new administration must address the ways in which democracy has failed Mali’s citizens. In past conflicts, the country relied on dialogue to face countrywide challenges. Forums to debate the rebellion in the north took place across the country in the mid-1990s and contributed to plans for decentralization. These failed not because dialogue was ineffective but because decentralization was never fully and effectively implemented.
“Mali could avoid that outcome this time,” Wing concludes. “In the face of a looming international military intervention, a durable resolution to the current crises demands that the country rely on its rich history of negotiation and democratic dialogue.”
Mali also provides a lesson for would-be interventionists, some observers suggest: beware the law of unintended consequences.
“It remains to be seen whether Mali’s democratic institutions can recover from the damage that has been done to them,” says Democracy Lab’s Christian Caryl.
“On April 6, the rebels declared that the territory under their control — an area a bit bigger than France — is now an independent state, which they call Azawad,’ he notes. “Taking it back may well prove beyond the capacity of Mali’s armed forces, and a failure to do so will undoubtedly strike a blow to the credibility of the government during what is sure to be a delicate transition.”
But how did the rebels – who staged earlier rebellions in the 1990s and then again between 2007 and 2009 – suddenly manage to pull off such a breathtaking victory? While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, there’s one factor that immediately jumps out: the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, Mali’s neighbor to the north.