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Mali: Three Steps Backwards, One Step Forward

As I arrived in Bamako, I was caught off guard by the heat and the warmth of the people around me.

I remembered that Mali is home to many different cultures, languages and traditions. I could hear the sound of blues-like music, I could picture relics of the old city of Timbuktu, and I could taste the mouth-watering capitaine fish of the Niger River. However, the first Malians that I met were not as enthusiastic and seemed rather tense. Over the past three years, Mali has been torn by civil war, a coup d’etat and militant attacks. While Malians managed to hold democratic elections in 2013, the country remains deeply divided between North and South. Most Malians live in the country’s more fertile southern regions, where power is centralized and resources are kept by a small elite of families.  On the other hand, a minority of Malians are dispersed across the country’s vast northern regions, where borders blend into the desert, marabouts (religious leaders) impose the rule of law and contraband cigarettes and drugs are the most profitable trade. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, commonly known as IBK has been unable to reconcile these decades of ethnic tension and socio-economic exclusion.

For the past 15 months, the southern-based Malian government has been attempting to broker another peace deal with the various armed groups and separatist groups in northern Mali who have sought to obtain recognition for a territory in Northern Mali they call Azawad. During my first week in Mali, the Algiers accord was finally initialed by the government, pro-Bamako and pro-Azawad groups. While the agreement has not been formally signed by all parties, it has been agreed to in principle. Meanwhile, armed groups in northern Mali have increased the number and range of their violent attacks, as witnessed last Wednesday and Saturday for the second and third time in Bamako. These elements and more contribute to a general climate of despair and distrust vis-a-vis the Malian government.

Despite the difficulties the central government is facing, the scene is a bit brighter in the regions.  On May 12, I took part in a public restitution workshop led by IRI where four members of Mali’s National Assembly presented the laws that they had passed to their constituents. The municipal building used for the event was packed with more than 200 men and women of all ages. Participants asked questions on the lack of roads, sewage, electricity, water and about other service delivery issues. Parliamentarians took the time to explain that these responsibilities pertained to the mayor of Koutiala but that they hoped to help the mayor resolve these issues. These questions, and even their answers, revealed a deep misunderstanding of the role played by different elected representatives in Mali. Mali’s National Assembly counts 83 percent newly elected members. Many of these new MPs do not fully understand their role and responsibilities.

IRI holds a public restitution for parliamentarians and citizens in Koutiala, Mali.

I spoke with several participants after the workshop who all said that this public restitution was the first time they had seen or spoken with their parliamentarian. I was surprised to observe such enthusiasm in the crowd after a seemingly simple exercise. In retrospect, it is evident that these type of constituent outreach events are rare in Mali but are extremely meaningful for citizens at the local level. Madame Marie told me after the workshop that “communication is key and that people at the grassroots need to be aware of the things that happen over there in Bamako.” Other parliamentarians have already expressed interest in the event which was broadcasted on national television and IRI plans to hold numerous additional public restitution workshops throughout Mali in the upcoming weeks.

Though Mali continues to face difficult challenges, small steps can be made to restore trust between those who govern and those who are governed by communicating simple messages at the local level.

Posted by

Roger Mitchell

Program Officer, Latin America & the Caribbean