According to French President Francois Hollande the French intervention in Northern Mali is winding to a close with French troops leaving by the end of this month. On Monday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced rather optimistically that global security would be restored in Northern Mali within three weeks. Mali, as a nation has also started to look to the future — national presidential elections have been slated for July 7 with legislative elections to follow on July 21. All signs seem to be pointing to the fact that Mali is ready to move past the turmoil of the last 12 months and begin a new chapter in its history. Unfortunately, the future for Mali holds challenges which may outweigh those it appears to have overcome.
On the security front, defeat of the militants has been decisive but not comprehensive. After having been expelled from main towns, such as Gao, militants have staged moderately successful counter-attacks which forced French, Chadian, and Malian troops fighting in the area to re-take towns they assumed they had already secured. The end of the main fighting may signal the beginning of what some have termed “a war of shadows” – repeated bomb attacks, assassinations, and raids conducted by militants who have simply disappeared into hiding in Northern Mali’s vast empty space. If these fears are founded, the Malian and African Union forces set to take over from French and Chadian troops may need to prepare for a long and difficult engagement in the region. In February, Abdel Malek Droukdel, head of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb blamed the defeat of the various Islamist groups on the fact the militants attempted to implement Sharia law too quickly and predicted the French intervention. Having been proven right, militant groups still operating in the region may begin to adopt a piece-meal approach to the overthrow of central authority. The slow rise of Islamic extremism will find support among some populations in the region – some villages in Northern Mali have practiced a more strict form of Islam than most of the country and welcomed the attempts by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) to implement Sharia law. If militant groups are able to embed among populations in some of Northern Mali’s smaller towns (as they have successfully done in recent weeks) this will only serve to compound the region’s security problems.
These potential security obstacles non-withstanding, perhaps the greatest challenges facing Mali will be political in nature. One of the root causes of the recent turmoil is the fact that for over two decades Mali’s political leaders ran the country without any real attempt to develop the kind of strong institutions that form the basis of the modern state. While, the French defence minister may be encouraged by the transitional government’s commitment to the July elections, elections are just the beginning. Reported human rights abuses by the Malian army in the field, as well as clashes between different army factions in the capital Bamako were a grim reminder that any civilian government will have a lot of work to reign in the military and subordinate it to civilian rule. The arrest last week of popular newspaper editor Boukary Daou, which prompted a national media blackout, reveals that press freedom is still far from the norm.
As the new government takes over in Mali in August, it will need all the help it can get from the international community to tackle the gargantuan obstacles it faces. This "help" needs to go beyond military and even humanitarian aid – which will both undoubtedly be important. Members of the international community, now more than ever need, to hold Mali’s leaders accountable to ensure their commitment to openness, transparency, pluralism, tolerance and equitable development. Mali’s fellow ECOWAS members can no longer tolerate a government in Bamako which ignores genuine institutional growth and the developmental needs of most of the country. As the last 12 months have shown, this is not just a Malian problem – the consequences of failure affect the entire globe. A return to business as usual in Mali would be an insult to the memory of the dozens of Malian, Chadian, and French troops who have given their lives fighting for freedom.