After two military coups in Mali in the past eight years, Canada and other key donors are being urged to reconsider their massive financial and security support for Mali’s dysfunctional government.
Soldiers seized power in the West African country on Tuesday for the second time since 2012, capitalizing on mass protests and rising discontent with a government that has failed to end years of violent insurgencies and corruption. The mutinying soldiers were greeted with jubilation in the streets of Mali’s capital, Bamako, in a clear sign that the government had lost the support of the population, despite the huge flows of international aid.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta announced his resignation within hours of his arrest by the rebel soldiers. The military announced plans to set up a civilian transitional government and hold elections, but the African Union decided on Wednesday to suspend Mali, while West African countries closed their land and air borders with Mali and threatened to impose sanctions on it.
Canada is one of Mali’s biggest foreign supporters, providing a total of about $1.6-billion in development aid over the past 20 years, along with hundreds of military peacekeepers and police trainers. Other countries, including France, have sent thousands of soldiers and military vehicles to fight Islamist radicals.
The aid, however, has failed to end the violent conflict that has devastated the country. A report this month by United Nations’ experts found that senior army and intelligence officials in Mali are deliberately obstructing a 2015 peace agreement, allowing the violence to continue.
Over the past year alone, Canada provided about $140-million in development aid to Mali, deployed troops and police officers to the country, spent millions of dollars on peace and stabilization programs and wrapped up a 12-month peacekeeping mission in northern Mali that included helicopters and hundreds of military personnel. Canadian mining companies have also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Mali.
About 10 Canadian military officers are currently stationed at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bamako, and there are no plans to evacuate them, according to Captain Gregory Cutten, a public-affairs officer for the Canadian Armed Forces.
The international aid has been criticized as excessively focused on military security, neglecting the crucial issues of governance that determine whether Mali’s political leaders can maintain public support.
“If you can’t get the governance right, you are really frittering away the money you are sending there,” said Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Inside the Canadian government, there are signs that Ottawa agrees with the criticism. A Canadian official said the international community – including Canada – needs to spend more on governance in Mali rather than just counterinsurgency. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly on Mali.
The official agreed that the massive aid has helped Mali’s government to avoid demands for reform. The UN mission in Mali must do a better job of helping the government address popular grievances on issues such as policing, electricity, water and schools, the official said.
Prof. Hampson said the immediate challenge for countries such as Canada will be to hold the coup leaders to their pledge to provide free and fair elections. But in the longer term, he said, countries including Canada should be prepared to spend more on boosting Mali’s capacity to govern and meet the needs of its citizens.
“If you’re going to be engaged, you better be prepared to stay there for the long haul and not simply be doing a quick one-off because you are running for a seat on the United Nations Security Council,” Prof. Hampson told The Globe.
“It does require perhaps a more serious international effort and not just by the French who have been doing a lot of the heavy lifting.”
He said there is a tendency to see Mali “as a bit of a sinkhole” because of the billions already spent by Western countries. “It’s a long-term problem and you’re going to have lots of failure but at the end of the day you have to ask the question: ‘What is the alternative?‘ ” he said.
“The alternative – to pull back and walk away – would not just mean destabilization in Mali and continuation of problems in the north, where you have both separatist elements and Islamic jihadists. It’s the contagion that is already spreading to other parts of West Africa.”
Chris Roberts, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who specializes in Africa and peacekeeping issues, said the heavy flow of foreign aid has allowed Mali’s government to stall the political reforms and accountability measures that it badly needs.
“As most Malians on the street know, the international community is part of Mali’s fundamental political crisis: It seems to support an entrenched political class,” Mr. Roberts told The Globe.
In the years before the 2012 coup, and again in the years before the latest coup, Canada significantly expanded its aid for Mali, he said.
“Canada ramped up its bilateral aid to Mali as political malaise, corruption and security dynamics got worse,” he said.
“We ignored the direct and indirect effects of development and security assistance. Mali’s political elites face no incentives to change, to improve institutions, elections and accountability, when they know the international community will keep the financial flows coming. Until we try harder to understand how high levels of aid foster an unaccountable political system, we are part of the problem.”
Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the international community has been ignoring the political realities in Mali.
The country’s elite have reverted to patronage politics, neglecting the peace process and losing the trust of the public, he said in a commentary on Wednesday. “They have chosen to simply go through the motions,” he said.
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