In Mali, ECOWAS is shooting blanks
By Tasie Theodore
When you are engaged in shooting blanks, you know that you are not really aiming to bring home the kill, right? Well that may be what is playing out before our eyes in respect of the Mali crisis. And the most recent evidence is that the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting of leaders of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, as has since come to the fore is that not much progress was made and not much was achieved.
But that is not the full picture if we look closely at some of the details of what transpired at the Accra parley. One, Mali’s de facto leader, Colonel Asimi Goita not only attended the meeting, he also presented to the assembled leaders the military junta’s own position on how to resolve the face-off. Two, and then for double effect, ECOWAS also reportedly bent over backwards to accommodate the junta’s alternative plan for the transitional government that it would constitute to have a term limit of 18 months and not the one year ECOWAS had previously insisted on.
Third, on the question of civilian control of the transitional government, the junta has continued to remain evasive, leaving the options open. Fourth, and the conclusion: ECOWAS would send its mediators back to Mali in the next one week. Not every football match ends in a draw; this one clearly had a winner. And ECOWAS should take full responsibility for the paltry outcomes it has continued to receive in the Mali affair, while at the same time praying that things do not get out of hand.
Sound and fury not strategy
Inter-national relations involves strategic playing. And ECOWAS has carried on from the outbreak of this crisis without a determined strategy. First, it bungled its observation of the contentious parliamentary polls where all of this began. It should have rejected the outcome.
Second, when the streets became restive, ECOWAS was shrill for weeks and then when it finally sent in a team, it appeared as if the brief was for the team to browbeat the protesters into being calm. Third, when that did not work, the strategy now seemed to shift towards pleading with embattled President Keita to give up some of his power! The protesters seemingly saw through this and began to voice their open distrust the entire process. And that was when the military entered the fray.
Third, ECOWAS similarly miscalculated in its initial handling of the coup, when without paying proper attention to ground realities in Mali, it offhandedly dismissed the coupists and ordered them to immediately hand back power to Keita and his team. Of course, between the opposition and the military this was a no-point and so it failed. But it inadvertently brought the military and opposition closer in that season.
Fourth, while all this was going on, the Keita forces had become pulverised and tired. Equally, the shadowy Imam Dicko who had provided nominal leadership of sorts for the opposition had equally become conflicted and pulled out from the front ranks of the struggle. What these did was to leave the military with more relative heft in the power equation of this Sahelian nation, where on account of the long running Islamist siege, the military had also come to have a relatively outsized position in national life.
And fifth, this last point needs restating given that Mali has indeed not been free of the scourge of military intervention, military rule and attempted coups in its post-Independence history. For a country like this then, and one that remains heaviliy militarised and at the moment also hosts fighting troops from France that are helping to combat the Sahelian Islamist insurgency, the military has inadvertently come to be a stakeholder that can only be best responded to by deft negotiation or by a determined show of strength on the field of battle, along with the consequence of determining how long the occupation force would remain in the country and which segment of the fragmented political elite it would subsequently then be handing over power to.
In Mali, the ultimate lesson for ECOWAS and indeed all that would help out is that there has to be a point where you face reality and return to the starting block: there are no easy solutions in intricate puzzles.
The thinking going forward is for ECOWAS and other inteervening agencies and nations to continue to put some degree of minimal pressure on the Mali junta with a view to getting them to ultimately abandon any desires to remain in power in perpetuity while not being seen as imposing a government on the people of Mali by stealth. This is more so when for many a discerning observer, the deeper challenge facing Mali may be the absence of sufficient civilian political elite consciousness and consensus to work together in the overall interest of the nation. Why this is so and how it should be addressed are again local factors that no well-meaning intervention from outside the nation’s borders can properly and fully resolve simply by barking orders across the wall.
Mali junta leader, Colonel Asimi Goita