Democracy Lab

The Lesson from Mali: Do No Harm

An African success story is in trouble. Is the West's intervention in Libya to blame?

I realize that most Americans or Europeans wouldn't be able to pick out Mali on a map. But it's still a shame that recent events in that West African country have been getting so little attention. Until recently, Mali was one of Africa's big success stories. Now it's foundering.

This is especially ironic when you consider that it may be the policies of the West -- well-intentioned policies that were aimed at ridding the world of a specific evil -- that have contributed to Mali's troubles.

In a continent that doesn't have much of a reputation for liberal governance, Mali stood out. For the past twenty years this country of 12 million people has stuck doggedly to democratic principles. In 1991, Malians overthrew a military dictatorship and convened a national assembly that drew up a constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, far-reaching decentralization, and presidential elections every five years. In the years since then, the people of this Muslim-majority country have consistently managed to stick to those principles. The next presidential vote was scheduled for the end of this month.

Now that election has been postponed, and the fate of Mali's democracy is up for grabs. In some ways this latest crisis is not entirely new. For decades the government of Mali has been contending with flickers of rebellion in the country's arid north, which is inhabited by Tuaregs, a desert people scattered across the Sahara and Sahel. The Tuaregs have little in common with southern Malians, who tend to be much closer, in culture and mentality, to the coastal Africans who dominate the countries to the south. But for all their discontent, the Tuareg separatists never quite succeeded in making much headway. Even Mali's underequipped military managed to contain the insurgency.

All that changed dramatically in January of this year, when a Tuareg separatist army, suddenly emerging from obscurity, achieved a stunning series of victories across the north. The Malian army was forced into a humiliating retreat. Disgruntled officers then staged a coup in the capital of Bamako, accusing President Amadou Toumani Touré of failing to offer proper support for the war effort. Earlier this week, after a long period of uncertainty over his whereabouts, Touré emerged to tender his resignation as part of a compromise deal reached with the coup leaders, who have now handed over executive power to the leader of the national assembly. (The deal, rather remarkably, was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States, a regional grouping.)

Touré's resignation is supposed to pave the way toward a new presidential election, but it remains to be seen whether Mali's democratic institutions can recover from the damage that has been done to them. 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. 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.

The uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011. A few weeks later NATO decided to intervene, and started providing air cover to the armed opposition. Few experts would dispute, I think, that that help from the West was crucial to the ultimate success of the resistance. Qaddafi, after all, had at his disposal enormous arsenals of artillery and armor, resources denied to his foes. Without NATO's leveling of the playing field it's hard to imagine how the rebels could have won.

Qaddafi was finally captured and killed on October 20. Three days later the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, declared the "liberation" of the country -- even though the NTC was incapable of asserting centralized control over a country awash in weapons. And it was just a few weeks after Qaddafi's demise that the Tuaregs launched their campaign in northern Mali.

Precisely how this Tuareg force materialized is still a bit of a mystery, but what's beyond dispute is that most of its fighters came from Libya. Deeply distrustful of the Libyan military, Qaddafi was known to hire mercenaries from other African countries to provide security to himself and his government. Tuaregs were certainly among them. Qaddafi also sponsored a variety of insurgent movements around Africa as a way of ensuring influence. But the experts agree that he also kept those groups on a tight leash. Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, points out that it was actually Qaddafi, of all people, who mediated a ceasefire in the Tuareg rebellion in 2009.

With their sponsor and protector gone, the Libya-based separatists no longer had any reason to stay where they were. And they must have seen the sudden availability of heavy weapons in now unguarded arsenals as a chance too good to pass up.

So it seems clear enough that the civil war in Libya was a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion. But to what extent are the West's actions specifically to blame? Did the well-meaning intervention against Qaddafi unleash the forces that have now led to the downfall of democracy in Mali?

The answers may not be entirely clear -- especially considering the difficulties of getting reliable information from one of the most remote regions on earth. But the timing is certainly suspicious. Libya was in turmoil for eight months until Qaddafi's death, but the Tuaregs launched their attack only a few weeks after that. "Come January the balance of power does shift," says Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "And one of the reasons is the influx of men and weapons [from Libya]."

And that raises the issue of whether Washington and its European allies did enough to anticipate and predict the possible regional knock-on effects of intervention. Policymakers should have been aware of the risks, says Singh -- not least because of fears that a power vacuum in the north might create a safe haven for militants from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (For the record, FP was already writing about the dangers of Tuareg mercenaries returning to Mali in March 2011.) But NATO planners were clearly focused on their primary tasks of preventing Qaddafi from killing more Libyan civilians and supporting the resistance.

Could they have done more to contain possible blowback? Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that his organization repeatedly urged NATO to take measures to prevent the outflow of weapons from Qaddafi's arsenals: "Our view is that more could have been done as government territory fell to rebel forces in Libya to secure supplies of arms." But he is quick to acknowledge that this was no easy task.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to argue here that we should have left the Libyan dictator in place. As Malinowski points out, it would be a mistake to portray Qaddafi as a source of regional stability, given his obsessive meddling in the affairs of his neighbors. "In the long run it was in nobody's interest to have a brutal dictator in Tripoli who used rebel groups around the region to serve his purposes and whenever it suited his whims," he says. "But in the short run, the collapse of his regime may have contributed to what we're seeing now in Mali."

To be sure, we shouldn't oversimplify the case. Mali's leaders certainly bear considerable responsibility for the predicament in which the country now finds itself. For all its achievements, Malian democracy has been undermined for years by corruption, poverty, and complacency.

Nonetheless, recent events in this part of the world offer an important cautionary tale. The lesson: Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions. Perhaps it's time for humanitarian interventionists to come up with their own version of the Hippocratic Oath?

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Lady's Leap of Faith

Why Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to participate in a flawed election could be the biggest gamble of her career.

RANGOON -- A few days ago, I took a taxi ride to a place called Independence Ward. The grandiose name is misleading. This part of downtown Rangoon, Burma's biggest city, is a slum, and its residents count themselves lucky whenever they manage to eke out a decent living. Jobs are scarce; public services virtually non-existent.

It's a place where people generally have little to celebrate. On the day that I was there, though, that was exactly what they had decided to do. On 97th Street, equidistant from the corner mosque and a Buddhist monastery, people thronged cheerfully as loudspeakers boomed out rousing tunes, the extraordinary ethnic diversity of this country on full display. Men with long beards and skullcaps rubbed elbows with girls in brightly colored saris and boys in T-shirts and jeans. And everywhere -- hanging from balconies, festooning cars, on stickers slapped on cheeks or clothing -- was the same symbol: a red flag emblazoned with a white star and a yellow fighting peacock.

That is the sign of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady, or Daw in Burmese, as many refer to her here, wasn't supposed to show up on 97th Street on this particular day, but the people of the neighborhood gave a feverish welcome to her proxy, a local NLD activist who is campaigning for a seat in the country's National Assembly. "I want 100 percent of your votes," Phyu Phyu Thin called out. "Is that possible?" The crowd roared their approval. The boys working the loudspeakers cranked up one of the NLD's signature tunes: a country-and-western anthem (complete with yippee-i-ay's and cowboy whistles) whose refrain includes the line, "The leader of democracy is back."

On April 1, the people of Independence Ward will head to the polls to vote in a parliamentary by-election. It will be the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party colleagues have been allowed to run for office in more than two decades. Back in 1990, when the military-dominated government last allowed a relatively free general election, the NLD and its allies won 92 percent of the seats. That result stunned the regime, which subsequently annulled the results. This time around, as the country slowly transitions to more democratic governance, there won't be any room for surprises on a comparable scale. The 45 seats up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the seats in the Burmese legislature. So even if the NLD wins a landslide victory, it will still fall far short of anything like a workable majority, and its ability to effect change will be correspondingly limited.

Optimists say that this election marks a watershed. Since ex-general President Thein Sein came to power two years ago, he has steered a cautious course toward greater openness: releasing political prisoners, loosening state control over the media, and inviting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate in the political system. "This is a compromise for both sides," says Tin Maung Thann of Myanmar Egress, a private group that aspires to train future Burmese leaders. The president, he says, used his power to change legislation so that the NLD could register as a political party, while Aung San Suu Kyi "put her faith in the reforms."

Yet there are evident risks. Some NLD supporters worry that the government will use their party's modest presence in parliament after April 1 to legitimize what is still a profoundly non-democratic political system. The existing parliament, for example, was chosen in a nationwide 2010 election resoundingly rejected by the international community as a sham. That vote was based in turn on a 2008 constitution drawn up by the military government in a process that bore few traces of genuine citizen involvement. The constitution, which remains in force, reserves a full quarter of the seats in the legislature for members of the armed forces. It's a situation that results in a curious paradox: Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues are taking part in an election that they themselves consider flawed. "I don't think we can consider it a genuine free and fair election if we consider what has been happening here over the last few months,'' she said in her pre-election press conference today, referring to allegations of widespread violations made by the NLD.

It's for that reason that she and her supporters have vowed to make amending that constitution one of their political priorities once they join parliament. Yet it's hard to imagine how they'll be able to make any headway on the issue -- especially given the dominant presence in parliament of the military and the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD's only hope is that they can persuade individual members that amending the constitution is in their own best interest. Ex-student activist and political prisoner Min Ko Naing says that many members of the pro-regime party are "sitting on the fence," waiting to see how far the government is willing to allow positive change: "So now we have to encourage the reformists."

Don't hold your breath. The secretary general of the USDP, U Htay Oo, says that he sees little need to amend the constitution, and for the moment there is little visible indication that anyone in the pro-regime party, the vast civil service bureaucracy, or the military is prepared to break ranks. That could change, though, as the effects of genuine political competition begin to be felt. The past few months have seen a marked uptick in the willingness of members of parliament to challenge the government on issues ranging from the budget to peace talks with Burma's rebellious national minorities.

The biggest wild card factor here is likely to be the Lady herself. Perhaps one of the most startling changes to come over this country in recent months has been the shocking proliferation of her image and words both rigorously banned for so many years. Now every other street vendor appears to have Aung San Suu Kyi swag in stock -- a tangible reflection of her enduring star power and her deep-seated popularity with regular citizens. Ko Ko Gyi, another ex-student activist, argues that the number of seats the NLD wins in the coming election is ultimately irrelevant. "This is not a quantity issue," he says. "Aung San Suu Kyi can make her voice louder than any other member of parliament."

When I attended today's press conference, I understood why: The Lady knows her stuff. Appearing before dozens of journalists today under a sweltering tent on the lawn of the famous lakeside villa where she spent nearly 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, she deftly fielded questions on everything from the president ("I'm confident that he genuinely wishes for democratic reform") to her objectives in the election ("It's not power that we're trying to win, it's democracy for our people"). She strove to emphasize that the NLD's participation in the April 1 vote is merely one part of a broader strategy to empower Burma's citizenry by raising their "political awareness" -- particularly with an eye to the next general election, set for three years from now. Her trademark humor was also on display. "Yes, I've been feeling delicate," she said when asked about her health. "Any tough questions and I will faint straight away."

Yet the flip side of her indisputably immense charisma is the nearly religious fervor that it inspires among her supporters. "The people think of her as a demigod," says Khin Maung Shwe of the National Democratic Forum, a small opposition party that is nonetheless one of the NLD's political rivals. "They think she can change everything." And many of her supporters worry that her outsized political brand means that the fate of Burmese democracy is inextricably entwined with her personal survival -- particularly given that the NLD has few second-tier leaders (not to mention credible representatives of the younger generation) who can ever hope to approach her in stature.

Will she find a way to continue her quest for greater democracy despite the extraordinary obstacles that lie ahead? Perhaps equally important, can she live up to the impossibly high expectations harbored by so many of her supporters? Back on 97th Street, one of her fans contemplates the question. "This party [the NLD] is only for the people," says Ye Htooh, a 51-year-old sailor whose job has taken him to many places where life is far better than in his beleaguered homeland. "We have to vote for them. They cannot do anything for us in this parliament. But they can talk for us. Even if there are only a few of them, they can talk for us. And nobody else can do that."

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