Wash Out

Mali's presidential vote is scheduled for the absolute worst time -- and Paris is to blame.  

On July 28, Malians will head to the polls for the country's first election since an ill-fated military putsch overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. But while the vote is intended to mark Mali's return to democratic rule -- and thereby unlock billions in development aid put on hold because of the coup -- it is actually more of an end than a beginning. After six months of operations aimed at routing extremists from the country's north, France is in need of an exit strategy, and elections -- however rushed -- will have to suffice.

But Mali is clearly not ready for elections. With security still tenuous in much of the country, refugees struggling to register to vote, and the rainy season in full swing, the July 28 contest is threatening to be a literal wash. What's more, these problems disproportionately impact northern Mali. And given that the fraught north-south relationship is what led to the current crisis, the rushed timetable for these elections will only deepen the country's woes.

Mali's March 2012 coup, which took place just five weeks before presidential elections were due to be held, plunged the country into chaos from which it has not fully emerged. Lauched by Army Capt. Amadou Sanogo, ostensibly because of the previous government's failure to deal with the Tuareg uprising in the north of the country, the coup had the ironic result of exacerbating the problem it was meant to solve. Sanogo's coup increased insecurity, and led directly to the fall of Mali's three northernmost provinces -- Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu -- to violent, Islamist extremist groups, including one related to al Qaeda. Having at first partnered with the Islamists, the Tuareg secessionists soon found themselves forced out of the picture.

Meanwhile, in Bamako, Sanogo handed power to an interim, civilian president, who begrudgingly welcomed a French intervention in January once it became clear that the Islamists' southward push might possibly threaten Bamako. Following its intially successful rout of extremists from major population centers in the north, France is now in the process of handing off to a U.N.-sponsored mission. But far from suffering defeat, the extremists have merely melted away into the desert. As a result, most major urban centers -- including Timbuktu and Gao -- remain subject to a continuing insurgency.

Against this backdrop, the primary concern for the upcoming elections is security. Militant Islamists have been retaliating against international forces with increasingly frequent suicide attacks and roadside bombs. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), meanwhile, has lost many of its senior leaders, but remains a potent threat. Likewise, other Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) have suffered losses, but are still active in the north.  

One bright spot for Malian authorities was the signing on June 18 of the Ouagadougou Accords in neighbouring Burkina Faso. The accords, agreed to by the Malian government and the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which had sought an independent state in northern Mali, removed a major obstacle to peaceful elections. Reversing their previous objection to a national poll -- and commitment to preventing government forces from entering the region -- the MNLA has now pledged to allow the election to take place in its stronghold of Kidal. Still, the kidnapping of six election officials by the MNLA on July 20 raises obvious questions about the group's intentions, as well as the ability of French and U.N.-sponsored forces to impose order in the north. (The hostages have all since been freed.)

Another major concern is the current lack of either an up-to-date voting register or a reliable network that can guarantee distribution of ballot papers nationwide. To compound these problems, in a well-intentioned but flawed attempt to make elections less open to fraud, biometric ID cards are being introduced to Mali for the first time this year.

The biometric cards come with a unique national identification number (or NINA) that makes voting more secure. Produced by the French firm Safran Morpho, the new technology may work, but the cards still need to be distributed among registered voters -- and time is running out. The contract for drawing up and distributing ballot papers was only awarded in April, while the NINA cards just arrived in Bamako in June. The start date for nationwide distribution was June 28, exactly one month before Election Day. (In 2008, Bangladesh, a much smaller country that affords easier access to its admittedly much larger population, allowed 90 days for distribution of a similar card.)

Mali's minister for territorial administration, Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, has insisted that the country will be ready for the election, but his colleagues in the national electoral commission beg to differ. On June 27, the head of the electoral commission, Mamadou Diamountani, warned that production and distribution of NINA cards was "way behind schedule," adding that it will be "very difficult to stick to the date of July 28."

Adding to the logistical nightmare is the fact that more than a year's worth of fighting has left much of Mali's northern population scattered about the country in refugee camps. Some officials have trumpeted the fact that displaced Malians will not have to return to their hometowns to vote -- which they would if they felt it was safe -- but can re-register anywhere in the country. This might be relatively straightforward in Bamako, but for the estimated 500,000 internally displaced persons living in far flung camps -- many of whom have lost all forms of identification -- the process will undoubtedly be more complicated. Refugees currently residing in neighbouring countries present a whole other problem.

According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) about 175,000 Malians fled to neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. The UNHCR is aiding registration efforts in all three countries, but it nonetheless remains a formidable task that Bamako is not likely to complete in time. (According to the UNHCR, only 38 NINA cards had reached Burkina Faso, where more than 49,000 Malians have taken refuge, as of July 23.) The vast majority of refugees and internally displaced persons, moreover, are from northern Mali, which adds weight to concerns of the upcoming election's legitimacy. 

Even inside Mali, there are serious questions about whether or not an election is logistically feasible in the northern half of the country. Communications there, where inadequate roads make hard work of any journey, are tenuous at the best of times. But this week's election will be held in the midst of the rainy season, which started in June. As result, many of the already poor roads will be washed away or made otherwise impassable, impacting both would-be voters and election officials trying to get ballot papers to polling stations.

For farmers, who make up about two thirds of the population in the north, moreover, the late July rains mark a vital period in the agricultural calendar -- one that they are not likely to miss in order to vote for a government both far away and mistrusted. Finally, as if the rains and the refugee problems weren't enough, election day falls smack in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when fasting during daylight hours is also sure to further reduce voter turnout.

So why the rush? The determination to hold elections on July 28 is not being pushed in Bamako nearly as forcefully as it is overseas. In Mali, the agenda of international donors is proving to be more important than facts on the ground. France, which currently has 4,000 troops on the ground, is in as much of a hurry to get out as it was to get in -- nevermind that the only people who want the French to leave are the French. But a full handover of operations to the U.N.-sponsored force that assumed command earlier this month could easily backfire. An increase in violence after the French leave will see the government of François Hollande taking the blame, and could force Paris to send in the legionnaires once more.

The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA) only began deloying on July 1, meaning that its ability to secure the northern part of the country remains very much in question. A heightened insurgency in Nigeria, meanwhile, has prompted Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to scale back his country's involvement in the U.N. effort by withdrawing one 850-troop battalion.

Nonetheless, elections form the central pillar of the international community's exit strategy. By conferring legitimacy on a new government, the vote will allow Paris to declare mission accomplished and head home. It will also allow the United States to restart aid deliveries. Unlike the recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy in Egypt -- which U.S. officials declined to label a "coup" -- Mali's 2012 putsch triggered the halt of U.S. aid in accordance with laws designed to restrict financial dealings with governments that seize power by force.

The resumption of development assistance -- along with the appearance of the U.N. troops -- will hopefully convince the thousands of farmers that have fled northern Mali to return. If they do not, and crops are not planted this season, there will be the additional problem of a food crisis next year. But aid and blue helmets are no substitute for election results that are widely accepted as legitimate. Since 1992, Malian elections have consistently had the lowest turnout of any country in West or Sahelian Africa, with no vote achieving even a 40 percent turnout. Low turnout does not automatically make an election undemocratic, but in the case of Mali it is likely to cast significant doubt on the results. Limited participation is a nationwide phenomenon, but is most acute in the north -- which has long had strained relations with Bamako. Today, distrust of the government is almost an article of faith in the north.

When Malians head to the polls on July 28, many will either choose not to vote or be unable to do so. That the election has the blessing of the international community will be of little consolation to them. And with the government's bid to build public trust already on shaky ground, what message does this send to Malians?


Democracy Lab

It's Time for Mugabe to Go

The argument for real change in Zimbabwe.

For decades, Robert Mugabe has thumbed his nose at the world. The long-time dictator has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist, repeatedly insulted foreign dignitaries, ignored regional and international agreements to which he was a signatory, and isolated the country from any legitimate international economic or political engagement. The price of both his brutality and adolescent-like behavior -- clearly an attempt to cling to the revolutionary persona of a liberation struggle now more than three decades old -- continues to be paid by the people of Zimbabwe.

In 1980, Mugabe became prime minister of the newly renamed Zimbabwe following the liberation struggle from foreign colonial rule in what was previously known as (Southern) Rhodesia. In a rousing Independence Day speech, Mugabe vowed to lead the country under the principles of reconciliation, democracy, multi-ethnic tolerance, and economic advancement. But he wasn't in power long before his true intentions and preferred political tactics were revealed: In 1983, Mugabe, a member of the Shona people, launched a ruthless genocidal campaign against the Ndebele people, who were supporters of his political rival Joshua Nkomo. The four years of horrific violence were later known as the Gukurahundi massacre.

The brutal crackdown on innocent civilians, labeled as "dissidents" by Mugabe, was executed by his military's North Korean-trained 5th Brigade and resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 men, women, and children. This horrific event is a defining moment in our nation's history, the scars of which remain visible in our society to this day. Over the next three decades, Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), proceeded to eliminate or imprison his political rivals, use his loyal military and intelligence services to instill fear into society, and change the constitution 19 times to pave the way for his entrenchment in power.

For 33 years now, Mugabe's scorched-earth modus operandi and outlandish behavior have made him a laughing stock among around the world, on par with Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Kim Jong Il. In 2010, as a show of professional and diplomatic respect, U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray, along with several other foreign emissaries, attended the funeral of Mugabe's sister, at which the long-winded despot launched a diatribe culminating in announcing that Western nations can "go to hell." Most recently, he attacked the Southern African Development Community (SADC) advisor to Zimbabwe calling her a "stupid" and "idiotic" "street woman" in response to her questioning of Zimbabwe's readiness to hold elections. Regrettably, similar examples of his diplomatic insults abound with few, if any, repercussions for these embarrassing verbal assaults on respected members of the international community.

Mugabe has also spent decades disrespecting and defying regional and international institutions, including the United Nations, the African Union (AU), and SADC -- the region's multi-lateral political and economic arbitration body. Following the landslide victory of Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in the 2008 national elections, Mugabe unleashed a torrent of bloody violence against MDC supporters forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw from the run-off presidential election to prevent further bloodshed. Humiliated by the first round defeat, Mugabe was required to enter into a SADC-facilitated power sharing agreement leaving him in the presidency but installing Tsvangirai into the newly reintroduced role of prime minister.

The multi-party agreement, known as the Global Political Agreement (GPA), created the Government of National Unity (GNU) that has acted as Zimbabwe's governing institution since 2009. The GPA called for a balanced governmental approach along with a series of security sector, media, and electoral reforms before proclaiming or conducting any national elections. Unfortunately, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party (itself a coerced collaboration stemming from the Gukurahundi massacre) have largely ignored the agreement and made every effort possible to subvert policy changes put forth by Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. The ZANU-PF maintains control over almost all major ministries within the government, the media and security services, and has pilfered hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit diamond revenues.

Mugabe and his regime have diverted these funds needed for schools, hospitals, and infrastructure while impeding meaningful reforms mandated by the GPA despite his signature and commitment. The Zimbabwe military and state-run media continue to pledge allegiance to Mugabea and openly campaign for ZANU-PF. The military refuses to salute Prime Minister Tsvangirai, and harasses, intimidates, and brutalizes anyone suspected of supporting anyone other than ZANU-PF. Most recently, Mugabe illegally circumvented our parliament and unilaterally declared an unconstitutional election date.

He has also barred international election observers, beyond a limited AU and SADC presence, into the country, claiming they will implement their "regime change agenda." This constant environment of manipulation is the backdrop on which Zimbabweans head to the polls this week.

Mugabe's refusal to implement agreed upon reforms is a slap in the face to well respected SADC leaders, especially South African president and key SADC facilitator Jacob Zuma, and their efforts to bring stability and democracy to the region. With the physical and psychological wounds of the brutal state-sponsored violence during the 2008 election still fresh, Mugabe's refusal to implement the SADC-brokered and mutually agreed upon security sector reforms threatens again the safety of all Zimbabweans hoping to exercise their constitutionally protected voice. Such brazen affronts to international election standards would not be tolerated in any free, democratic state and should not be tolerated in Zimbabwe.

The MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai understands the importance of breaking away from Mugabe's past antics and shedding the pariah status in the international community. Despite subversion efforts of Mugabe and ZANU-PF, the MDC influence in government has been seen and felt. Immediately after taking office, MDC party members in government stabilized the economy by dumping the Zimbabwe dollar and adopting a multi-currency system based on the U.S. dollar. We were also successful in pushing through a new constitution that, for the first time in Zimbabwe's history, provides a bill of rights for the protection of all citizens. These successes were made possible through sheer determination in the face of fierce opposition from Mugabe and his regime cronies desperate to hang on to power for their own personal economic interests. Released from the shackles of a regime whose time has passed, Zimbabwe can again be a responsible member of the community of nations.

In the late 1990s, Mugabe's misguided policies sent our economy and agricultural productivity, our country's lifeblood, plummeting into the abyss. To make up for the financial shortfall, his regime attempted to print its way out of the mess immediately resulting in inconceivable hyperinflation, topping out at 231 million percent. The breadbasket of Africa and one of its most advanced economies was reduced to ruins. Our people starved, our currency became useless, and legitimate commerce came to a standstill. All of us at the MDC believe transitioning back to normalized international political and economic engagement along with responsible management of resources are the keys to political stability and economic growth for Zimbabwe.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC have an economic recovery plan to create jobs, attract foreign direct investment, and ensure the country's natural and financial resources are utilized to the benefit of the people. We will deliver key financial sector reforms to ensure expanded access to credit for small businesses and our critical agriculture sector. We will reform our tax code to relieve the burden on individuals. We will transition workers in the informal market back into the formal by implementing fair, transparent and pro-business policies to attract domestic and foreign investment. We will also implement a comprehensive debt resolution plan by re-engaging the international financial institutions. We believe this path of re-engagement in the international community will lead us into the future and bring prosperity and security to our people and the region.

A recent survey of 62 Africa specialists in Foreign Policy gave Robert Mugabe a resounding victory as "Africa's Worst Political Leader," with more than double the votes of his nearest "competitor." Needless to say, this is an honor Mugabe would certainly be quick to dismiss. Well, Zimbabweans have had enough. Robert Mugabe is not representative of who we are, what we stand for, or how we want to be viewed by the rest of world. We are peace-loving people, respectful of foreign representatives, who want the country to be a prosperous, productive and responsible member of the global community.

The people of Zimbabwe do not blame the "West" for our problems, as Mugabe continues to assert in his pass-the-blame, racially-charged hate speech. We blame the misinformed and misguided polices of a tyrannical regime that has continually put the interests of its political and military elite above those of its people. The Zimbabwean people do not want the pariah stigma attached to their country any longer. We have serious challenges and we need serious leadership working with partners and friends in the region and around the world to meet these challenges.

As Morgan Tsvangirai has said, "Yesterday's people cannot solve today's problems." We want change. The time has come to move into the present and plan for the future. Zimbabweans will go to the polls this week in full force. Mugabe has tried to manipulate and rig this election but he will fail. Our people will rise up, vote him out of office, and usher in a new era of democracy in the beautiful and blessed nation. The time is now for a new Zimbabwe!