Democracy Lab

Mali 2.0

The French military intervention and a successful election have given Mali a chance to reboot its democracy. But it's going to be an uphill climb.

BAMAKO, Mali — In late July, the people of Mali, a poor, landlocked West African nation once considered by many to be a model democracy, turned out in record numbers for presidential elections. Amid lingering insecurity, northern Malians from towns such as Gao and Timbuktu defied threats of violence to cast their votes.

In muddy courtyards across the lush riverside capital city of Bamako, women in colorful wax-print outfits stood next to women in all black, their faces veiled by the niqab. Young men in skinny jeans and fashionably tight T-shirts impatiently rubbed elbows with elders wearing religious caps and flowing traditional robes.

These were images that seemed unthinkable only six months earlier, when France intervened to drive a mosaic of Islamist groups -- some with ties to al Qaeda -- from the country's desert north. During the run-up to the polls, several analysts and prominent international NGOs expressed concern that hastily planned elections might further destabilize an already fragile nation.

But despite these warnings, Mali plunged ahead with elections that the aid donors, specifically France and the United States, had been calling for as a condition to releasing nearly $4 billion dollars in pledged assistance. When the second round of voting ended with runner-up Soumaila Cissé graciously conceding to the winner, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the international community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Somehow, Mali had pulled off the "good enough" elections that were seen as a prerequisite to helping the country move forward.

President Keita, known locally by his initials IBK, faces an enormous set of challenges as he begins his first month in office. His first order of business is to negotiate a settlement with the latest incarnation of ethnic Tuareg rebels -- now operating under the moniker of MNLA/HCUA -- who are demanding substantive autonomy for regions of northern Mali. According to a June 18 agreement reached in neighboring Burkina Faso, Keita has 60 days to launch fresh talks with his rebel counterparts.

Last year, Tuareg rebels allied with radical Islamists succeeded in wresting control of the north away from the government in Bamako and proclaimed the territory an independent republic. That move by the separatists prompted a coup by disgruntled army officers in the South and ultimately led to a French military intervention that ended the rebels' brief and chaotic experiment with self-rule.

A self-proclaimed admirer of the historic French president, Charles de Gaulle, Keita has cultivated a reputation as a straight shooter, an independent thinker, and a tough negotiator. In the local Bambara language, for example, his supporters refer to him as kankelentigui, a phrase which means he is a man who says things once and means it. Having struck a chord with voters by promising to unify the nation and restore Mali's honor, Keita won a strong electoral mandate that could give him the political capital necessary to reach a tough compromise that will not alienate the large segment of Malian society, including the majority of northern Malians, who oppose the MNLA/HCUA and their demands for greater autonomy.

According to a veteran diplomat recently appointed by Keita to a ministerial position, the two sides may even already be close to an agreement. "At this point," he said, "the issues with the north are technical, not political," he told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Keita's second task at hand is to lay the foundations upon which the infrastructure for good governance -- a fair and independent judiciary, transparent ministries, professional armed forces, a basic healthcare system, economic and educational opportunities -- can be built. Though no one involved would probably use the term, it's a process that amounts to a full-scale state-building project. The challenge is daunting, and one that Mali cannot handle alone.

"The international community is here to assist Malians in helping them find solutions to the sources of conflict," said Bert Koenders, who heads the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the United Nations peacekeeping mission that is only just establishing itself on the ground. "It's an enormous responsibility, because although the situation has improved, there are still all kinds of security risks," he said.

"I think many Malians realize they have to turn the page in this country," said Koenders. "There has to be a new social contract between the different regions and groups." And that, Koenders explained, is why the 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission is designed to address "the root causes of the conflict, which are also in Bamako."

In many ways, the complexity of the MINUSMA mandate highlights the fundamental challenge of Mali's political transition: how can the international community help Mali to make progress while also addressing the "root causes" of ethnic conflict? At first glance, the two goals might seem complementary, but working toward both ends simultaneously requires a delicate balance. While urgent humanitarian imperatives -- and the incentive of that $4 billion in assistance -- demand forging ahead as fast as possible, long-term stability may very well depend on making sure the next steps in Mali's democratic transition are cautious and deliberate.

During Mali's previous democratic transition in 1991, a broad national dialogue took place among diverse group of stakeholders, including students, union leaders, religious notables, academics, activists, and technocrats. They were brought together not only by the challenges left to them by 30 years of dictatorship, but by the need to decide, collectively and without outside meddling, what type of country they wanted Mali to be.

"Those were some of the most exciting days in our history," recalls Youssouf Koné, who was a student during the halcyon days of Mali's young democracy. "We surprised the world by creating a democracy that everyone said was not possible in a country like ours."

Yet when Koné describes Mali's current political culture, he speaks as though 1991 is a distant dream. "We needed our old masters to come back and save us," he said, referencing the French intervention. "We needed them to save us not only from the jihadists," Koné continued, "but from ourselves."

The extent to which corruption had seeped into every level of Mali's politics became painfully clear by the spring of 2012. While the northern two-thirds of the country were under a brutal Islamist occupation and hundreds of thousands of Malians were in dire need of humanitarian assistance, Mali's insouciant political class in Bamako was preoccupied with picking from the carcass of the Malian state.

The shameless intransigence was the apotheosis of not just a corrupt political system, but an entire culture in which corruption, fueled by an influx of illicit cash from criminal networks and systematic theft of international aid, had become the norm.

How did Mali go from an unlikely democratic success story to a failed state in a matter of days? When exactly did Mali's democracy begin to rot? Who was responsible? 

These are important questions. Yet Malians, having been ostensibly bailed out by the international community with a military intervention and the promise of aid dollars, have largely been spared the need to grapple with them.

Many Malians, for instance, blame the demise of their country on the classe politique, an ambiguous concept that offers the illusion of ascribing blame without actually holding anyone accountable. And while Mali's political establishment is certainly to blame for much of what went wrong, the classe politique critique is inherently self-serving. It absolves the rest of Malian civil society from the harsh reality that Mali's rampant corruption was enabled by a culture of impunity that had blossomed over the last decade. Mali's rich tradition of conflict mitigation through compromise and reconciliation even helped mask this reality. The end result was a culture of non-accountability in which, as one Malian friend is fond of saying, "corruption is everywhere, but no one is corrupt."

Questions of justice and accountability might seem backward-looking and even frivolous when one considers all the problems that Mali currently faces. But it is hard to imagine how Mali can ever truly "turn the page" without having the requisite tough conversations and soul-searching debates that lead to cultural shifts.

Impending legislative elections may provide the first real indication of whether Mali's relaunched democracy is on a new trajectory.

Though Mali's last elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was not technically a member of any political party, he managed to win elections and govern through "consensus politics." It was an approach to governance that built broad coalitions and made co-opting rivals relatively easy. More importantly, it removed any incentives for political parties and civil society groups to form opposition movements. With time, the incestuous political elite expanded well beyond politicians and government ministers to include civil society organizations, religious movements, even rebel groups, all of which were eager to join patronage networks designed to parcel out the spoils of the state.

Keita, who is firmly entrenched within Mali's oft-maligned political elite, and has been accused of corruption in the past, has expressed little interest in forming a "unity government." Earlier this month, he put forward a list of ministers that offered few posts to political opponents, potentially providing the political space and necessary incentives for a vibrant and viable opposition to emerge.

While recent presidential elections constitute a tremendous achievement for which Malians and the international community should be commended, a dose of skepticism is in order.

Though important, Keita's victory is only the first, and perhaps the easiest, step in a democratic transition that comes after years of deterioration. In fact, the regularity with which local and national elections were held over the last 20 years partially explains how Mali was so frequently diagnosed as a healthy democracy long after it was terminally ill.

The multitude of problems that led to Mali's collapse, however, did not stem from a lack of free and fair elections. Rather, they stemmed from a lack of strong institutions capable of holding government officials accountable and providing government services to the Malian people. Developing these institutions will take time, money, but most of all, political will at every level of Malian society.

HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Glowing Greens

Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? Scientists in Kazakhstan may be close to an answer.

SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakhstan — By most accounts, the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk is unfit for life. Across roughly 7,000 square miles of barren Kazakhstan steppe, there are hardly any people. Even animals and birds, it seems, intuitively know they should stay away. Decades-old craters pockmark the earth, remnants of the more than 450 nuclear explosions that took place here between 1949 and 1989. Broken vodka bottles scattered in the grass near "Ground Zero," the site of the area's first nuclear test, hint at the dread associated with Semipalatinsk: Vodka, some nearby residents believe, can guard against the effects of radiation exposure. Visitors are warned to cover their shoes with protective plastic before stepping onto the soil, and to shield their faces with masks.

But in this poisoned place, on a small patch of land near a few downtrodden trailers, there's an unexpected hint of vitality: bright yellow sunflowers, clustered together near rows of corn, and a barn full of plump sheep. Here, scientists from Kazakhstan's Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, a governmental organization that studies the medical and biological interaction between radioactivity and the environment, have developed an experimental farm. Their goal is to measure the transference of radioactivity from contaminated soil into edible crops, and from those crops into the meat, milk, and eggs of the animals that eat them.

The farm is an attempt to answer a question with far-reaching implications: Can food grow in a nuclear wasteland? From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the question provokes both scientific interest and deep public anxiety. The researchers at Semipalatinsk, which is only slightly smaller than the state of Israel and has some of the world's worst nuclear contamination, want to quiet fears with data and inspire new agriculture, while also providing evidence that could jumpstart farming in other places exposed to radiation. "This territory is very huge, and we think most of it is clean," said Zhanat Baigazinov, the head of the project's Farm Animal Radioecology Group. "But before we give it to farmers, we have to prove that it is safe."

Seminpalatinsk's nuclear legacy began in 1947, when Lavrenti Beria, the political director of the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project, chose it as a site to experiment with nuclear weapons. Beria claimed the region was "uninhabited," but he was wrong: Roughly 700,000 people lived in nearby villages, cities, and nomadic communities. Over the next four decades, hundreds of above- and below-ground nuclear tests contaminated the soil and poisoned residents, causing birth defects and increased rates of cancer that plague the area to this day. (Precise statistics about population change in Semipalatinsk during the nuclear-testing period are impossible to determine, in no small part because the test site officially did not exist. But it's safe to assume that most residents of nearby villages did not have the option to move far away.) After President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's post-Soviet leader, closed Semipalatinsk in 1991, the government outlawed farming in the area.

But scientists at the experimental farm find the prohibition excessive and based on assumption rather than fact. The farm launched four years ago, after several local residents petitioned authorities to investigate the safety of the area. Ten people now live semi-permanently on the site, gathering data about the radioactive qualities of crops they grow and animals they raise at a cost of about $500,000 per year. Experiments have been conducted both at the farm and in different areas of the former test site under a wide variety of circumstances. According to Sergey Lukashenko, the director of the Institute of Radiation Safety and Ecology, preliminary research results indicate that at least 80 percent of the land (roughly 5,800 square miles) at Semipalatinsk could be used to grow food for human consumption. They anticipate that, within the next few years, they will have collected enough data to try and persuade the government to end the ban on agriculture. The scientists are so confident in their findings thus far that they have eaten vegetables and meat from the farm.

Generally speaking, radioecological agriculture is a hotly contested topic. Some experts, for instance, have argued that agricultural production around Chernobyl should be completely banned for at least 200 years. What makes the Semipalatinsk project all the more intriguing -- and controversial -- are the uniquely highly levels of plutonium and other transuranium elements in the soil. Most radioactive isotopes found in contaminated areas around the world, such as cesium and strontium, have relatively short half-lives: Both cesium-137 and strontium-90, for example, have half-lifes of roughly 30 years, which means that half the radioactive isotopes will have naturally decayed and stabilized by the end of that period. But the soil at Semipalatinsk is contaminated with plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. "The plutonium will stay in this soil forever, basically," Lukashenko said.

"In scientific literature, there is no exact data about the transference of radioactive isotopes, especially transuranium elements, from soil to plants," he added. Lukashenko emphasized that because people are already exposed to small amounts of radiation every day through aspects of modern life, such as flying in airplanes, the farm hopes to determine what amount of radiation humans who live and work in Semipalatinsk, or eat food grown there, can safely tolerate.

According to Lukashenko, roughly 5,000 semi-nomadic people (who aren't necessarily aware of Semipalatinsk's radioactivity or exact borders) already illegally farm on or near the test site or allow their animals to graze there. A 2008 report from the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation confirmed that there has been "limited resettlement in the area, mostly by semi-nomadic farmers and herders," and that "there is some evidence they have grazed animals" in the region, including the most "heavily contaminated" areas. If the experimental farm can convince the government to reopen the entire area, or even a large part of it, Lukashenko estimates that the number of Semipalatinsk farmers could skyrocket to more than 20,000. (It is too early to speculate whether food grown in the area might be sent to other areas of Kazakhstan or exported.)

The farm's results could also influence or reinforce similar projects in other parts of the world. In Japan, for example, researchers have recently focused on radioactive cesium-137, the isotope that primarily contaminated the area around Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake. In a study published earlier this year, scientists measured the transference of radioactivity from soil near Fukushima into potatoes, cabbage, and other root vegetables. They found only "extremely small" to undetectable amounts of radioactive cesium in the food samples. Based on those results, some researchers have called for a "revival of agriculture in Fukushima." Similar results in Kazakhstan could give a boost to this proposal and comparable ones around the world.

However, Tomoko Nakanishi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who studies radiation's effects on plant physiology, was careful to note in an interview that the different isotopes, agricultural methods, and crops associated with various areas of radioactive contamination make it hard for researchers to generalize. Neil Hyatt, a professor of nuclear materials chemistry at the University of Sheffield and an expert on radiation damage, echoed this view. "[Semipalatinsk has] some parallels with Chernobyl and Fukushima, but the nature and extent of the contamination is different and so will require different intervention strategies," he said. However, Hyatt noted that studies in places such as Semipalatinsk and Fukushima can still have a global impact: They "will be helpful in developing national emergency plans to respond to a radiological or nuclear incident," largely by providing data that could be useful for determining how to safely rebuild agricultural economies.

For now, as the researchers at the farm in Semipalatinsk conduct their work, they are balancing hopes for the influence of their study with more immediate concerns -- most notably, skeptics and public opponents of the project. "Opening the land for grazing and other land use will be an unforgiveable mistake," said Leonid Rikhvanov, a professor at Russia's Tomsk Polytechnic University, in a 2010 interview with the Telegraph. "If the plutonium gets into the biological chain it could cause a cytogenetic catastrophe that will backfire on the health of our children and grandchildren." Many people living near Semipalatinsk feel similarly. "Fear of radiation is a very deeply ingrained idea, both in people and in the government," Lukashenko said.

Indeed, as the researchers at Semipalatinsk look toward the future, they must contend with a devastating history, the evidence of which is all around. It is in the silence hanging over Semipalatinsk, in the yellow painted signs with red radioactive hazard symbols planted on the grounds of the farm, and in the hollow skeletons of bombed-out Soviet test buildings that stand nearby. This history could be the farm's downfall -- but it may also be its greatest asset. "For people working in this field, Kazakhstan is the best country because we have everything ... that can be dangerous from a radioactive point of view," Lukashenko said. "Why would I live anywhere else?"

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images