A European Affair

This week I attended a conference and Q&A with Tièman Hubert Coulibaly, Foreign Minister for Mali’s interim government, which was both a privilege and a remarkable coincidence given the subject of my latest post. Mr. Coulibaly was in Europe to attend emergency meetings with both French and EU officials. Concerning the latter, a ministerial meeting in support of Mali was convened in Brussels on Tuesday (5th February). Together with the presence of United Nations officials, participants discussed ways to reinforce military cooperation and gains against the rebels in northern Mali. Since I last wrote, French and Malian troops have pushed the rebels back, recapturing Mali’s northern cities Timbuktu and Kidal. Around 2,000 African soldiers, together with 3,500 French soldiers, are now on the ground in Mali. Dioncounda Trarore, Mali’s interim president, has recently stated that he is prepared to negotiate with the Tuareg separatists and the French have suggested that the northern group be afforded a special status in any conflict settlement, to ease future tensions.

Mr. Trarore and Mr. Coulibaly form part of Mali’s interim government. Mali originally gained independence (from France) in 1960. The country espoused democracy in 1992 by electing its first president, although he ruled until Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) took over in 2002. Although elections were actually scheduled for April 2012, in March a group of young officers lead a military coup against the regime, against the backdrop of brutal Tuareg/separatist massacres and unrest in the north of the region. The Tuareg quickly took control of northern Mali and declared independence. By April the military handed over power to the civilian interim government. In May, Tuareg MNLA and other Islamist-linked groups merged, declaring northern Mali to be an Islamic state, with the imposition of Islamic law across the territory. In August, an interim government was formed to satisfy regional demands for a transition from military rule and in November ECOWAS agreed to assist through coordinated military intervention to recapture northern Mali.

Coming back to the conference room in Paris, France, the first thing to note about Mr. Coulibaly is that he is an excellent orator. A communications career professional, with several years of national and international political experience, he understands the importance of delivery. He first details Mali’s recent history and current conflict with clarity and precision. He knows where and when to place an emphasis, for example, when he declares the just nature of the current intervention. He is not however emotional, but rather turns to face the reality of his nation’s political landscape. Mali must address considerable political, economic and social challenges. He thanks the French students for their government’s support (which, importantly, the interim government asked for), but he also emphasises that efforts should be made to hand over leadership to African forces as quickly as possible. He also states his willingness in the future to accept foreign election and human rights monitors.

Above all, Mr. Coulibaly emphasises that Mali has only just begun its transition towards democracy. He underlines that this is not a direct or an easy path; citing France’s own historical struggle (please refer back to Les Misérables for an example). Fostering a democratic process is in fact very different from being in a musical; it is not blood stirring, heart-warming or moving. It is messy, dirty and bloody. Indeed, the trials of democracy were something that Victor Hugo would have been all too familiar with; he was himself exiled and (spoiler) at the end of Les Misérables, all but two of the main characters die. Academic scholar Paul Collier has put forward the hypothesis of “democrazy”, stating that new and poor democracies are statistically prone to falling into civil war. This is in part because democracy is too swiftly and too singularly associated with elections.

Do you hear the people sing?

Yet whilst acknowledging this reality, Mr. Coulibaly simultaneously speaks to idealism, stating that the international intervention and Mali’s path towards democracy are justified. Mali’s children deserve alternative perspectives, Mali’s men deserve religious choice and Mali’s women deserve not to be raped and forcefully married. He espouses the principles of a democratic republic, including laïcité (absence of religion from governance), freedom of thought and rule of law. So whilst democracy may be messy, for Mr. Coulibaly at least, it’s worth fighting for.

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