Rebuilding of Mali Faces Daunting Obstacles, Despite Outside Aid

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DAKAR, Senegal -- The outpouring of support may be more a sign of nervousness than altruism.

At an international conference in Brussels this week, donors pledged $4.2 billion for Mali on a range of fronts, including roads, energy and business development, hoping to help rebuild a nation that alarmed governments around the world when much of it collapsed and fell to Islamist militants last year.

Beyond the money, the United Nations plans to deploy 12,600 peacekeepers this summer to make sure the militants do not return, while a host of outside powers, with France and the United States in the lead, are keeping a watchful eye on preparations for elections the Malians have promised for July.

What is unclear is whether these efforts will be enough to remake the nation, about the size of Texas and California combined, after its civilian and military institutions have fallen, leaving a vacuum for the militants to exploit. Skeptics question whether money and oversight will suffice in a country with an army in tatters, accused of serious and so far unpunished human rights violations, and a political class that is mostly discredited.

The military junta that seized power last year, accelerating the country's collapse, hovers in the background, with its tight connections to leading candidates in the July elections and an influential ally, Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara, in the cabinet of the so-called transition government. Signs of the junta's influence persist: The editorial director of the country's leading newspaper, Le Républicain, was arrested in March by state security agents and jailed for 27 days for publishing a letter critical of the pay being given to the coup leader, Capt. Amadou Sanogo.

For now, the Islamist militants who held sway for more than nine months in the country's north have been largely chased out, defeated in a rapid French and Chadian military campaign in January and February. Hundreds of Islamists were killed; many have regrouped in lawless southern Libya, say regional officials, including Niger's foreign minister. But the separatist nomadic rebels whose 2012 uprising precipitated the takeover by Islamist extremists remain in control of the country's far north, refusing to budge from their stronghold in Kidal in spite of saber-rattling in the capital, Bamako.

Mali, which played little role in the defeat of the militants on its own turf, remains vulnerable, incapable of defending or reconstructing itself, Western officials say. The militants have fled the principal towns of northern Mali -- Gao and Timbuktu -- but some remain in the region's villages, as evidenced by attempted suicide bombings in recent days and brief armed incursions into urbanized areas, which were repulsed after gun battles with French and Malian forces.

Outside governments are eager to forestall a repeat of last year's chaos, and two large-scale multinational efforts now under way, led by France and shepherded by the United Nations and the European Union, would effectively make this impoverished West African nation a ward of the international community.

At the international donor's conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Mali received most of what it was seeking in a broad reconstruction plan. "We need money," Mali's foreign minister, Tieman Coulibaly, bluntly declared.

The needs are immense. The Malians told donors that government "resources" decreased by 30 percent after the coup. Nearly half a million people have fled their homes in the north, tens of thousands are still in refugee camps, most schools and health centers in that region remain closed and well over a million people are considered at risk of going hungry.

"Everyone understands that the future of the subregion and beyond depends on Mali's stabilization and development," the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said at the Brussels conference.

Outside supporters are insisting that Mali replace the current coup-born government with a democratically elected one. "A lot of this is in the hands of the Malians, to see that that political transition happens," said the interim head of the United Nations Mission in Mali, David Gressly. "This is what the international community is looking for."

The Malians themselves, in their 48-page reconstruction plan, note the "fragility of the republic's institutions" and the "poor governance and corruption riddling every area of national life." Whether that recognition translates into a homegrown reform effort remains to be seen. The jockeying before the promised elections in late July resembles old-time Malian politics in the capital, with many in the discredited political class again playing prominent roles.

"It's almost a self-satirizing plan," said Prof. William Easterly, an economist at New York University, adding that he worried about an Afghanistan-like situation of "pouring in money to a fictional government."

"In the past few years there's been this delusion of fixing failed states," Professor Easterly continued. "Instead of the common-sense view that it's extremely difficult to fix failed states with aid, it sort of goes to the reverse extreme: that it becomes one of the best possible opportunities to comprehensively transform the whole country."

Still, there is little disagreement that one of the most pressing needs is the country's ineffectual military, which retreated in the face of last year's rebel advance. The Malian report speaks of the "extreme weakness of the army," and the United Nations is effectively proposing to step in as a substitute with what will be its third-largest peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, European Union military trainers are at work in Mali trying to reform the army.

The core of the United Nations force is expected to be the 6,000 regional African troops already deployed, though a Pentagon official called them "completely incapable" in remarks to Congress in April. Soldiers from Senegal, Togo and Niger now operate in Gao and its environs. Troops from Burkina Faso are in Timbuktu. They will be backed by the 1,000 French troops who remain in the country, authorized to intervene when the peacekeepers are under "imminent and serious threat."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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