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Snapshot of Mali: A ‘Thirst’ for a Stable, Democratic State

Malians return on Feb. 1, 2013 to a village they vacated after Islamists arrived. A coup followed by an Islamist insurgency uprooted many Malians last year, before French-led forces helped restore order in January. Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.

Updated on Aug. 13 | Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials IBK, won Mali’s presidential runoff, and will continue the country’s efforts to rebuild.

Original Story:

Nearly half of all eligible Malians voted in presidential elections in July, followed by a relatively smooth runoff on Sunday — signs of the West African country’s deep-seated desire to restore democracy and peace after a tumultuous year-and-a-half, said Peter Chilson, an English professor at Washington State University who wrote the ebook “We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Lost Country of Mali.”

“There’s this real thirst for a return to democracy in Mali,” he explained. “Malians are fiercely aware of their long, cultural heritage,” which includes democracy.

Malians, motivated by that tradition, are making some progress toward stability, Chilson said, but that progress remains dependent on the continued presence of French troops and U.N. peacekeepers.

Mali’s former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, pictured in Bamako on Aug. 9, 2013, is the frontrunner in the presidential election. His platform included a pledge to bring peace and stability to the country. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AF/Getty Images.

Who’s keeping the peace?

France has about 3,000 soldiers in Mali but is planning to withdraw about two-thirds of them as the U.N. peacekeeping mission builds up its forces. About 1,000 French troops will remain to patrol areas and help train the Malian army, said Chilson.

The U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, plans to have up to 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 police, making it the world body’s third largest peacekeeping operation.

Regional governments also are lending a hand to try to keep the peace — for Mali’s benefit as well as their own. The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, sent poll monitors to Mali’s elections, and has been assisting with negotiations between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels — an ethnic minority based in the north who are seeking more autonomy.

Malians in the capital Bamako look at newspapers a day after Sunday’s run-off presidential elections in the West African country of 16 million. In the first round, a higher-than-expected 48.9 percent of the electorate came out to vote. Results in the runoff are expected by Friday. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AF/Getty Images .

What’s threatening stability?

Earlier this year, the French military helped free much of northern Mali from al-Qaida-linked Islamists but left the Tuareg separatist fighters in some northern cities, including the population center of Kidal. The Malian army has moved to the area, too, to reestablish the government’s presence, said Chilson, possibly setting up future standoffs with the Tuaregs if negotiations aren’t successful.

“I wonder if the French didn’t open up a can of worms” by pressing for the Malian government to be more flexible with the Tuaregs, he noted.

As for the jihadists, who were pushed out of the north, some fled to rural areas and others to the lawless border area between Libya and Mali, said Chilson.

“There’s now a rising fear about jihadist forces reorganizing in Libya and contributing to the destabilization in that country. But their strength in Mali is still a force to be reckoned with or the French would not still be there.”

Mali’s musical tradition

Malian musician Salif Keita performs at the Apollo Theater in New York City on April 9, 2011. He’s a “sort of dean of music” in Mali, and is from the same clan as the founder of the Malian empire, Sundiata Keita, whom he sings about in his lyrics, Chilson says. Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images.

One of the factors preventing a strict version of Sharia (Islamic) law from taking root in Mali is its tradition of music, said Chilson. Music was banned last winter in northern Mali when it was under control of Islamist militants. “The expression of music is so important, and to have a new regime come in and try to put a clamp on it is really foreign.”

In addition, “Mali sees itself as the cultural anchor of West Africa,” he said, including the preservation of a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. “That’s part of what motivates Malians to pull their country together.”

Chilson gave as an example the village of Siby, about 30 miles southwest of the capital Bamako, where he found a tourist-oriented hotel that was just starting to take off, with guides available to give walking tours of sites related to the Malian empire, and certified climbers to take visitors to the surrounding cliffs.

“In October 2011 when I was there, I was the only one staying at the hotel. But as I was leaving, three carloads of U.S. Embassy dependents arrived and hired guides to take them to the different climbing spots.”

Related Resources

Feb. 4, 2013: Preserving Cultural Heritage Critical to Mali’s Future, Dignity

Jan. 28, 2013: Malian, French Forces Retake Towns (Photo Gallery)

Jan. 14, 2013: Northern Mali Faces Political, Economic Crisis as Islamists Gain More Control

Aug. 22, 2012: Refugees Flee Mali to Escape Sharia Law Under Islamic Militants and al-Qaida

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