France and the United States are leading the push for elections to proceed on schedule in Mali in late July. The urgency reflects the view that elections are crucial to ending the rift in Bamako and to restoring the legitimacy of the Malian government, which was tarnished by a military coup and a subsequent feckless interim government. But, for elections to have meaning, they must take place throughout Mali.
The northern town of Kidal, however, remains under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), not Bamako, though there is a French encampment just outside of it. Malian troops are advancing on it, and there has been renewed fighting with the MNLA over the past two weeks.
In Burkina Faso, under the chairmanship of President Blaise Compaore, talks are underway between the Bamako government and the MNLA with the goal of allowing elections to take place in Kidal, perhaps in return for some autonomy for the region. The Voice of America reports that on June 10, there was an agreement “in principle” that would permit elections next month and the handover of Kidal to the new Bamako government.
If only it were that simple. Alex Thurston has reviewed the complexities on his “Sahel Blog.” The MNLA by no means speaks for all of the Tauregs or the numerous other rebel groups and individuals still at large in the north. While the MNLA might allow elections to take place in Kidal, it remains strongly opposed to returning the city to Bamako’s administration. Yet, for many of the political class in Bamako, the return of Kidal is a political necessity for the restoration of the Malian state. The French are supporting the Burkina Faso talks, but the French military camped outside Kidal fear ethnic bloodshed if the Malian forces take the town. Meanwhile, Amnesty International, following a four-week mission, is documenting appalling human rights violations by the Malian military. As for the rebel side, the UN is reporting that Islamic radicals’ damage to the World Heritage sites in Timbuktu is worse than had been initially reported. The Timbuktu monuments have been a source of pride for all Malians and were the basis of the now defunct tourist industry. None of these developments will facilitate reconciliation and a political settlement among the Malians of various stripes.
The bottom line: the Burkina Faso talks—even if successful—are far from solving the Mali crisis. Nor will elections—if they take place—necessarily be a step forward.