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The challenges to “making democracy” in the Sahel and the Sahara – J. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade & Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade & Investment Center

MATIC, by Jean R. AbiNader (Washington, DC, June 13, 2013) — One of my favorite debates goes something like this: in conflict environments and/or fragile or failing states, what are the relative benefits of short-term democracy promotion versus longer term development programs?

In the context of what to do in the Sahel, recent charges that Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has access to SA-7 surface-to-air missiles bring into sharp focus these issues for those striving for stability and security in the Sahel/Sahara region.

At a recent joint hearing before three House subcommittees with responsibilities for African affairs, government, think tank, and private-sector witnesses provided their assessments of efforts to tackle short and longer-term obstacles to securing the region’s future. In reviewing their testimonies, several critical recurring themes emerged in addition to the current military engagement.  At the top of the list are the humanitarian challenges.

In Mali, a country of around 16 million people, more than a half-million people are internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.  In addition, a severe drought in 2012 put almost 19 million people at risk for food security, “including one million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.” Today, although the US has expended more than $550 million in humanitarian assistance (not to mention funds from international donors), “an estimated 10 million people remain at risk of food insecurity.”

As Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto, of the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department remarked,

…our short term successes may be fleeting if we fail to address the longstanding political and economic fragility that make the Sahel susceptible to persistent crisis and conflict. Poor governance, weak democratic institutions, and a lack of development and economic opportunity cultivate fertile ground for instability. Helping those countries to strengthen their institutions and be more responsive and inclusive is equally critical to addressing the region’s deep-seated security, political, and development challenges.

And here is the dilemma. When asked by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) if elections in July 2013 could be free and fair, Nancy Lindborg of USAID replied “While we have not yet solved all of the structural issues in Mali that could impede free and fair elections, it is imperative that we hold these elections so that they can begin to rebuild democratic institutions.” What is missing from the public record is a reminder that US legislation prevents foreign military assistance to countries whose governments came to power via non-democratic means, in this case the coup that led to the secession of northern Mali. This type of restriction is also why the French support the July election, because it then allows Paris to write “mission accomplished” and withdraw its forces.

So what are some of the other ‘structural issues’ referred to by Ms. Lindborg. In a response to a question from Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK) about Mali’s previous attempt at democracy, A/S Yamamoto offered, “Mali was a very democratic country, but its democratic institutions were fragile. What we’re trying to do is give aid in order to stabilize it, address the humanitarian crisis and extremism, and promote dialog between the north and Bamako.” Excuse me…if it was a “very democratic country,” where are the institutions that reflect the bonds between government and citizens? Where is the civil society? Where are the mechanisms for engaging minority and marginalized populations? Where is the independent judiciary and armed forces that protect order and respond to civilian leadership? Where is the transparency that characterizes government transactions and policies both domestic and international? What happened to the previously agreed “dialog between the north and Bamako?” Or as a colleague from the State Department mused, “Why are we so enamored of elections in countries with no functioning civil societies or competing political parties that are at the heart of a democratic process? It allows us to wash our hands and move on to the next hot spot.”

Quoting Yamamoto again “Creating viable economic opportunities and meeting the basic needs of its citizens remain a daunting task for countries that consistently rank at the very bottom of any measure of human development.” His colleague, Ms. Lindborg, in response to Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) added “Progress is possible, but it will take time. We need to help countries, communities, the private sector, and regional NGOs feel that they have a stake in their future and understand the support we have for them.”

And yet the US and France continue to insist that the July elections proceed, while other voices raise concerns with the timing and inclusion issues.

For example, Rudy Atallah of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council told the hearing “I agree that we should push elections, but first it is critical that we address the local grievances that precipitated the beginning of the crisis. If we force the election without addressing these grievances, it will just be another failed election.”

And I will add, perpetuate another failed or failing state in the Sahel/Sahara.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and other setbacks in US foreign policy, wishful thinking and pious statements about the efficacious effect of elections in troubled countries should not play a role in next steps in the Sahel. History and common sense argue against rushing into an election without a Plan B, which is this case means BEFORE any election is on the short-term agenda. As Nii Akuetteh, a well-known African policy analyst told the Members, “I have to reiterate that we must come up with a contingency plan should the Malian elections become problematic, and we need to more thoroughly review what went wrong with Mali.”

For the best antidote to instability, as A/S Yamamoto said, “we must continue our efforts to approach the Sahel and the Maghreb’s interconnected problems with a comprehensive regional and international effort…to address the immediate security threat posed by violent extremists and transnational criminal networks, while at the same time building the institutional capacity needed to address the Sahel’s political, economic, and humanitarian challenges.” Amen to that, and to some common sense in our strategies for moving the Sahel/Sahara into functioning democracies.

Jean R. AbiNader is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Co-published with Fair Observer (www.fairobserver.com)

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