A slow-burning crisis is unfolding in Mali, a country set to hold president elections in April.
The incumbent, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, is eligible for a second term but his popularity in turbulent Mali is hard to gauge. One of his challengers is supposedly his ally, Kalifa Sanogo, Mayor of Sikasso, Mali’s second largest city.
Sanogo will run on the ticket of Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema), a partner of Mr Keita’s Rally for Mali in parliament.
Keita faces a myriad of problems, inside and outside government. Internally, Keita has run an unusually fragile government even by Mali’s famed standards of fragility.
He has had five prime ministers since he became president in 2013: The first, Oumar Tatam Ly, served only eight months, September 2013 to April 2014. His replacement, Mousa Mara, fared no better, quitting in January 2015.
He was replaced by the president’s own brother, Modibo Keita, who served a little over two years and resigned in April 2017. The then minister for defence, Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga, took over but quit in December 2017.
The new premier is Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a former minister for defence and ex-intelligence chief.
Outside of government, President Keita is battling a serious crisis of legitimacy. The state is corrupt; he faces multiple insurgencies; banditry is rife and his security forces been accused of brutality.
In truth, Mali has been in terminal decline since the Tuareg crisis of 2012. That crisis has deep roots and won’t go away soon. The Tuaregs want out of Mali and have mounted rebellions before, in the 1990s and again in 2006.
Like English-speaking Cameroonians, they complain that Bamako has marginalised them and destroyed their livelihoods. In 2012, they launched a fresh, pro-independence rebellion under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In parallel, a jihadist insurgency, Ansar Dine, seized three of Mali’s largest cities – Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.
The Malian army then mutinied, angry at President Amadou Touman Touré ineffectual response to the Tuareg rebellion.
With Touré forced out, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) brokered a caretaker government to lead Mali to elections in 12 months under the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dioncouda Traoré.
With support from the French army, the insurgents were eventually beaten back. In 2015 Keita signed a peace agreement with the MNLA. However, a terror attack in Bamako that same year pushed Mali back into a de facto state of emergency. With the peace agreement virtually dead, the insurgency has re-ignited, albeit more sporadically.
As Mali heads to elections, Keita’s hold is tenuous, except perhaps in the southern region.
By December 2017, only one-third of public officials who had earlier fled insecurity in the North were reporting to work. Local elections scheduled for December were postponed to April this year, again over security worries.
Keita cannot hold the Mali together if confronted by a truly aggressive insurgency. Peaceful elections seem unlikely.
The country’s best bet is international intervention, especially by Ecowas and France, the two groups keenest to stabilise Mali and the Sahel more generally.
France is vulnerable to trouble in the Sahel, which is why Francois Hollande sent troops into Mali in the first place. France gets 80 per cent of its energy from nuclear power.
Niger, Mali’s neighbour to the East, is central to France’s energy security. Areva, the French energy giant, gets one-third of its uranium from just two mines in Niger.
France is worried about the risk of jihadist contagion in the Sahel. Al Qaeda in North Africa has links to groups in Mali and Algeria, both neighbours of Niger.
In 2010, Islamists took French hostages from Areva mining sites, forcing France to deploy troops to protect the company’s mines from 2013.
By French lights, a breakdown in Mali is a strategic threat in a region so much on the edge.