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‘Mali was built on a foundation that has neglected its true nature’ says Ousmane Sy

By Bokar Sangaré, in Bamako
Posted on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 19:26

Ousmane Sy at home in the Kalabankoro neighbourhood in Bamako, April 2021. © Nicolas Réméné / JA

Six months after Mali began its political transition period, the former minister of territorial administration and local communities Ousmane Sy discusses why the country needs to radically change its form of governance if it hopes to dig itself out of crisis. At the top of his agenda? Passing institutional reforms, initiating an overhaul of the Constitution and doing a good job of running elections.

Besides general elections, which are scheduled to be held in 2022, efforts to embark on a series of political and institutional reforms intended to remake Mali are the focus of debate in the country. What’s more, the political transition is viewed as a ripe opportunity for a major overhaul of the system of governance.

A former expert adviser to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ousmane Sy headed the global development network’s Mission for Decentralization and Institutional Reform in Mali.

He also served as minister of territorial administration and local communities under then president Alpha Oumar Konaré from 2000 to 2002 and was responsible for Mali’s decentralisation and urban development policy in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government in 2014.

Sy is a lecturer on governance issues at Mali’s École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) [National School of Administration], as well as the author of the book Reconstruire l’Afrique, vers une nouvelle gouvernance fondée sur les dynamiques locales [Rebuilding Africa: Towards a new locally-based governance model], the founder of the Centre d’Expertises Politiques et Institutionnelles en Afrique (CEPIA) [African political and institutional expertise consultancy] and a coordinator at the Alliance pour Refonder la Gouvernance en Afrique (ARGA) [Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa].

He breaks down for us what reforms are at the top of his agenda if the country is to find a lasting solution to the major socio-political crisis with which it has been grappling.

Political and institutional reforms are central concerns for Malians. Do you feel the political transition presents a window of opportunity to carry them out?

Ousmane Sy: The reforms Mali needs are long term in nature and aren’t part of the transition’s mandate. There was a crisis and it showed that the system in which we find ourselves is broken.

The transitional government needs to make decisions that inform the process of reform, like in 1991, when the foundations of the country’s Third Republic were laid. Unfortunately, things have always been in a state of disarray in Mali.

If the transition had been consensus-based, like everyone had hoped, it would have been equipped to pinpoint the actual root causes behind the rifts we’re experiencing and the reasons why we’re only trying to fix the effects they produce, while never managing to spearhead change. The debate hasn’t been presented clearly and we’re unable to articulate what major decisions we need to take to remake the country.

What areas should be deeply reformed?

The state is the biggest problem in this country. It was built on a foundation that has neglected Mali’s true nature. In 1960, we chose to build a unified, centralised state, but that model doesn’t reflect the realities of the Malian nation. The state should be a reflection of the nation. It shouldn’t be the other way around.

The state in its current iteration has forgotten that our country is so diverse, at both the individual and the community level. It has even tried to combat diversity because it’s terrified of building unity. Yet, the political and administrative structure of great empires and kingdoms was much closer to a system of provincial federations than a centralised state. This oversight has created the conditions for communities to refuse to accept the state’s authority, as its efforts to stamp out diversity are a way of denying their existence.

So long as the gap between communities and institutions isn’t filled, Mali won’t be stable. The state is the foundation for all reforms, so it’s pivotal that we get the reform of the state right if we want other reforms to have any chance at succeeding.

What kind of state does Mali need, then?

A unified, decentralised state. The country has to be built on a foundation of diversity. That’s the lesson we can draw from this series of crises. If you think that allowing an area to govern itself will cause Mali to break apart, that’s ideology talking.

One of the first things that the constitutional reform needs to accomplish is to state in the preamble to the Constitution that the state is unified and decentralised. If Mali has always been governed centrally despite the fact that it has been decentralised for 20 years, it’s because we haven’t amended the Constitution.

Also, we have sidelined two groups of power holders, namely traditional and religious authorities, who were even beaten back when Mali gained its independence, in spite of their importance. This reality is glaringly obvious when problems arise, as the state turns to them for help. It would have cost us nothing to allow them to act as mediators, for example.

If the overhaul of the Constitution doesn’t make room for traditional and religious authorities, then they’ll continue to conspire against the state. We simply need to recognise their role.

What kind of mechanisms and practices should the overhaul incorporate?

The limitations of our confrontational system are on display. There are alternatives to our confrontational democracy. A consensus-based democracy is better suited to our cultural environment.

Throughout the history of mankind, decision-making through consensus has always been an option, like voting. But we confuse it with unanimity.

The ongoing transition process could have set itself the mandate of rebuilding the country and national unity. That’s what’s currently under threat. But the action that’s been taken creates the conditions for future revolts. If we rush into elections, as was done in 2012, the country will backslide again. Unfortunately, no real alternative is coming into view.

Does that mean you don’t think general elections should be held in 2022?

Holding general elections to meet the demands of the international community in a country where the government can’t control what goes on outside the cities and where political parties are hungry for power . . . that’s a recipe for disaster.

Voting will be a mess because it won’t take place everywhere. It’s the state that’s going to preside over the division of the country and the communities that won’t take part in the elections for one reason or another won’t feel represented by the resulting post-election institutions. Instead, they’ll identify with militant leaders like Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa.

What do you think about the discussion around elections being run by a single structure, as some political and civil society actors are calling for?

The way we used to go about divvying up election administration responsibilities is perhaps no longer suitable in the current political environment. I don’t believe in independent bodies. They smack of ideology.

The way I see it, elections are an administrative formality. We live in a democratic country. Accordingly, our government should be sufficiently competent and neutral to run elections. That’s what we should aim for as opposed to setting up an independent body. We went that route in 1997 and it ended in disaster. The people who are calling for such a body have never administered an election.

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