Mali: Can the New President in Mali Sow the Seeds of Change That He Planted?

Photo: Aspen Institute

Salif Romano Niang is the co-founder of Malô, a Malian social enterprise that processes and fortifies rice grown by smallholder farmers.

Bamako — In Mali, the votes of the run-off have been cast. And in sharp contrast to elections in Africa or even Western democracies, the defeated candidate conceded not by press release or defiant speech but by visiting the winner in his living room, surrounded by their families. With the close of this historic election cycle, our country can begin to grow once more after surviving its most serious challenges since independence.

Analysts tend to forget the popularity of the March 2012 coup d’état that ended President Amadou Toumani Touré’s regime. According to a public opinion survey of Bamako residents, 65 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, and only 12 percent blamed him for the collapse of the state in the North.

The same poll foresaw the popularity of Mali’s president-elect, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (widely known by his initials, IBK)—more than three quarters of respondents viewed him favorably. The provisional election results published today seem to confirm that the election was in essence a referendum on who was connected to the deeply unpopular former president, and who was not.

However, once in power, president-elect IBK will be judged on his actions and decisions and not on campaign speeches, vibrant billboards, and slick videos. He must now demonstrate that he is up to the task of leading the country and addressing the root causes of the rebellion and the coup. He must also inspire the government to deliver on his economic development promises.

Mali’s economy cannot grow without a definitive and equitable resolution to the conflict with Tuareg rebels that in 2012 led to al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists occupying the legendary town of Timbuktu and the surrounding area, a territory the size of France. Bilateral and multilateral assistance will be critical in helping him rebuild the nation and the state. But IBK must ensure that economic growth is broad based. To make Mali an “emerging country” by the year 2017, he must have an actionable and viable business plan for the entire country, not just the elite.

One place to start, where he can address the challenges of poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment, is the agriculture sector. The sector makes up 80% of Mali’s labor force and 40% of its gross national product, and has been growing in recent years. Rice production, for example, has more than doubled over the past decade. But many challenges and obstacles persist that are within the government’s power to help solve.

While farmers do an admirable job of growing rice, the rest of the market chain needs to be modernized. According to USAID, almost all of the rice grown is processed using small, diesel-powered machines, resulting in losses of tens of thousands of tons of rice each year. As such, prices for consumers are unstable and quality is poor and inconsistent.

The new government must create the fertile environment necessary for investment, innovation, and progress to take root. It should demonstrate its commitment to “turning the page” by instituting tough but key reforms, such as making it easier for smallholder farmers to own land. Developing phosphate fertilizer production, if done properly will be a win-win for farmers and communities in the North where it is mined. The process for acquiring modern equipment and technology and the granting of construction permits to build appropriate storage and processing centers needs to be streamlined.

The government must also reform the labor code and enforce regulations so that entrepreneurs can create jobs ranging from bricklayers to food engineers under terms and conditions that are well defined. It must embark on well-managed infrastructure projects that connect towns and cities in Mali to one another via roads and to the world via electricity and the Internet.

To be sure, local entrepreneurs, multinational corporations, and the international community all have key roles to play in meeting Mali’s development objectives—within the agriculture sector and beyond. Citizens must remain actively engaged and the political opposition must keep the government on its toes. However, it is the new government that must accept responsibility, make the tough decisions, and be held accountable.

Tackling the multitude of development challenges facing Mali will not be easy but they are certainly achievable. President IBK should be thrilled that after running for president a third time, the Malian people have finally chosen him to lead the country. So many of us hope he does not disappoint.

Salif Romano Niang is a PhD candidate in political science at Purdue University. He is the co-founder of Malô, a Malian social enterprise that processes and fortifies rice grown by smallholder farmers. In June 2013, he was named as a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Read our July interview with Salif Romano Niang: Transforming a Country Through Rice.