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Lessons from Mali's local elections

Malians voted in the first round of the 2013 presidential elections at the Ecole de la République in Bamako.
Malians voted in the first round of the 2013 presidential elections at the Ecole de la République in Bamako, 28 July 2013. Photo: MINUSMA / Marco Dormino

Mali held local elections on 20 November 2016. After four successive adjournments, these elections were long overdue—the mandate of the outgoing locally elected officials came to an end in 2014—and they concluded the electoral cycle that marked the return to constitutional order after the 2012 crisis and coup d’état. The elections did not occur without incident, however, with several Malian participants in the current SIPRI–CONASCIPAL project reporting violence and intimidation tactics in their local regions.

Initial counts of the votes showed mixed results for the presidential party, the Rally for Mali (Rassemblement pour le Mali, RPM)—it was defeated in Koulikoro and in Tenenkou, two traditional strongholds. Several ministers and prominent members of the RPM lost their ‘bastions’, including the Minister of Culture and Environment and the Minister of Employment. More importantly, these elections also highlighted the progress that still needs to be made at the security level and, in that context, the mixed results of the 2015 peace agreement in managing tensions and paving the way for national reconciliation.

This topical backgrounder addresses the security issues and main political lessons to be learned from these local elections. It presents Malian voices from 35 regional Monitoring Groups for Peace and Security (MGPS), set up as part of the current SIPRI–CONASCIPAL project in Mali. These are voices that need to be heard if civil society organizations are going to play a role in supporting a national peacebuilding strategy.


The polls: high contestation and low turnout

More than seven million Malians were called on to elect 12,000 city councillors from 4,047 candidate lists (which included 37% women) in the local elections. Only 688 out of 703 municipalities officially participated in the elections, the first local polls to be held since the 2012 crisis. In 15 communes in the Menaka, Gao and Kidal regions, no list of candidates was submitted. In several other communes, the polls did take place but polling stations or local authorities were the target of violent attacks.

The list of candidates, and thus the elections themselves, were highly contested within Mali. This is partly explained by the security situation in the northern regions, but also by the implementation of a specific measure in the 2015 peace agreement: the establishment of interim authorities in the northern regions. This measure allowed the Malian Government and the signatory armed groups to set up temporary local authorities by bringing together actors from civil society, the private sector and some of the outgoing locally elected representatives. When the government announced the list of interim authorities on 14 October 2016, it was immediately contested by various armed and political groups, each claiming that it had not been properly consulted and was not adequately represented.

While these denunciations are a blow to the legitimacy of the election results, they show the importance some Malian stakeholders give to these elections. Local authorities are widely seen as an entry point for the population into national politics and economic circuits and a way to redistribute or consolidate power among local notabilities. Locally elected officials, such as mayors or members of the National Assembly, are generally perceived to be well connected to the capital city. This connection is believed to grant them access to political and economic power, so supporting a homegrown candidate appears to be a strategic option for enriching a region and its local population.

As is often the case in Mali, popular participation in the November local elections was low (under 30%). The elections also confirmed the old disparities between the district of Bamako and its hinterlands, with higher voter turnout in the latter. Current voter turnout estimations point to at least 50% participation in provincial towns and less than 25% in most of the Bamako communes. (In comparison, voter turnout in Niger for local elections is about 46%.) Since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1991–92, Malian voters appear to be poorly mobilized. Only the 1992 constitutional referendum, which established the new democratic regime after 30 years of one-party military rule, achieved over 40% participation. In the same year, in the second round of the presidential elections, only 20% of those eligible turned up to vote for the first President of Mali’s Third Republic.

These very low turnout rates have several causes. Structural factors, such as very high illiteracy rates (over 70%) and lack of civic education, play a major role in constituents’ disaffection towards the electoral processes. However, other more technical factors should also be considered, especially regarding the ‘accessibility’ of the elections to voters: for example, reliability of the voter lists, effective distribution of national identification cards and clear information regarding the polling stations.


Insecurity: a new permanent guest of Malian political life?

While 15 communes were officially deprived of elections, it appears that insecurity prevented elections being held securely in more than 40 northern communes, especially in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.

Less than two years after the signing of the 2015 peace agreement, Mali is still struggling with insecurity. International economic and political support, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French Operation Barkhane have not succeeded in stabilizing the country or preventing sporadic attacks by signatory and non-signatory armed groups. In fact, since the signing of the peace agreement, other armed groups have emerged outside the zone of earlier military deployment. New insecurity hotbeds in the country, especially in the central region of Mopti, raise questions about Mali’s stability and the government’s ability to efficiently tackle the numerous challenges inherited from the 2012 crisis.

In the northernmost region of Kidal, local elections were prevented from taking place by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA), one of the two coalitions of armed groups that signed the 2015 peace agreement. The CMA justified its opposition to these elections by pointing to allegedly unfulfilled prior conditions, such as the establishment of interim authorities and the ‘return of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons’.

In the neighbouring region of Gao, only some communes could organize the elections. In Timbuktu, several groups of assailants stole and burnt election material, preventing voting from taking place, especially in rural areas. In Ségou, in the central region of Mali, one candidate was abducted and was still missing as of 28 November 2016. Elsewhere in the country, several candidates reported that jihadist and armed groups hindered the electoral campaign, by directly threatening candidates and burning candidates’ posters.

Finally, five military personnel were killed while transporting polling boxes in an ambush near Douentza, in the Mopti region, on 20 November.


Local reports from the Monitoring Groups for Peace and Security

Concrete examples of this insecurity have been directly reported by groups of civil society actors involved in the new SIPRI–CONASCIPAL project in Mali. Established in October 2015, these Monitoring Groups for Peace and Security (MGPS) are spread over 35 communes from 9 of the 10 regions in Mali. Each group is made up of three civil society actors, representing women, youth organizations and local notabilities. The MGPS monitor the security situation at the grass-roots level to identify local factors relevant for a national peacebuilding strategy and to engage with Malian officials on security policies.

During the November local elections, the MGPS reported on the vote in their respective communes and regions, helping to paint a more detailed picture of the Malian polls. The reports from the communes where polls took place are summarized in the table below.

Region Commune Incident report Election result Turnout (%)
Kayes Kayes None RPM 48
Kayes Yélimané Lack of electoral personnel RPM 30
Koulikoro Didiéni Difficulty finding the right polling station CNID 44
Koulikoro Kangaba None RPM  
Ségou Macina None PARENA-URD  
Ségou Djabaly Abduction attempt; groups of assaliants burnt electoral material ADEMA  
Ségou Seribala None CODEM 56
Ségou Bossi Tono Abduction attempt    
Sikasso Misséni None RPM  
Sikasso Facola None Fassoko  
Sikasso Finkolon Assé None Fassoko  
Mopti Mopti Difficulty finding the right polling station Yéléma 49
Mopti Koro Difficulty finding the right polling station PDF  
Mopti Douentza Attacks on polling station outside main localities; unreliable internet connection ADEMA  
Mopti Youarou None URD  
Mopti Teninkou None URD  
Mopti Hombori None Yéléma 40
Timbuktu Timbuktu Difficulty for returned internally displaced persons to find their names on electoral lists UMRDA 30
Timbuktu Douchirey No election    
Timbuktu Serere No election    
Timbuktu Ber No election    
Timbuktu Aglal No election    
Gao Gabero Groups of assaliants attacked electoral personnel and burnt electoral material to prevent the organization of the elections    
Gao Ouatagouna No incident (due to the active involvement of traditional leaders) RPM 51
Gao Bamba None UMRDA-SADI  
Gao Bourra None    
Kidal   No election    
Ménaka   No election    

In Gabero (Gao region), the MGPS said armed groups attacked the polling station and prevented people from voting. The incident was a reaction to the alleged invalidation of the outgoing mayor’s electoral list. In Ouatagouna (Gao region), the MGPS highlighted the proactive role played by traditional leaders to secure the election, by supporting and protecting the electoral personnel deployed in the 86 polling stations. In the city of Timbuktu (Timbuktu region), returned internally displaced persons were deprived of a vote due to the absence of their names on the electoral lists.

In Douentza (Mopti region), some violent incidents occurred with attacks on polling stations outside the main localities. In Bossi Tono (Ségou region), the MGPS reported the abduction attempt of a polling station member. The abduction failed due to the intervention of groups of women from the village, but electoral material was burnt in the process.

In Koro (Mopti region) and Diendéni (Koulikoro region) local people reported difficulties in finding the right polling station. Finally, in Yélimané (Kayes region), the MGPS pointed out administrative issues such as the insufficient number of electoral personnel deployed to hand out electoral cards and the state’s failure to pay some of the electoral personnel.

Politically, the MGPS noticed the emergence of new political parties at the local level (less visible at the national level). While they are not playing a significant role on the national stage, these parties are clearly positioning themselves in opposition to the main national political forces and seem to be gaining ground locally.

It is noteworthy that the political lines and alliances constructed at the national level were not respected at the local level during the last elections. The MGPS regularly reported that candidates from nationally opposing parties were forming alliances at the communal level, building on personal relationships and common interests. This, once more, highlights the absence of strong ideological polarization among political parties and shows the very minor role played by national party ‘orientation’ in the distribution of power at the local level.


Civil society and the way forward

President Keïta’s mandate as the first head of state after the 2012 crisis did not succeed in either creating regularly scheduled elections (the November local elections were postponed four times) or establishing the state as a legitimate actor in the entire territory of Mali. Irregular elections are harmful for democratic stability—if you do not know the rules of the political system, you begin to question the system overall. Most of the provisions of the Malian peace agreement, which largely depend on local authorities being established, have yet to be implemented.

In that context, it will be highly challenging for the Malian authorities to move towards peace without clear support from various segments of the population and without local civil society expertise and knowledge. Since they already work closely with communities and are regular mediators between the authorities and the population, it is crucial that civil society organizations play a more visible and proactive role in the peace process.     

In March 2017, the 35 MGPS will present their preliminary findings in Bamako at the first National Forum organized as part of the SIPRI–CONASCIPAL project. This will mark a major step forward in an ambitious research and dialogue project aimed at documenting and promoting civil society’s efforts to support sustainable peace in Mali.   


Aurélien Tobie was a Senior Researcher and Activity Coordinator for the SIPRI Mali Civil Society and Peacebuilding Project.
Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.
Dr Mariam D. Maïga is the Executive Director for the Mali-based organization CONASCIPAL.
Mahamadou Diouara is the Activity Coordinator for the Mali-based organization CONASCIPAL.