YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – The West African nation of Mali is suffering a political crisis as thousands of people are calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who still has three years left in his final term.

The country held legislative elections in March, which the opposition says were rigged to benefit the ruling party.

Mali is in the volatile Sahel region of Africa, which divides North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa. The area has recently been plagued by different Islamist insurgencies as well as a food crisis.

The head of the UN Mission to Mali, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, had suggested that the rising insecurity in Mali has been triggered by jihadists who  have fled places like Iraq and Syria.

In this Sept. 25, 2019, file photo, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the United Nations headquarters. In a televised midnight speech, Keita promised early Thursday, July 9, 2020, to reform the country’s constitutional court in a bid to quell another round of protests calling for his resignation. (Credit: Frank Franklin II/AP.)

However, Moussa Dominique Bangre – the Mali country representative for Catholic Relief Services, the international development arm of the U.S. bishops – says the crisis is more political in nature.

“It’s actually a result of inequality, poverty, and a growing mistrust of government. Like most people anywhere in the world, Malians want good governance, security, justice, and improved living conditions. These are things that protestors say the current government does not seem to be able to adequately provide,” he told Crux.

Former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, has visited the Malian capital Bamako this week in his role as special envoy to Mali for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the main regional body.

Bangre spoke to Crux about the appointment and the Mali crisis. Excerpts of the interview follow.

Crux: Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan has been named ECOWAS Special Envoy to Mali with the assignment to mediate in that country’s socio-political crisis: How do you react to that appointment?

Bangre: Generally, many people in Bamako appreciated the gesture of ECOWAS sending the mission because ECOWAS includes unbiased, external leaders. Moreover, Goodluck Jonathan, being a former president of Nigeria, has added credibility to the Mission. It is also true that for some Malians, ECOWAS has been perceived as supporting current presidents.

The recent outbreak of violence with coalitions of political parties and civil society asking the country’s president to step down was sparked by election results. What went wrong with the elections?

Those with the opposition parties think that the results of these elections were laden with irregularities and fraud. In fact, some think that 31 seats were fraudulently assigned to the president’s party by the Constitutional Court. 

Anti-government protesters demonstrate in the capital Bamako, Mali Friday, July 10, 2020. Thousands marched Friday in Mali’s capital in anti-government demonstrations urged by an opposition group that rejects the president’s promises of reforms. (Credit: Baba Ahmed/AP.)

Without reversing the electoral outcomes, do you think it will be possible to calm tensions? What do you think President Goodluck should do to calm things down?

Without reversing the electoral outcomes, it is unlikely that the tension will be calmed. Moreover, the protestors are asking for the departure of the president, which is a hard sell.

How can the current political upheavals deepen the already existing faultiness and worsen the crisis in Mali?

Mali was already dealing with insecurity before the recent political upheaval. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has worsened the situation and has made it even more difficult for the government and the international aid community to respond.

My fear is that this political crisis is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. The sooner Mali can find a good solution to this political crisis, the better we’ll all be able to address the ongoing insecurity and the poverty that plagues this country.

Last year, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of MINUSMA, called on the international community to be more involved in what was happening in Mali, insinuating that Islamic State that may have been “wiped out” from Iraq and Syria could have found refuge in the Sahel. Is this an apt description of what is going on?

What’s happening now in the Sahel is not related to what you’ve articulated. Superficially, the crisis can seem political in nature. However, it’s actually a result of inequality, poverty, and a growing mistrust of government. Like most people anywhere in the world, Malians want good governance, security, justice, and improved living conditions. These are things that protestors say the current government does not seem to be able to adequately provide.

What is the danger that the Malian conflict could spread even further and destabilize the entire Sahel region?

Absolutely, the risk is there. Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea will soon have elections. If what’s happening in Mali is not adequately addressed, we think it could negatively impact these other countries.

Part of the problem has to do with tensions between farmers and herders. How deep rooted are these tensions?

The tension between herders and farmers in Mali, Burkina, and Niger has always existed. However, in the past, community leaders have found ways to de-escalate these tensions.

Climate change and land degradation have further exacerbated the situation and have become catalysts for even more conflict between these groups. The problems are being aggravated by the insecurity and the lack of a government response.

Anti-government protesters burn tires and barricade roads in the capital Bamako, Mali, Friday, July 10, 2020.  (Credit: Baba Ahmed/AP.)

CRS’s Sahel Peace Initiative is “responding through a peace building approach that addresses the root causes of the conflict and the humanitarian needs of the communities involved.” What are these root causes?

What most people don’t realize is that the Sahel has had a relatively rich history of peace and stability. It’s only until recently that the region has experienced unprecedented levels of violence. And while many people incorrectly assume the conflict is religious in nature, research has shown that the root causes of this violence are more closely tied to food shortages, low levels of education, a lack of social services, unemployment, and youth disenfranchisement.

Perhaps even more worrying is how climate change is exacerbating the unrest. Much of the Sahel, including Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, is heavily dependent on agricultural production. However, the recorded temperature of the Sahel is rising one and a half times faster than the global average. This warming is worsening the ability of families to put food on the table, which in turn is worsening the violence that we’re seeing across the region.

How big are the humanitarian needs? 

The humanitarian needs in the Sahel are staggering. Beyond the crisis of violence, which has led to mass displacement, the added impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have included school closures and the loss of livelihoods.

According to the United Nations, more than 20 million people, half of them children, are in need of life-saving assistance and protection – the highest number ever recorded. At the same time, humanitarian access in the Sahel has become increasingly difficult to navigate as a result of growing insecurity.

Ultimately, the growing needs are alarming in that they’re far outpacing the funding towards a coordinated response.

What has CRS been doing concretely on the ground to restore peace, and how sustainable has that approach been? 

In our work towards a lasting peace in the region, CRS launched the Sahel Peace Initiative to raise awareness of the crisis, advocate for change, and mobilize humanitarian and development action. As part of that effort, CRS is providing water, food, cash, and shelter on an ongoing basis.

We firmly believe that long-term Sahelian peace is rooted in local solutions and resiliency, so we are also amplifying our long-term development work to support families to access social services and to strengthen the capacity of local partners and institutions.