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Mali's election overshadowed by violence

media A still image taken from a video shows a Malian armed forces (FAMa) soldier standing guard as smoke and flames are pictured in the distance after a car bomb attack in Gao, northern Mali July 1, 2018. REUTERS/via Reuters TV

Malians head to the polls on 29 July in an election that has been marred by violence. A report by the British NGO Peace Direct says the security situation is worse now than it was in 2012, while the UN says it is "deeply concerned" about the surge in intercommunal violence that has killed hundreds of people since the start of the year.

"This is a turning point for the country," says Dylan Mathews, chief executive of the British NGO Peace Direct that published a new report Wednesday entitled Mali on the brink.

"We're not talking about a civil war, we're talking about a series of interconnected crises across the country," he told RFI.

An attack early July in the north against a patrol of French soldiers, before the start of an African Union summit, has raised the stakes ahead of the 29 July presidential election.

The problem, argues Mathews, is that the international community is focussing on just one aspect of what is, in his eyes, a multi-layered conflict.

"It's seen as Islamic extremism, a north-south conflict, when actually there are multiple conflicts," he comments.

Ethnically motivated violence in central Mali has killed hundreds of people since the start of the year, leading the UN to declare on Tuesday that it was "deeply concerned".

The absence of a functioning state has left a vacuum that is being filled by groups such as Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa'al-Muslimin (JNIM) and Fulani militias, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

It urges the Malian government to take measures to "prevent further grave violations, including those committed by government forces".

No impunity

Yet the question of impunity is sensitive.

"Members of armed groups and governmental forces who were responsible for the first episodes of violence in the country have still not been brought to justice," says Gilles Yabi, founder of the west African thinktank Wathi.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, or IBK as he's commonly known, promised to curb violence when he was elected in 2012 but six years on the security situation remains just as fraught.

"The situation we have now has been the result of thinking that by keeping a lot of people, including the worst actors of violence, inside the peace process that it would lead to reconciliation and a peaceful solution," Kabi told RFI.

Authorities have stepped up their military response to try and achieve peace, amid lack of progress from the Algiers peace accord of 2015.

Mathews says they're going about it the wrong way.

“What you have is a situation where politicians and elites are trying to resolve a conflict without tapping into what we consider one of the most under-utilised sources of peace potential in Mali right now which are civil society organisations," he comments.

Security issues dominate

Local peace builders are so far absent from IBK's campaign manifesto, entirely dominated by security, including one suggestion to recruit thousands of new security officers.

This strategy may backfire, reckons Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective and Security Studies.

"President IBK has focussed more on security and less on the economical dynamics of the country," he told RFI.

In fact, the president's voters are still waiting for him to deliver on his promises for new housing.

"The economy is not a priority but of course it's being exploited by opposition leaders like Soumalia Cissé," adds Dupuy, of IBK's main rival.

Yet, while civil society organisations offer one solution to Mali's multi-layered conflict, they're only part of the answer, according to Gilles Yabi.

"You need to support civil society to address intercommunal violence but there can be no substitute to state reform,” he says.

"Whatever the outcome of the elections, they are only the beginning of a process," comments Peace Direct's Mathews. "To develop a state infrastructure that is necessary for local people to believe in a functioning state and to feel that they have a stake in that society rather than feeling excluded."

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