People stand near the Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Nov. 20. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

On Nov. 20, the world’s eyes turned to Mali once again as 21 people were killed during an attack at the Radisson hotel in Bamako, the country’s capital. Many more were trapped in the building until Malian Special Forces led a joint raid and killed two assailants. Two different groups have claimed credit for the attack and two arrests were made Thursday, but at the time of writing there is still speculation as to which actors were responsible and an unspecified number of accomplices are still at large.

The siege of the Radisson was only the most recent attack against civilians in a wave of instability that has struck the country since an insurgency began in northern Mali in early 2012. Mali continues to face widespread insecurity despite a French intervention (in 2013), the restoration of presidential and legislative elections (also 2013), the ongoing presence of more than 12,000 international troops, and the recent signing of peace accords in June 2015. An increase in attacks in Mali against U.N. forces over the last two years has earned the peacekeeping mission there the dubious distinction of being the “world’s most dangerous.


A U.N. armored vehicle patrols in Bamako on Monday. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

In trying to understand the crisis, we return to the summer of 2013 — before the elections that ushered Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) in as president — and ended more than a year of junta rule. At that time, more than 500,000 citizens had fled Northern Mali. We surveyed nearly 900 internally displaced persons who fled to Bamako as well as Sévaré and Mopti, twin cities that acted as an unofficial dividing line between the government-controlled south and the north at the height of its rebel occupation. We note that our study population is not representative of all who fled; for instance, they are typically more pro-government than those who fled to camps in Mauritania.

When asked to name solutions to the crisis in Mali, the largest percentage of displaced people — over 40 percent — referenced the importance of improving governance and reducing corruption. In other words, the most popular idea to resolve the crisis pointed not to a security response but to government reform.


In June 2013, 892 people displaced from northern Mali were asked — in Bamako and Mopti/Sévaré — their opinions on solving the ongoing crisis in Mali. (Data from “Reconstructing the Malian State”; Figure: Jaimie Bleck and Kim Yi Dionne)

In the same study, we provided respondents with an opportunity to record messages that we later transcribed and made available to representatives of the U.S. and Malian governments. (This method was developed in an earlier project measuring citizens’ attitudes in Mali by Bleck and Vanderbilt political scientist Kristin Michelitch.) Below are a few of these messages, which provide insight into why citizens stress the importance of government reform:

“All that I know is that the country has been poorly governed for a very long time and these are the consequences of that poor governance that catches us again, there is no longer security in this country and not event decent lodging to live in.” (Respondent 1217)

“I ask the government leaders to be loyal, to work hard for their country to ensure that peace can triumph in Mali, to stop corruption, and the nepotism and to inform citizens about what is going on.” (Respondent 1211)

“My message — it’s a transparent management of all that belongs to displaced persons on the part of the state and international organizations and the other part — to put a stop to the corruption and it’s that [corruption] which is the base of all the problems that we are living today.” (Respondent 1819)

Citizens’ emphasis on corruption is consistent with other public opinion polls in Mali. Respondents in a December 2013 Afrobarometer poll — a nationally representative survey — cited “corruption” as the second most important cause of the occupation and conflict in Northern Mali. Foreign terrorists were the top-cited cause.

How far has the Malian state come in tackling corruption and reforming the state? Polls from the nonpartisan Mali-based GISSE Institute show declining popular approval of the Malian government’s management of corruption in Bamako — ostensibly the city in which the government has the most control and capacity. The chart below compares two similar questions that ask about respondents’ assessments of the government’s campaign against corruption in February 2014 and October 2015. In a more specific measure from the October 2015 poll, 72 percent of citizens in Bamako were dissatisfied with the government’s management of corruption within the police department.

There was a marked decline in Malians holding favorable perceptions of their government’s handling of corruption between February 2014, when 1,238 people were interviewed in Bamako and October 2015, when 1,060 people were interviewed. (Data: Sondage d’opinion sur l’actualité nationale et internationale au Mali and Sondage de notation, par la population, du president IBK et des differents acteurs au Mali; Figure: Jaimie Bleck and Kim Yi Dionne).
There was a marked decline in Malians holding favorable perceptions of their government’s handling of corruption between February 2014, when 1,238 people were interviewed in Bamako, and October 2015, when 1,060 people were interviewed. (Data: Sondage d’opinion sur l’actualité nationale et internationale au Mali and Sondage de notation, par la population, du president IBK et des differents acteurs au Mali; Figure: Jaimie Bleck and Kim Yi Dionne).

The Malian population is best positioned to report on visible forms of corruption that affect everyday life, so we examine data that describe interaction with government authorities. GISSE’s February 2014 poll revealed that nearly 14 percent of Bamako residents claimed they were obliged to pay an official, police, judge, civil servant or another person to resolve a situation in the last month.

How is this petty corruption linked to continued insecurity? In Bamako, it can translate into the ability to offer a bribe instead of having to show proper identification or to avoid a vehicle search at police checkpoints. The willingness to sell the state’s munitions or to use funding intended to strengthen state capacity for personal gain deepens insecurity.

Over the last month, Bleck has conducted focus groups with grins, informal social clubs that drink tea and discuss current events. These focus groups confirm the narrative of lawlessness in Bamako and Sévaré/Mopti. When asked whether “the country is more or less secure since the presidential elections in 2013,” many respondents have resoundingly said there is no security right now. Only 7 grins out of 38 had any dissenting member(s) who thought that the security situation had improved since 2013.

The majority thought security was worse. They pointed to the increased incidence of armed attacks (including during daylight hours), motorcycles in communal courtyards in Sévaré/Mopti at risk of theft, the circulation of arms in Sévaré/Mopti, and increased attacks on boutiques and houses. These perceptions are consistent with Guindo’s November 2014 poll in Bamako (in which 1,050 Malians were surveyed). In this poll, 10 percent of extended households reported a Djakarta (a local term for a popular type of motorcycle) was stolen from their homes in the previous year. The state’s inability to govern these dense urban zones raises questions about its ability to govern its vast expanse of territory moving forward.

Last month, Bleck and her colleague Kristin Michelitch published an article in African Affairs highlighting the ongoing crisis of state weakness in rural Mali. They found that at the height of the 2012 political crisis in Mali (featuring a coup d’état as well as Northern occupation), residents in Northern Mopti were most preoccupied with the daily crisis of living: access to food and potable water, as well as the need for infrastructure such as roads, schools, and hospitals. Citizens were most preoccupied not with the coup or insurgency but with the “slow moving crises” of everyday life that reflect state weakness.

As the Malian government and international donors seek to understand what led to the attack and how to prevent other similar tragedies in the future, the testimony of ordinary citizens suggests the need for a broader reflection on the strength and evolution of state institutions. While even the strongest states are vulnerable to these acts of terror, forgetting the importance of a capable and well-governed state risks trapping Mali in a cycle of crisis.

Jaimie Bleck is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. She is also an American Council of Learned Societies fellow currently conducting research in Mali. Her book “Education and Empowered Citizenship in Mali” was published earlier this year.

Abdoulaye Dembele is the national coordinator for the Farafina Institute in Mali.

Sidiki Guindo is the director of the GISSE Institute for Public Opinion Polling in Mali and a professor at ENSAE (l’Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et l’Analyse Economique) in Dakar, Senegal.

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