France's military intervention in Mali, its former colony, to root out an Islamist militant rebel group in the country's north has been compelling, capturing headlines around the world. But what has happened in Mali in recent years is common to conflicts across the African continent.
The same sad pattern is replicated in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. Rebel groups, which often have external support, find fertile ground in situations of poor to non-existent governance, poverty and a lack of effective representation of all of a country's people. This has led to violent conflicts in which civilians pay the heaviest price.
These conflicts are characterized by mass atrocities such as widespread and systematic killing, displacement and rape. So, while the French intervention seems to have achieved success in the short-run, longer-term stability and peace in Mali will be determined by factors that have little to do with military operations.
Media reports have focused on ties between the Malian rebels and al-Qaeda. This was France's main justification for its intervention and the reason interested states such as the U.S. and South Africa gave it their support. It feels, though, like a flashback to the Cold War; a global quest to block the advance of an internationalist ideological movement hostile to the West. Much like during the Cold War, in an effort to halt the spread of the ideology -- in this case radical Islamism -- the U.S. and its allies might overlook the fundamental local and national dimensions to a given conflict, as they did in Vietnam, for example.
If we envision a spectrum, the original al-Qaeda would be on one side, representing an internationalist global jihad targeting the U.S. and other Western countries. On the other side, we would likely find the Malian rebels who, despite the presence of Arab and other foreign fighters and international support from fellow travelers, seem to be pursuing national goals arising from deep poverty and local frustrations. Certainly, the organization's regional variant, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is a serious terrorist threat. It demonstrated this in its bloody attack last month on the Algerian natural gas plant in Ain Amenas.
But, the rise of jihadists in the north is the effect, not the cause of Mali's crisis; its wellsprings are primarily internal. The north of the country has endured decades of poor, exploitative governance; endemic poverty with little economic opportunity; discrimination against the Touareg minority; and a sham democratic system that does not provide effective representation for all of Mali's people.
The government must extend its writ throughout its territory, to provide the security the Malian people require. Beyond that, with the help of interested governments, it must deliver services and create an environment that encourages economic activity and job development. Most importantly for the longer-term, Mali must develop the institutions necessary for an open, democratic society to grow. This requires a sustained effort by the people of Mali, supported by those countries and institutions that want it to be stable and prosperous.
The French military operation in Mali seems to have been a provisional success. The rebels have fled the towns they previously occupied, enabling French and Malian forces to establish control of the network of settlements along the Niger River. Plans are underway for the possible deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force to replace the French. French President François Hollande has admitted that the rebels have run to the vast deserts of northern Mali, and have not been defeated. The deployment of a capable force is necessary to prevent the rebels from returning after the French troops depart.
However, military intervention is not sufficient. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, military success is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning. The future will be determined by how well and fairly Malians govern their country.
One governance step that might not be useful in the short-run, though, is elections. Malian President Moussa Traoré announced last week that he would hold national elections in July. This would be a mistake.
The Malian political system is broken, with a nominally civilian government sitting atop a military power structure. Elections under the current system could solidify the hold of the current ruling group. Countries and international organizations interested in helping Mali should not succumb to this election fetish. Long, painful experience around the world has taught us that free elections are the apex of political participation, not just the first step on the road to democracy. Anyway, given the continued violence and instability in the north, it is unlikely that holding a national election would be possible by July.
Reforming Mali will not be a quick process. In its latest World Development Report, the World Bank showed that it can take decades or even a generation to secure a democratic transition. So, the international community should prepare for a sustained effort to help Mali. The French military intervention seems to have given the country and its international supporters the breathing room to fix its institutions. Such steps will help prevent the recurrence of armed conflict, sparing Mali's people from further atrocities and displacement.
Mali has begun a long journey that will require help, patience and perseverance from its friends.