Since 2012, a German political think tank has surveyed Malians regularly on their country’s current affairs across a legion of crises. These include the 2013 jihadist incursion in the nation, the French-led militarization to oust the jihadists, the post-conflict stabilization work done by the United Nations and a new cycle of intercommunal violence erupting in central Mali, an area awash with weapons flowing in from Libya and elsewhere.
It is an opinion poll on Mali for Malians, a sprawling landlocked country on edge for nearly a decade despite the wide-ranging investments to help it recover from its conflict with separatist rebels and terrorist groups.
The latest survey presents a country steeped in contradictions, with more than half of the respondents showing support for the government and far less favorable attitudes toward the UN peacekeeping mission, called Minusma, which was set up in 2013. The biggest concern for Malians now is youth unemployment.
The survey, titled “Mali-Mètre,” was produced by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Germany’s oldest political foundation and associated with the Social Democratic Party. FES, in shorthand, has offices worldwide, including in Mali and New York. The survey asked thousands of Malians across the country’s 471,000 square miles specific questions about the present and the future of their nation, against the backdrop of continuing peace efforts coupled with rising violence.
The survey was introduced at a luncheon at the UN, hosted by FES New York, with participation by top diplomats from France and Germany, UN representatives and experts from FES in Bamako, Mali’s capital. Ambassador Issa Konfourou of Mali to the UN sent a counselor in his place.
As with the previous survey, fewer than half of those questioned, 42 percent, said the country has “deteriorated,” which may be surprising, given the increasing massacres occurring in central Mali and the further militarization of the country by various parties to try to resolve its overwhelming problems.
Besides being a survey for Malians, it could also be used as a guide, as FES suggested, for the UN Security Council. It is scheduled to vote on June 28 on a resolution renewing the annual mandate of Minusma, after negotiations dominated by French and American diplomats. (In parallel, this month the UN budget committee is negotiating cuts to peacekeeping missions overall, a possible $78.5 million reduction that could mean $7.5 million less for Minusma, according to one UN diplomat.)
The number of uniformed personnel, about 15,000, will not change for the mission, according to a draft resolution obtained by PassBlue. Instead, the document strongly emphasizes the necessity of the Malian government to fully carry out the 2015 Algerian-brokered peace deal — work that has been slow, at best.
An opening paragraph of the draft resolution states that “Malian authorities have primary responsibility for the provision of stability, security and protection of civilians throughout Mali.”
The resolution also notes ominously that the “security and stability in Mali are inextricably linked” to the Sahel region, West Africa, Libya and North Africa.
Besides the Malian armed forces, Mali is a base for European military training units; Operation Barkhane, the French military apparatus in the Sahel region; and a regional newcomer, the G5 Sahel force, also based in Mali.
The force is made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and is supposed to aggressively counter jihadists and criminal traffickers, but its logistics and other essential elements are tied into Minusma, leaving the force severely underfinanced and therefore enfeebled.
John Bolton, the United States national security adviser, refuses to approve any money being sourced from the UN into the G5 operation, to the frusration of the French. The draft resolution obliquely refers to the force, saying, “Minusma interacts with other security presences which have the potential to be mutually beneficial instruments to restore peace and stability in Mali and the Sahel region.”
So far, the millions of dollars invested in counterterrorism and peacekeeping efforts — and the hundreds of lives lost in these endeavors — have produced few positive results in Mali, as more regions suffer deadly assaults than ever. Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders) has referred to the new violence as “unprecedented.”
The FES survey was conducted in mid-October 2018 among 2,156, broken down by 60 percent men and 40 percent women, all over 18 years old and spread throughout Bamako and its regional capitals, involving 68 interviewers and supervisors in the field.
The goal of the survey, to help “fill the public opinion poll deficit in the country,” provides a stream of data but no political or socioeconomic context to avoid the appearance that FES, working as a foreign organization in Mali, is influencing public opinion. The poll asks interviewees’ thoughts on national and regional concerns, institutions, justice and governance, the Peace and Reconciliation agreement (between the government and the main opposition parties), corruption, the UN’s role and Mali’s “prospects for the future.”
Most people were open to answering the questions, said Philipp Goldberg, the resident representative of FES in Bamako. The survey was approved by the National Institute of Statistics of Mali.
The poll measures Malians’ opinions in cities and in rural regions, where infrastructure can be nonexistent. The surveyors used tablets to record responses, and the poll was done in local languages — such as Bamanakan, Sonrhaï, Tamasheq and Foulfouldé — and in French.
Besides the surprising finding that fewer than half of the respondents do not think their country is deteriorating — regardless of the escalating violence in the last few years by jihadists and clashes between ethnic militias — the biggest concern was youth joblessness. The population of Mali is 19 million, with the median age of 16. Forty percent of people live in urban areas, desperate for work.
The unemployment concern, expressed by 49 percent of the respondents, along with major concerns on combating poverty and food insecurity, could signal that Malians think their country may be on a rough but steadier road to stability, despite the spikes in attacks and damaging humanitarian effects.
By contrast, the previous year’s poll found that the main challenge for Mali was the “crisis in the north,” a remote, ungovernable region that has endured years of fighting among Al Qaeda affiliates, Barkhane troops, Mali’s military and UN peacekeepers.
As for the Malian government, led by President Ibrahim Boubacar Këita, now in his second term, the poll found 55 percent of respondents “satisfied” with his governing and 44 percent “dissatisfied.” (The “satisfied” portion rose 9 percentage points over the previous year.) Most citizens have no trust in the justice system, however, deeming it highly corrupt, and they have even less awareness of how it functions.
Moreover, 85 percent of interviewees said they had no awareness of the Peace and Reconciliation agreement, which was signed in 2015 to end the conflict between the government and the two main opponents, known as the Platform and the Coordination.
Few of the benchmarks in the agreement have been carried out by the government, infuriating the US, which in its speeches in the UN Security Council on Mali has used the government’s tardy compliance to threaten to withdraw troops from Minusma, a warning that appears to have been averted in the current draft resolution. France is constantly echoing the threat of sanctions as well to urge Mali to move faster.
As for the UN presence in Mali, the survey found that citizens do not place much trust in it or in the French military operating in their country, while at the same time they trust their own military better.
That response suggests a “chauvinism,” an FES expert said. It could also suggest that based on experiences with colonialism and post-colonial legacy, many Malians think that countries like France do not have Mali’s best interests at heart.
Most countries with a UN peacekeeping mission in their midst often develop grudges about such a presence over the long term, especially in a country like Mali, with its rich history of ancient civilization and dynasties and mother lodes of natural resources.
Part of the problem with Minusma, some Malians experts say, is that its mandate is not well known or clear to the peacekeepers or to the Security Council. Yet the new draft resolution states that Minusma’s primary objective is to help carry out the peace deal, leaving no ambiguity.
The FES survey found that the fear of terrorist attacks is high, above 88 percent for respondents. Nevertheless, most Malians have more trust in their own armed forces than the outside forces occupying their country: only 42 percent are “satisfied” with Minusma, 46 percent are “not satisfied” and 12 percent had no opinion in the poll.
The specific criticisms, from the top, include Minusma’s not protecting the population against violence from armed groups and terrorists; being “in cahoots with armed groups”; contributing to an inflated cost of living; and peacekeepers being more concerned about their own safety than those of the Malians. (Because of deadly attacks on UN bases in Mali, many operations in the more volatile regions are fortified by walls.)
Interviewees felt less sure about the effect of Minusma’s possible withdrawal, however, with 35 percent saying it would have a negative impact; 23 percent saying it would be a positive step; and 31 percent thinking the effect would be neutral. About 38 percent of respondents think Minusma should stay for less than one year; while the remaining people surveyed said it should stay from 1 to 3 more years or from four to five more years.
Barkhane earned more thumbs-up from respondents, with 47 percent of people being “satisfied” with its performance; 44 percent who think the opposite; and 9 percent with no opinion. This assessment is important as France continuously re-evaluates its presence in Mali and the Sahel region as it shoulders the high cost of placing troops there and the consequent death toll from attacks by insurgents.
This article was updated on June 27 to include information about possible budget cuts to Minusma and UN peacekeeping overall and the date of the Security Council vote on renewing the Minusma mandate.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.