Washington — The top U.S. diplomat for Africa says the United States is promoting the restoration of democratic rule in Mali.
This will entail supporting the interim government in establishing a clear timeline for elections early enough so a new government can take office by the May 2013 deadline set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Mali continues to face the challenges of a rebellion, extremist activity and a humanitarian crisis.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told a congressional panel in Washington June 29 that the political crisis created by the March 21 coup in Mali affects the peace and stability of the entire Sahel region of Africa, which is vital to U.S. interests.
"Mali has been a strong partner of the United States in the areas of democracy and governance, economic development, and peace and security," he said. "Promoting the restoration of a democratically elected government supports the administration's first pillar in its Africa policy: Build strong democratic institutions."
Carson said the United States supports mediation by ECOWAS, which has led to the formation of an interim government. Interim President Dioncounda Traore, who fled to France to seek medical treatment after rioters sacked the presidential palace in May, has yet to return to Mali, citing fears for his safety.
"His absence remains symbolic of a lack of strong leadership by the interim government. Furthermore, the coup leaders have not definitively returned to the barracks, further threatening the transition process and efforts to reestablish stability," Carson said.
Carson said Tuareg rebel groups and other extremist groups in northern Mali have taken advantage of the political chaos in the capital, Bamako, to mount southward offensives, and they effectively have gained control of three regions of northern Mali.
A legitimate government is needed in Bamako to negotiate a lasting settlement with rebel leaders, Carson said. He encouraged Mali's neighbors, notably Algeria and Mauritania, to reach out to moderate Tuaregs and participate in a regional peace process that would address the Tuaregs' "legitimate grievances."
The absence of an effective Malian government also has made it easier for terrorist and extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), to operate in northern Mali, according to Carson.
"AQIM has clearly benefited from the proliferation of arms from Libya and the movement of heavily armed and trained fighters from Libya to several already overburdened Sahelian countries," Carson said. "The coup d'etat and Tuareg unrest have hampered counterterrorism efforts in the area."
"If Mali is going to counter effectively the Tuareg rebellion and the terrorist threats in the north and return to a democratic example in the region, it will require sustained and dedicated effort from the United States and the international community," Carson said.
He said the United States needs to provide assistance "consistent with U.S. law" that increases economic development and opportunities for disaffected youth in northern Mali. By U.S. law, the United States must withhold assistance to countries whose elected leaders have been deposed by military coups, with the exception of lifesaving and critical assistance. Carson said such assistance to Mali is being considered on a case-by-case basis.
The official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) responsible for Africa, Earl Gast, told the same congressional panel that at least one in five households in Mali faces "large" food insecurity, with the highest level of insecurity in the north. Gast said the United States can provide short-term food assistance and support in organizing elections, but Mali's future development can only be led by the Malian people. "This can only be achieved through a duly elected and participating government," Gast said.