Washington — The top U.S. diplomat for Africa encouraged Mali's interim government to follow through on its agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to hold free and credible elections by April 2013, saying U.S. assistance to the country beyond critical humanitarian aid cannot resume until the country has transitioned to a new, democratically elected government.
Speaking to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs in Washington December 5, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said Mali's interim government has strengthened its governance in the country, but its election preparations are moving slowly.
"We continue to strongly encourage the interim government to set a date for elections and to develop a road map for the transition to a new, democratically elected government. The United States, along with the international community, stands ready to assist Mali in conducting free, fair and transparent elections," Carson told the panel.
Mali's government was toppled by a March 21 coup. Two-thirds of the country is now controlled by Islamic extremists who have allowed the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and other affiliated groups to operate inside the country.
Mali is facing "four distinct but overlapping challenges" that need to be responded to simultaneously and which will require "comprehensive, sustained and dedicated regional and international support and engagement," Carson said.
Along with restoring democracy and countering the threat from terrorist groups, there also needs to be a negotiated political solution to address the legitimate grievances of moderate Tuaregs, an ethnic Berber people who inhabit parts of Mali and other nations in the Sahara region, and to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by the country's instability, he said.
Carson said the Obama administration supports the interim government's commitment to open a dialogue with Tuareg rebels and others in the northern part of the country who respect the country's territorial integrity. He urged the government to appoint a lead negotiator and to find ways to "effectively address legitimate northern grievances in a peaceful manner."
He said the 2013 elections and the restoration of Mali's democratic institutions would be critical to ensure that Mali's new government will have "the legitimacy and the credibility that it needs" for negotiations and to effectively coordinate with regional and international partners to defeat terrorist groups.
ECOWAS has proposed a plan for military intervention to reclaim areas of the country controlled by terrorist forces, but Carson said specifics such as the required force levels, funding, logistical requirements and other issues need to be addressed. He said the United States has sent military planners to assist ECOWAS in its efforts.
"Any attempt to militarily oust AQIM from northern Mali must be African-led. It must be Malian-led. It must be well-planned, well- organized and well-resourced to be successful. Military plans must also account for civilian security and humanitarian needs," Carson said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa Amanda Dory told the senators that U.S. assistance efforts in the region "are aimed at making our partners more capable both at combating the terrorist threat in their territories and at providing better security for their people more generally," and she added that the Obama administration is also exploring options to support countries that contribute forces to the ECOWAS mission, which could include providing them with training and equipment and additional planning support.
INSTABILITY HAS PROVOKED "COMPLEX" HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
Carson said the crisis has cost an "enormous" humanitarian toll, with more than 410,000 Malians becoming refugees or internally displaced. He said nearly 200,000 have been displaced within the country and others have fled to other countries in the Sahel region.
"In an effort to mitigate the effects of the complex humanitarian crisis in the Sahel, we are providing humanitarian food assistance," he said. Approximately $445 million in U.S. aid has been provided to the region in 2012, of which $119 million has supported emergency needs within Mali and among refugee populations outside of Mali, Carson said.
Earl Gast, the U.S. Agency for International Development's assistant administrator for Africa, told the subcommittee that 4.6 million Malians are in need of food and security assistance, saying they are coping with food shortages from the previous year, as well as high prices and the effects of the conflict and population displacement.
Prior to the March coup, USAID was actively involved in strengthening Mali's economy, democratic institutions, health and education. Gast said the country had made "significant gains" in its development.
"Annual economic growth averaged more than 5 percent across the past decade, reducing the incidence of poverty from 56 percent to 44 percent by 2010. That was over a period of about 10 years. Mali liberalized its cereal markets. It opened up trade routes and it improved conditions for doing business," and agricultural production particularly increased in areas where USAID support has been active, he said.
Despite continued U.S. emergency food, health and nutritional support to the Malian people, the coup forced the United States to terminate its assistance to Mali's government, Gast said, "The ability of the United States to resume full assistance will depend on a democratically elected government taking office."
Mali's future development must be led by its own people, which requires its leaders to be credibly elected, he said.
"Accordingly, it is critical that the government of Mali and the Malian people be encouraged to pursue a simultaneous and multipronged approach to the return to democracy, accountability and a negotiated peace. None of these gains will be sustainable in the absence of the other," Gast said.