Conflict Trends | 1999/2

A Peace of Timbuktu: Democratic Governance and African Peacemaking

Book Review

Reviewed By
Staff writer
 9 Nov 2009

The statement that something ‘new’ always comes out of Africa, as depicted in Pliny the Elder’s story centuries ago, is clearly reflected in this book. This something ‘new’ contrary to the ugly picture painted by Pliny of Africa, happens to be positive.

Africa was not unaffected by the turbulent years of the Post Cold War era. Since the end of global bipolarity, the winds of change have blown strongly across the African continent. This is most graphically evidenced in the process of democratisation, which witnessed the ousting of ‘Big Men’ like Kenneth Kaunda and Hastings Banda from the corridors of power. A peace of Timbuktu reflects on the processes of change resulting from the replacement of an oppressive regime by a democratically elected government.

The authors guide the reader through the socio-cultural background of Mali. They argue that this background informs the political organisation and outcomes of Mali’s transitional period that began in the early 1990s. The opening chapters of the book reveal the particular unique features of the Mali state as compared to other African states. Whereas language and skin-colour are commonly used as guides to ethnic origin in Africa, it is noted that in Mali ‘language, like dress and skin-colour is a poor guide to ethnic origin’ (p3). This lends itself to a common Malian identity.

Mali shares two trends with the rest of Africa. Firstly, like other states in Africa, the country was under one party rule of Moussa Traore. The system of a one party state is accompanied by the exclusion of certain groups of people from the processes of governance and decision making. In the case of Mali, the northern part of the country was systematically marginalised by the central government. As such it lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of economic development.

Popular anger at the excesses of the single party state culminated in a series of revolts that began in 1990. Without necessarily undermining the impact that the revolts had on the population of Mali, the authors rightly argue that the revolts never progressed into a full-scale civil war. This was the case because, among other reasons, the rebels opted for a negotiated settlement even though they had a chance of a military victory over the Traore regime.

A ‘peaceful’ transition to a new era is usually unstable and threats of a return to arms were ever present in Mali. Transition and the eventual dawn of democracy had to be achieved through efforts and the guarantee that the economic re-generation of northern Mali was to occur. It is in this regard that one notes the positive role played by the United Nations and its specialised agencies directing developmental projects particularly towards northern Mali. This stemmed from an understanding that as long as northern Mali remained neglected economically, the future stability of Mali as a political entity would continue to be threatened.

Common to many African states is the problem of civil-military relations where the population views the army as a source of insecurity. Mali was no exception. It was only after the signing of the National Pact, the peace agreement between the rebel forces and the Traore regime, that measures to restore people’s confidence in the army were initiated. These measures included the creation of an internal security corps made up of all sections of the population to serve their respective local authorities p 253).

Civil society both inside and outside Mali played a positive role in supporting the re-integration of former combatants into society, thereby assisting Mali’s transition to democracy.

The last few chapters give an analytical insight of what the necessary conditions for sustainable peace are. Good governance and democracy, are presented as the cornerstone for this process. Furthermore, the notion of peace, in the context of Africa, cannot be separated from development and popular empowerment.

This is a well-written book and its value lies at three levels. First, it reveals the interface between socio-cultural variables and conflict. Second, it offers critical insight into how dynamic partnerships between state and non-state actors can be forged in the interests of peace and security. Finally, at a time of growing Afro-pessimism, the book narrates the tale of an African success story, where dialogue and reason finally overcame the politics of violence and vengeance.

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