For Mali’s New President, Corruption Issue Lingers
A woman and her baby wrapped in a shawl braved a sandstorm in Timbuktu last month.Joe Penney/Reuters
By Adam Nossiter
Aug. 21, 2013
DAKAR, Senegal — Mali’s greatest enemy now that it has elected a new president may not be the one that drew the alarmed attention of the West — Muslim extremists and their allies in the north — but an older one that officials, experts and activists say laid the groundwork for the country’s recent implosion.
Corruption and impunity at every level of the state, but especially at the top, destroyed the army, undermined government institutions and persisted unchecked under the former president, whose ouster in a military coup last year created a disarray that the Islamists capitalized on to take over the north.
The new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in a 78-percent landslide last week, vowed “zero tolerance” for corruption in an interview at his home in the capital, Bamako, before the election. But Mr. Keita, as prime minister in the 1990s, has been touched by allegations of lavish, questionable spending in an old Finance Ministry report, recently exhumed by a local paper in the capital.
And immediately after Mr. Keita was elected, the leader of a coup that precipitated much of the country’s collapse last year, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, despite being linked to what Human Rights Watch calls “serious” human rights abuses. The rights organization called the promotion “outrageous.”
The Islamists who captured the north are gone for now, chased out of the cities they had controlled and into the desert by French troops this year. Northern Mali — destitute, home to barely 10 percent of the population of about 16 million, and with few resources — may well revert to the role it played for decades after Mali’s independence: a thorn in the government’s side, but not much more.
The Islamist takeover of the north was the product of an unusual confluence of events — the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, the sudden influx of militants and weapons from his arsenals into Mali, the coup and an alphabet soup of Islamist groups and alliances — that seems unlikely to be duplicated soon.
A torn-up campaign poster of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as I.B.K., who was elected president in a landslide last week.Tanya Bindra/European Pressphoto Agency
But a more redoubtable enemy lingers. “Unfortunately, corruption and sloppy management have nearly destroyed every advance we have made since independence,” said Mali’s former top anticorruption official, Sidi Soso Diarra. “As long as we haven’t settled this problem of corruption, we can’t have a realistic plan to lead the country out of this mess.”
Soumana Sako, another former prime minister who ran in the recent election, agreed. “Corruption was the determining factor in the crisis,” he said, adding that “the corruption of the elites caused the people to lose confidence.”
The question is all the more urgent because Malian officials have tentatively been promised about $4 billion in aid and loans by outside donors — money that could easily go the way of past aid efforts when the country was a “donor favorite,” as the United States Agency for International Development put it in a 2010 report. Despite that aid, Mali is still five from the bottom on the United Nations’ human development index.
“Unless Mali and her partners take very concrete measures — a zero-tolerance policy on graft, acting on audits and strengthening the judiciary — the present window of opportunity to stabilize Mali and the region will be squandered,” said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Four to 5 percent of the national budget, or $75 million in one of the world’s poorest countries, was lost annually to mismanagement and fraud in the form of “unrecovered taxes, money embezzled, kickbacks and the like,” according to the aid agency’s report, citing Mr. Diarra’s work as Mali’s auditor general.
In his last report, several years before the country’s collapse, Mr. Diarra unearthed numerous examples of missing and misspent money across a broad swath of vital government agencies, from those dealing with food and fuel to Mali’s diplomatic corps. Some of those officials were paid thousands of dollars in cash over the legal limits, and thousands more went to their spouses, even after they had returned to Mali from abroad.
The agency that buys, imports and stocks foodstuffs — grains and cereals — faced “catastrophic” mismanagement, Mr. Diarra recalled, with potentially disastrous consequences in a country where famine is always a possibility. An agency charged with gathering taxes and duties on fuel imports collected little, Mr. Diarra said, because “there was a deal between the businessmen and the tax collectors.”
“Here you have a handful of people who have obtained a level of wealth that is unthinkable in a country like this,” Mr. Diarra said. “As long as impunity is the rule, we’ll never get out of it.”
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Corruption contributed to the nation’s defeats at the hands of the Islamists in the north by turning the army into a “cinema stage set,” he said, with money for matériel stolen and the upper ranks filled with nepotistic hires. Graft also meant that the north was stuck as Mali’s most undeveloped region. In the north, “a development agency existed for 15 years — where has all that money gone?” Mr. Diarra said. “It was distributed to the northern elite.”
But the corruption in the north most likely went beyond the stealing of aid money. A 2012 Carnegie Foundation report spoke of “Malian officials’ complicity with A.Q.I.M. and drug traffickers,” referring to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist organization’s arm in North Africa. The report said there was “widespread evidence of collusion” between the government and “A.Q.I.M. and organized crime,” and suggested that a portion of hostage ransoms for kidnapping victims was “possibly, a source of financial gain for senior officials.”
These connections explain the impunity the Qaeda affiliate enjoyed for years in the desert, courtesy of Malian officials, and had the effect of undermining “all credibility” of the government in the north, the Carnegie report said.
The president during these nebulous arrangements, Amadou Toumani Touré, is long gone, ousted in former Captain Sanogo’s military coup. The new president, Mr. Keita, known by his initials, I.B.K., asserted in the interview this month that “the axes have been brought out” to fight corruption in his country.
But a detailed Finance Ministry report prepared after Mr. Keita left office as prime minister in 2000 raised questions about apparently lavish spending on trips during his seven-year tenure. The report said Mr. Keita would need to justify a $22,000 advance and about $24,000 in “sovereign expenditures” for a 1999 trip to Germany. On a visit to Washington that year, the report said, “there is no documentary evidence” for an advance of $25,000 made to the prime minister’s office.
A spokesman for Mr. Keita did not respond to requests for comment, and in the interview Mr. Keita dismissed a local newspaper that included some of the report’s findings. “If that report was true,” he said, “it would have taken me to a place where there isn’t much liberty,” meaning prison.
Yet former officials like Mr. Diarra and Mr. Sako suggested that impunity for misspending was near-total in Mali.
“I hear I.B.K. saying he’s going to give Mali back its dignity,” Mr. Sako said. “But this can’t happen without the elimination of corruption. When we see the political forces that are aligned, there are reasons to be uneasy.”
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