Mali’s woes ‘are just beginning’
Deserted by tourists and foreign investors, wracked by instability and beset by crippling poverty, Mali is struggling to emerge from its worst crisis in living memory despite pledges of massive aid.
The international community and politicians at home have sold the presidential election next Sunday as a crucial turning point but analysts warn that the impoverished west African nation's woes are just beginning.
Economic growth is at a 10-year low after a separatist rebellion and coup last year which toppled the elected president and allowed Islamists to occupy the north before being ousted by a French-led military intervention.
The finance ministry said a "good agricultural season" and the fact that Mali remains the third largest gold producer in Africa have buffered some of the worst effects of the crisis.
But government data shows GDP declined by 1.2 percent last year, the first contraction in the economy since 2001, and following a year of 4.3 percent growth in 2011.
The coup resulted in the suspension of almost all of the official development assistance, except emergency aid and direct aid to the population.
At a donor conference in Brussels in May, Mali secured pledges of 3.2 billion euros ($4.2 billion) from international partners including France and the United States, giving the government a little breathing room.
A recovery plan presented to the donors said, however, that the country had been plunged into recession in 2012 after "the resources of the state decreased by 30 percent and overall spending by 33 percent".
The balance of payments deficit amounted to $99 million last year and inflation rose from 3.5 percent to 5.3 percent, driving down Malians' already low purchasing power.
All of the key economic indicators were in the red, the document said, leading to "the closure of many hotels and tourist establishments and other tertiary structures, the slowdown in the secondary sector, particularly the public buildings and works sector, and decreased foreign direct investment".
Mali, with its mainly agricultural economy based on cotton, cattle and food crops, was ranked 182nd out of 187 countries in 2012 on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index.
Nearly half of its 15 million people live below the poverty line, the average life expectancy is 53 and the fertility rate is among the highest in the world.
Mali's economic emergency has been exacerbated by the urgent need for rebuilding after the conflict which followed a rebellion by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The Tuaregs seized key northern cities before being sidelined by their Al Qaeda-linked allies who imposed a harsh version of Islamic law in towns under their control, carrying out amputations and summary executions.
The MNLA sided with a French-led military offensive which reclaimed most of the lost territory from the Islamists, but much of Mali has been left in ruins, neglected or destroyed in the fighting.
In the north, over 90 percent of health centres closed during the crisis, as well as numerous schools, the report to the donor conference noted.
Public buildings across the north were destroyed, especially in Timbuktu and Gao, whose governors have been forced to function from private homes, their official residences and offices destroyed.
Numerous roads criss-crossing the vast desert are no longer passable while health centres and drinking water distribution centres have been destroyed by the Islamists.
"Mali has recently received significant announcements of funds to rebuild the country. But everything is urgent," said Gao councillor Mamadou Maiga.
"The problem is how to quickly release these funds, and start rebuilding in a climate of insecurity in parts of the country."
While the Islamists were largely killed, arrested or flushed out of northern Mali's towns and villages, security is still a pressing issue, with militants hiding out in the desert and regrouping.
"The situation is under control for the time being but the reality is this: terrorism is not yet completely defeated," said a Malian security official.
Faced with the ongoing instability, many humanitarian groups have suspended their activities in the north and those who stayed on are impeded by tight security restrictions.
"The next President of the Republic of Mali is bound to be a transitional president. His task will be difficult," said social scientist Mamadou Samake.
"Not only should he have the tact necessary to lead the country, but he will also have to be strong. I think that, for a while, Mali will remain on life support."