In Mali, Civil Society Takes On New Role In The Democratic Transition

Korotoumou Thera, executive director of Women and Development, speaks to local media after the USIP co-hosted Women Preventing Violent Extremism National-level Dialogue event in Bamako, Mali. September 13-15, 2021.

Amid governance and security issues, Malian civil society is helping communities and officials build a shared democratic future.


In the decade leading up to Mali’s two military coups in 2020 and 2021, persistent governance grievances had left civilians without reliable public services while the military struggled to contain violent extremist groups. Hopes for a quick return to civilian rule post-coup have faded, as the country now nears three years under the rule of military leaders. While the transitional government has laid out a roadmap toward 2024 elections, there are growing concerns about the infrastructure capacity to carry out elections within that timeframe.

Throughout this transition, the legitimacy of the government has been undermined as Malians remain frustrated by instability, corruption, human rights concerns, and a lack of accountability and equitable distribution of resources. But while the democratic transition remains delicate, civil society actors provide a framework for negotiating a new social contract between the Malian authorities and the Malian people.

Amid President Biden’s second Summit for Democracy, there is a growing emphasis on how civil society organizations — such as USIP’s partner organization Women and Development — can amplify the voices of those most impacted by crises. By acting as a bridge between communities and the government, civil society can facilitate a system of responsive governance that is a cornerstone of a stable and secure democratic society.

Korotoumou Thera, the executive director of Women and Development, reflects on the way forward for Mali’s democratic transition, how the Summit for Democracy can help support it, and the importance of women’s inclusion in peace, security and democracy efforts.

As the executive director of a leading civil society organization in Mali, what are your thoughts on building a peaceful and democratic future in Mali?

Achieving good governance is critical for democracy-building and requires reciprocal trust between governments and the governed. Mali has gone through a long series of unprecedented political and security crises over the past decade due, in large part, to the poor governance of its resources — and much of the fallout has come at the expense of Malians’ wellbeing and security.

This has left a gap between Malian communities and the government, and especially alienated youth and women, who have traditionally been minimized in peacebuilding and democracy by all actors in positions of power. The result has been poor collaboration, lack of trust and strained relationships.

For civil society organizations, this means our role can and should go beyond acting as peacebuilders, protecting human rights and preventing violent extremism. We are in a position to act as interlocutors between communities and governments — connecting those who most need their issues to be heard with those who have the capacity to address them.

My organization, Women and Development, engages the Malian government on programs that advocate for the rights of women and girls with expertise on peace, security, human rights and climate change issues. Through USIP's Women Preventing Violent Extremism (WPVE) program, we’ve worked on establishing relationships between women’s peacebuilding networks and local community members, making connections among these stakeholders and national authorities around shared peacebuilding priorities.

Ensuring good governance is critical for democracy — but it’s difficult to achieve without enhanced collaboration between governments and civil society in managing the country's affairs. This requires increasing the responsibilities of civil society and the engagement between civil society and authorities to ensure that the rights of communities are respected and that the stakeholders can collectively establish good governance in Mali. Everything hinges on good governance, and good governance is a major challenge in many African countries today.

As world leaders gather for the second Summit for Democracy, what are you looking for in terms of civil society’s role and participation, and what do you hope to take away from the summit?

By acting as bridges between communities and governments, civil society organizations identified a missing piece in national strategies for promoting democracy. My hope is that you’ll see many civil society actors demonstrating through concrete examples just how critical it is to seek out and integrate community-level concerns into national strategies, and that leaders are able to grasp the importance of collaboration between political actors and civil society.

Additionally, societies often forget to emphasize the need for women and youth participation in processes like these. Africa is a very young continent, and its governance struggles will not be solved by ignoring or excluding youth voices. In Mali, nearly half the population is under the age of 14, with the country’s total population expected to double by 2035. Young Malians — both men and women — have a right to shape their future and have their concerns heard, and I hope world leaders can make a concerted effort to support them.

I also hope to see some attention paid to how democracy and the WPVE strategy can overlap and reinforce one another. The WPVE strategy brings together community and national stakeholders to center women in national policies on preventing and countering violence extremism. The phenomenon of violent extremism is ravaging Mali and threatening other African countries in the Sahel and West Africa. Combined with climate change, these crises contribute to a huge deterioration in the standard of living and human rights of Malians. The Malian people are tired of hunger, droughts and insecurity worsened by climate change and failed governance. There’s an abundance of evidence that shows women can have a profound effect on peacebuilding, and it’s time to allow women a chance to contribute to peace in their communities.

Having been a civil society leader in Mali for several decades, you have a unique perspective on the current crisis. What are your recommendations for international partners who are pro-democracy?

The Malian population has enormous energy and appetite for a change — a change in political cooperation, a change in the way the outside world views Mali and African countries, a change in accessing the country's natural resources with more transparency, a change in terms of security, and a change in exploitation of our wealth.

Indeed, failures in governance, shortcomings in the management of the country's resources, and the lack of redistribution of wealth to the population have precipitated the failure of politicians and democracy and the succession of coups. You can even view the transitional government as the result of a need for drastic change in Mali — the 2020 coup originally brought a feeling of hope to a population that felt deprived of its rights.

But now that moment of hope in the military regime has been overtaken by the realities of a continually deteriorating security situation. Just 240 kilometers outside the capital Bamako, in the Ségou region of Mali, it is common to wonder what might happen during the day when the sun rises, because it is not a given that you will survive.

Safety is interconnected among global citizens. Any increase in insecurity, or the associated movement of displaced people, and the situation can quickly snowball beyond Ségou and the northern and central regions, beyond Mali and perhaps even the Sahel. Solving this issue requires navigating the same path: The construction of a new model of democracy by the Malian population must be driven at the grassroots community level and carried to the national level. Civil society organizations, such as the one I lead, act as cement in the consolidation of peace and security.