Mali has made news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. A 2012 rebellion saw large swathes of the country fall under the control of Tuareg militia. The country's army mutinied against the government's handling of the crisis and this was followed by Al Qaeda-alligned forces taking control of the north. Foreign forces led by France came to the rescue in 2013 and drove out the rebellion forces, but the country has continued to suffer from numerous terror attacks, including one on a luxury hotel in the capital city Bamako that left 20 dead. France this week claimed its forces killed more than 20 militants near the Burkino Faso border, while last week the country extended the state of emergency for six months.
In light of this the country is trying to attract investors and we spoke so Moustapha Ben Barka, the deputy secretary general at the Office of the President of the Republic of Mali. Described by Forbes in 2014 as being one of Africa's most powerful people, the former banker and deputy economy and finance minister, Ben Barka attended the Atlantic Council's Istanbul Summit. TRT World Senior Producer Giordano Stolley spoke with him at the summit.
What is the status in Mali in terms of the conflict with the Tuareg?
BEN BARKA: There is no conflict with the Tuareg. We have some rebel groups that took arms. We signed a peace agreement two years ago. We are implementing this peace agreement.
And it is still holding?
BEN BARKA: It is. Actually, we have experienced some challenges to implement the peace process, but it has been speeding up during the last couple of months. A lot of clauses of the peace agreement has been implemented. And there is a lot of confidence between all parties and things are really moving in a positive direction with everybody, even though we are still facing the terrorist attacks. Which is not, you know …. five years ago, there was the government and in front armed groups. So now, no one is talking about armed groups that are claiming independence of some part of the country.
So, is it more isolated attacks that we are talking about?
BEN BARKA: Exactly.
Okay, and still concentrated in the north of the country at this stage?
BEN BARKA: Yes. North. Some on the centre of the country, but most of them on the north.
You heard them discussing here about investment in Africa and investment in Mali. At one stage in the 90s, Mali was touted as the democratic model of West Africa and of course it sort of fell apart. You’ve obviously got to regain some confidence.
BEN BARKA: Of course.
And Mali will naturally be having a serious problem on that score, especially in light of the negative publicity that comes with terrorist attacks. How do you intend to overcome that?
BEN BARKA: You see, we have launched a lot of initiatives to promote private investment. National private investment and also foreign direct investment through better legislation. We just have a PPP legislation that has been voted by the parliament, but at the same time we are seeing what are the success stories that have happened in Mali in the last three to four years on the mining sector which actually always attract investment. But on the energy sector we just closed a more than 130 million euro deal on energy sector. Wholly a private project financed by South Africans er European companies that actually invested in this project. It is a purely private project with foreign capital. So, this is a good signal for us in Mali that even if we have a crisis with our security problem people still believe in our fundamentals with an economic view. So, I think it’s really encouraging to see that.
Now, in terms of transport infrastructure, Mali is a massive country. Obviously, the easiest way of transporting things is along the Niger river, but that’s not the complete picture. Roads and rail, what’s the situation there?
BEN BARKA: This is a big challenge that we have and that’s why we are directing our national budget to focus on infrastructure. I think this is really important. Mali’s really large. It is more than 1.2 million square kilometres of land. Even if half of the country is not really … there is not much inhabitants there. Population is more on the centre, on the south. But we are still having a lot of challenges for our infrastructure. For roads and to enable people to move from one point to another are still a challenge for us.
Now I'm going to ask the devil’s advocate question: How does Mali overcome the perception – and this is a perception that applies to all of Africa – that Africa doesn’t function, you have to pay backhanders, it’s corrupt, it has no legal framework. How does Mali overcome that to attract investors?
BEN BARKA: You know, for that we have went through a lot of legislation, anti-corruption legislation. But you know, when you have a negative narrative on your head for so long it is really difficult to scratch it. But I think things are changing. The narrative is changing all over Africa, because we are seeing more and more democratic governments, even though it’s not perfect. But at least we are seeing that public sector, public servants are really to push for democratic institutions and civil society is involved. And the press is free, also in Africa. But there is still a lot to do.
And in terms of Mali specifically, why would anybody want to invest in Mali? What would make Mali stand out compared to the rest of Africa?
BEN BARKA: People are investing. Our investment … the direct foreign investment in Mali has been going up during the last two years, even though people are telling a lot of things about it ….
And what sort of things are they investing in?
BEN BARKA: They’re investing mainly in infrastructure. Mining, energy sector and some on the transportation sectors. All those are the main sectors, but the government itself has decided to put 15 percent of its national budget only on agriculture, so this is really a big target for investment.
And then, in terms of legal frameworks, it is very often said that in Africa there will be a contract, but then when it comes to honouring the contract the foreign companies find they can’t get those contracts honoured. Is that a thing of the past? Are you addressing it?
BEN BARKA: We are addressing it. Effectively it’s in the past. We are addressing it. We are trying to improve it. So, with new legislation, with new training also for people in the public sectors. I think it is really kind of…. The big issue that we have is the justice system that we have. Because when investor came, the most important thing is will he keep his worth on what he has invested. So this is really a big issue. I think things are changing right now in Africa … training, more constrained legislation. Ya.
So, in terms of making and keeping the judiciary independent, what measures has Mali taken?
BEN BARKA: In Mali? We adopted a law, for anti-corruption law, which means when you’re a public servant you are obliged to show all your assets. So, that’s one thing. And if there’s a difference between what you earn and what you have, such as your house, your cars, then you are under investigation.
I have a last question, slightly unrelated. Probably a bit more positive. When you had the rebellion a few years ago and Timbuktu was out of government control and there were some fantastic old manuscripts...
BEN BARKA: Yes.
What has happened to those? Are they still around? I know the South African government had invested in restoring them.
BEN BARKA: You know what, I think 80 or 85 percent of the manuscripts was removed from Timbuktu just before the crisis. People that were taking care of the manuscripts decided by themselves to take them and to bring them to Bamako, in the main city. So that to preserve them. And UNESCO, thanks to them, has helped a lot Mali to rebuild the monuments that were in Timbuktu and the manuscripts are really in good hands right now. And now with the peace process, slowly but certainly we are moving back the manuscripts back to where they belong.
And so in time the manuscripts will be available for people to see?
BEN BARKA: Yes, of course.