Post-coup situation update, Wednesday, March 28: At 10:00 p.m. Tuesday night an army lawyer appeared on ORTM TV and announced that Mali now has a new constitution, composed of 70 articles, which he proceeded to read one by one. This appears to be a bid to give the putsch a cover of legality, though the origins of this new document are unknown.
The regional West African body ECOWAS has decided to send a delegation to Bamako this week to convince the junta leaders to give up power. In a move to show that it’s serious, ECOWAS also placed a West African peacekeeping force on stand-by.
Two days after an anti-coup rally was held in Bamako (drawing about 1000 people), it was the turn of the coup supporters to hold a demonstration. Bamako’s pro-CNRDRE demonstration drew thousands — but it is important to recognize that the event was advertised, quite cleverly, as both a “Support the CNRDRE” AND a “Support our troops” rally. Placards at today’s demonstration bore slogans such as “Welcome CNRDRE, Bye Bye ATT,” “Down with France!” (France being the perennial bête noire of the Bamako street), and even “Down with the international community!” (in response to the unanimous condemnation of the coup from abroad). A similar rally was also held in the city of Segou.
Deposed head of state Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) granted a phone interview with Radio France International, his first contact with the media since the coup a week ago. He notably insisted neither on being recognized as Mali’s president nor on being reinstated in office, and seemed to imply he would be willing to make a “graceful exit” in the interest of national unity.
Analysis: What makes a leader legitimate?
In my conversations with people in Bamako over the past week, I’ve been surprised to discover local interpretations of political legitimacy very much at odds with the interpretation I carry with me from the United States. Being democratically elected, it appears, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for someone to be seen as a legitimate head of state, at least in the eyes of many Bamakois.
While few people are happy about the coup, nearly every Malian with whom I’ve discussed the coup has expressed relief that Amadou Toumani Touré is no longer in power. From the perspective of many of them, the deposed president’s actions in recent months and years effectively disqualified him from being able to continue running the country. When they speak of these actions, they cite a broad range of supposed failings, from corruption and nepotism, to his apparent unwillingness to fight against MNLA rebels, to various aspects of his character (“A ka kuma ka caa” — He talks too much — is one common complaint). They blame him for all the ills of their society, from an ineffective military to a dysfunctional school system to the high price of staple foods.
These Malians have no more patience for ATT, and don’t want him back in office. The fact that he was due to step down in a little over two months doesn’t seem to matter. The fundamental problem is legitimacy: to their mind, he no longer has any, even though he won generally fair elections in 2002 and again in 2007, and is recognized by Mali’s constitution and by the international community as Mali’s rightful head of state.
Meanwhile, the power wielded by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, leader of last week’s putsch, is not automatically perceived here as illegitimate, even though he seized it at gunpoint. A surprising number of Malians appear willing to give Sanogo and his CNRDRE junta the benefit of the doubt, assume his intentions are just, and see how he performs as their new president. This is true precisely because Sanogo is not tainted with any association with politics or political parties (he claimed in one of his first interviews that he has never voted in his life, saying “If you give me the choice between three candidates I don’t trust, I prefer not to vote”). Yes, some Malians see him as a power-hungry figure with dubious motives, but others see him as a true patriot taking a principled stand.
If many Malians presume that their high-level elected and appointed officials are corrupt liars, by contrast, they are also likely to presume that those with no experience in the political system are genuine and truthful. (Last week, Sanogo described himself as “honest, sincere, and I know what I want.”) In this they may have something in common with American voters’ perennial infatuation with “outsider candidates,” even if those outsiders usually lose.
When a duly elected president can have no legitimacy in the eyes of a large number of his citizens, and many these same citizens can approve of a 39-year-old army captain with no political experience taking the reins of power through force of arms, we Westerners have to recognize that we are dealing with a very different construction of political legitimacy than those we’re accustomed to. Given the choice between ATT, a known political quantity invested with every form of legal authority at home and abroad, yet today popularly discredited and “disavowed,” and Captain Sanogo, whom nobody had heard of until last week and who hasn’t yet had much chance to ruin his name, a good many of them [no, I don't actually know how many] appear ready to embrace the latter.
In short, in an intriguing inversion of the expected logic, they’re willing to trust the devil they don’t know over the devil they know.
For eight long years the United States was ruled by a president many Americans couldn’t stand, who came to office having lost the popular vote, and who displayed a tragic readiness to violate the law in both domestic and foreign policy (remember illegal wiretaps of U.S. citizens, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” covert torture centers, the Valerie Plame leak, and the preemptive use of force?). Yet whatever we thought of his administration’s policies and his actions, we usually didn’t consider his presidency illegitimate, because it was backed up by our government’s core institutions. My compatriots, many of whom were highly critical of the way he ruled, seldom questioned his right to rule.
Here in Bamako, by contrast, even the backing of every institution of the state may not be enough to confer legitimacy on a head of state who, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as having violated the public trust and failed in his duties as a leader. A lot of the people I’ve been talking with see political legitimacy as contingent on actions rather than an institutional mandate. Whatever Mali’s constitution may say, these citizens want a failed leader out — even if it means replacing him with an unknown with no legal basis for ruling, at an extremely dangerous moment in their nation’s history.