This past Monday Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of Mali’s CNRDRE (the group most foreign media mistakenly label the “ex-junta”), announced that he had asked Mali’s prime minister to organize a “national convention” to choose a president to oversee the transition to new elections. It’s unlikely this request, which has divided public opinion here and been rejected by the current interim president, will be honored. The anti-putsch camp has voiced its opposition; meanwhile, the local press buzzes with reports that Sanogo wants the job of president for himself.
And time to resolve the matter is even shorter than we knew: the state-run newspaper L’Essor stated this week that the 40-day interim period ends not on Tuesday, May 22, as most of us had thought, but on Sunday, May 20 — since the period officially began with the Malian supreme court’s declaration of a “vacancy” in the presidency on April 10, rather than the interim president’s swearing-in two days later.
As of this writing, the deadlock persists between Mali’s civilian authorities, who want to advance the country’s transition process through existing political institutions, and the CNRDRE’s supporters who prefer to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. The latter approach is what Sanogo’s proposed national convention is all about, and underlies a pattern of extra-institutional measures the junta has proposed or pursued over the last two months.
The root of the problem is this: Malians don’t trust their politicians. Okay, politicians everywhere are mistrusted, but in Mali what’s known as the classe politique — the ensemble of elected officials, candidates for public office, and their highly placed associates — has an especially bad name.
Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government. We keep hearing rumors that Sanogo has a dossier on every crime committed by the country’s politicians since the early 1990s, and that for the good of all Malians he is seeking to keep those criminals out of the political process.
You could describe this sentiment as an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States, but it goes further than that. The political class, according to this mentality, is not merely a predatory or parasitic entity that feeds off the people’s resources for its own selfish ends. It’s also an alien entity, utterly divorced from the people; it was not sent by them, was not maintained in office by them, and has no mandate from them.
When you read critiques by Malian journalists and intellectuals of their country’s democratic system of the past decade, this is the argument you most often get these days. Amadou Toumani Touré, the ousted president, was a puppet of outside (especially French) interests who never cared about Mali’s welfare; he and his clan subverted the country’s democratic mechanisms for private gain. “Democracy was a veritable thieves’ banquet to the point that the people became nostalgic for dictatorship,” wrote Issa N’Diaye recently. “To want to go back to such institutions, so rejected by the people, is that democracy?”
Such sentiments are entirely understandable, given ordinary Malians’ widespread disappointment with the governance of their country. “A fish rots from the head,” goes a common expression here casting corruption as a problem that trickles down from the political class. As tempting as it is to blame Mali’s problems entirely on a clique of greedy politicians (and, directly or indirectly, on their foreign backers), however, it is also misleading, even disingenuous.
Flouting the law in Mali is hardly the sole prerogative of elected officials or civil servants. Everybody does it, literally everybody, from merchants who bribe customs agents to give them a break on import duties, to drivers who never bother to register their vehicles or obtain drivers’ licenses, to sidewalk vendors who illegally occupy Bamako’s public thoroughfares. And the temptation to embezzle public resources arises not merely from individual greed: it is driven by social pressures that are extremely difficult to resist.
“When you succeed in Mali, there are many people whom you must take care of,” the talk show host told me. “I know people here who were cabinet ministers and who wanted to do serious work, and they were opposed because they wouldn’t let those around them engage in their little business, stealing left and right. We all do this. Even me, in my car, if the police pull me over I’ll give them 1000 francs to let me go. That’s how corruption starts. So when we have in our heads, ‘Every man for himself, every man for himself,’ it’s difficult to change that from one day to the next.”
The problem with the political-class-as-vampire-squid notion is that it overlooks the social structures in which Mali’s political class is embedded, the webs of reciprocal obligation that connect politicians with their local clienteles. It highlights the links between Malian elites and foreign interests, but obscures the links between Malian elites and ordinary Malians. Africanist scholars from Jean-François Bayart to Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz have gone so far as to argue that it’s not the state that preys on society in this part of the world, but the reverse.
More than once, listening to Bamakois vent their frustrations at their unresponsive government and politicians, I’ve been reminded of my own country, where we have the best Congress money can buy and where corporations have the freedom to bankroll candidates who advance their interests over and above the common good. Whether in Washington or in Bamako, we need to confront the power imbalances that keep democracy from functioning.
At the same time, however, ignoring Malians’ everyday complicity in their government’s failures will not serve their interests in the long run. Even if the country somehow rids itself of its entire political class and starts over from scratch, bad governance will persist as long as the social roots of corruption and clientelism go unaddressed. The danger of populist, extra-institutional approaches like those proposed by the junta and its supporters these days is that they blind people to the structural causes of the problem.
Experience has shown that all too often, the “remedy” such approaches offer turns out to be worse than the disease it is supposed to cure.