Several weeks ago I had an e-mail exchange with an acquaintance about events in Mali. I was uneasy about the way the military had suspended the country’s existing political institutions. I wrote, “the junta’s repeated attempts to ‘push the reset button’ and start the whole state apparatus over from scratch seems to me inherently dangerous.”
“Everything in life is dangerous,” responded my interlocutor, an American who was in favor of the coup. “That’s why we’ve supported thugs like Mubarak up to the last minute. It’s getting us a bad rep around the world. Sometimes, you have to see that change is needed, support what’s possible, hope (and work) for the best.”
It’s been exactly three months since the coup d’état that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), Mali’s democratically elected president, just a few weeks from the end of his second and final term of office. Now seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the coup’s impact on Mali.
Let’s begin with the security situation. Captain Sanogo and the CNRDRE justified their putsch by saying that ATT’s government was mismanaging the war against northern separatist rebels, and that the army needed more support to wage its war properly. He had a point: attempts to root out the rebellion had been largely ineffective. Within days after the coup, however, the rebels drove out Malian government forces from the three large administrative regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal) as well as a portion of the Mopti region. In short, the separatists got everything they’d been looking for. Three months later they’re still ruling the north and it’s unclear whether or when they will be driven out. Despite recent bluster about an imminent offensive to retake the rebel-held zone, the Malian military does not have the capacity to reunify the country on its own.
On the political front, Captain Sanogo claimed that the elections (scheduled for late April) would have led the country to “civil war.” He had a point: given the insecurity in the north, it’s not clear how elections could have been held in those regions. But Mali has now entered an unprecedented period of political turmoil characterized by institutional voids across the board; if it was unclear in March whether elections could occur, it’s even less clear three months later whether or when they might be able to take place. After a few weeks of direct military rule, the junta nominally handed over power to an interim civilian government, but it seems to continue holding sway over key areas (notably the media and the justice system), and the civilian authorities have proven either unable or unwilling to confront the junta. Many observers both inside and outside Mali now believe that the government of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra is beholden to the coup plotters.
Economically speaking? Don’t get me started. Captain Sanogo said that ATT’s corrupt government was robbing the country blind. Maybe he had a point, but the aftermath of the coup has cost Malians far more. Mali has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral aid on which this poor, landlocked, arid country is utterly reliant. Then there’s a billion dollars worth of World Bank assistance, now suspended; the total damage to the Malian economy may amount to one and a half trillion CFA francs (about US$3 billion). The Millennium Challenge Corporation has terminated its contract with Mali, and private investors (like the multimillion-dollar Illovo sugar project that had been slated for Markala) have been swarming for the exits. Government revenues are down across the board, to the point that there’s a real danger of the state failing to pay salaries on time. The tourist sector, which had been on life support since late 2011, is now dead, and Bamako’s flagship Grand Hotel just announced it’s closing its doors. Once a fixture of international festivals and events, Mali is no longer fréquentable.
Looking back, it’s hard to see how the situation in Mali could possibly have gotten any worse than it is now if the coup had never taken place. An ATT-led government, left to its own devices, might eventually have lost the north; elections might never have happened; the economic hardships might have come about anyway. But all these things definitely did happen since Captain Sanogo and his colleagues came to power. Not to mention the added insult of the attack on Dioncounda Traoré, the country’s transitional president, who a month later is still recuperating in Paris, and undoubtedly afraid for his security should he return to Mali.
Yes, Mali was badly governed before the current crisis. Yes, its leaders were corrupt. Yes, there was a lack of political will to confront the problem in the north. As I said, maybe Captain Sanogo had a point about all these grievances. Yet the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them. “Sanogo’s only merit is getting two-thirds of his country occupied,” Niger’s foreign minister recently told VOA.
There was a time in Africa when a coup could be salutary. (ATT originally came to power in 1991 through one such coup: after ousting the dictator, he stayed in power just long enough to organize elections, then stepped down and stayed out of power for a decade.) But times have changed, and nowadays overthrowing a democratically elected regime, however incompetent or irresponsible it may be, cannot happen without generating serious, lasting negative consequences.
I was not a fan of ATT’s government, and like most people in Mali, I was looking forward to its end. I don’t believe the rumors, widespread here, that ATT wanted to cling to power. I never met the man, but everything I heard about him in the last year suggests he was exhausted, sick of politics, and ready for retirement. I also don’t believe the stories that the election results would have been determined in advance, that ATT had already designated his successor. Malians love a conspiracy theory, but these theories are almost always baseless.
Don’t let the relative calm of the last 30 days fool you: not only is this country still in the hole, it’s digging in deeper. I don’t know how Mali will move forward from its present impasse. And how we got to where we are today illustrates why a coup d’état is almost always a bad idea. I have to disagree with anyone who thinks this dangerous leap into the unknown was necessary, even laudable. The best way to address pressing problems is through incremental changes, reforming existing institutions rather than overturning them. When people like Captain Sanogo lead us to bypass those institutions, most often the “remedy” they offer turns out to be worse than the disease it was supposed to cure. Mali’s last three months offer ample proof.