[Post-coup situation update for Sunday evening, March 25: Life in Bamako continues to normalize. Fuel stations are open, and new imports of gasoline and diesel have been authorized across Mali’s otherwise sealed borders. I have heard no reports of gunfire or looting in Bamako since late Friday or early Saturday. Weddings have been taking place throughout Bamako today (Sundays being the most popular day for weddings here), and the honking of car horns accompanying newlyweds from their ceremonies can be heard throughout town. Electricity remains reliable. Private and state radio and television have resumed their usual broadcast schedule, except that the secondary state television channel TM2 is still off the air. ORTM’s 9 p.m. news shows Capt. Sanogo — still wearing his dozofini and carrying a stick — meeting with members of Mali’s “classe politique,” including Ibrahim Boubcar Keita who has condemned the coup, and Oumar Mariko who welcomed it. The dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in effect but is not strictly enforced. The US Embassy now authorizes its personnel to leave their homes for “short trips for essential shopping during daylight hours.”]
Analysis: Why Mali’s president really fell from power, and why Malians won’t fight to reinstate him
The emerging “standard narrative” of the March 22 coup d’état in Mali, which until this month was considered one of West Africa’s model democracies, centers on the rebellion in Mali’s north. Smarting from the recent loss of their Amachach base to (mostly Tuareg) MNLA rebels, Malian troops demanded answers from their commanders and civilian leadership on Wednesday, March 21. When these answers proved unsatisfactory, the troops launched a mutiny that soon morphed into a full-blown putsch, toppling the country’s democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré (known as “ATT”), who was due to step down this June after 10 years in office.
Yet the MNLA rebellion, launched only two months prior, was just the latest of several grave threats to Touré’s government, and in the final analysis it may not even have been the most significant in his overthrow. Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo claimed that he and his soldiers were motivated by a desire for reform — “not of the army, of the state.” He cited structural problems: widespread corruption and nepotism in government, a dysfunctional public education system, and chronic unemployment. “You’ll agree with me,” he told his interviewer, “that the state was not working at any level.”
The coup leaders acted because they sensed the state’s incapacity to deal with a broad spectrum of issues, and realized there was a void they could fill. Military setbacks at rebel hands provided the spark that ignited long-simmering discontent based on mounting perceptions of a broken government that was no longer protecting the Malian people’s welfare.
When Malians take stock of the last decade, Touré receives much of the blame for this state of affairs. To critics, his “rule by consensus” approach actually meant the co-optation of opposition, the muzzling of dissent, the tolerance of corruption, and the triumph of expediency over political principle. ATT’s desire to head off political conflict made him willing to compromise on anything in the name of preserving la paix sociale (social harmony), ultimately undermining his effectiveness as a leader. By the time of his ouster last week, he had long since lost the confidence not only of the military but of many of his former supporters.
And ATT’s governing style weakened more than his people’s faith in him; it weakened their faith in their country’s republican institutions. The rule of law was undercut by the president’s reluctance to crack down on corruption, creating a culture of impunity in which powerful individuals had free reign to loot public resources and expropriate property — especially land in and around Bamako — from anyone weaker. Since opposing voices within Mali’s political class had been either silenced or bought off through ATT’s “consensus” approach, the regular checks and balances of constitutional rule had been effectively short-circuited.
A powerful essay, an example of what the French would call un cri de coeur (“a cry from the heart”), appeared today on the Jeune Afrique website echoing many of these critiques and encapsulating what ordinary Malians see as the failings of their country’s democracy over the last ten years. (You can read my English translation of this essay here, or read the original French version here.)
“Malians’ misfortune was to have replaced a military regime [that of Moussa Traoré, toppled in 1991] with a mafia for which personal interest came before public interest,” writes author Moussa Konaté. “Elections were mere parodies, for those supposedly competing for popular votes were making secret deals to put in power whoever could best defend their interests. The play was so well acted that the world praised ‘Malian democracy.’”
Corruption spread unchecked to every institution of the republic, including the armed forces. Mali’s junior officers and rank-and-file troops — i.e., those who mounted the coup — distrusted their senior officers and defense ministry officials, whom they accused of selling out their cause for private gain. “Is it surprising,” asks Konaté, “in a country where the state belongs to a mafia, that the army should be beset by corruption, theft and nepotism? If the rebels racked up victories, it’s because they were facing an army where officer grades [galons] were selling like hotcakes.”
“The Tuareg rebellion was only a sign of the depths to which Mali has fallen,” Konaté concludes. “The state of the Malian army is just that of Malian society. Consensus, which had been an asset in Mali — where ethnic groups got along fraternally — became a liability once it was hijacked by the politicians.”
Such was ATT’s unpopularity when the coup occurred that few Malians have risen up or spoken up to defend him or the institutions the coup overturned. The issue now, for most Malians, is not whether he should be reinstated, but how best to legitimize his departure, most likely through his resignation (once his whereabouts are known). Given the lack of public outcry here against the putsch, it is hard to believe that crowds would mobilize in Bamako to demand ATT’s return; on the contrary, at a time when Malians perceive unprecedented threats to their nation, his reputation for ineffectiveness could mobilize crowds to oppose any such move.
None of this means the coup or its leaders are especially popular, or that Malians don’t want a speedy return to constitutional rule. Most do want meaningful rule of law and truly representative democracy. (Recall that even the coup leaders named their junta the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State, if nothing else acknowledging Malians’ demand for democratic government.) What the Malians I’ve spoken with do not want is a return to the complacent, ineffectual approach that has characterized Malian national politics in recent years, one they feel was democratic in name only. If recent statements from Paris are any indication, the French government may not insist on ATT’s reinstatement, even as it presses the coup leaders to reinstate constitutional rule.
I have written elsewhere of the “tyranny of improvisation” and the inherent risks of addressing political crises through extra-constitutional measures: in West Africa, those who take power by force vowing to organize democratic elections have a poor track record of delivering on their promises. Moreover, Mali’s March 22 coup continues a terrible precedent, reinforcing the notion that in desperate times, individuals can use the power of the gun to press the state’s “reset button,” dissolving the institutions of government rather than working through them to effect needed changes. Such an improvisational course is always dangerous, since leaders who lack effective institutional oversight are prone to every type of undemocratic and abusive behavior.
The question Malians have struggled with in 2012 is whether it can be more dangerous to adhere to a constitutional course of action when state institutions are compromised and have lost the trust of the people they are meant to govern.