The devil they don’t know

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.

Downtown Bamako, Wednesday March 28 (photo from Malilink)

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.

Capt. Amadou Sanogo

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 of 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.

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28 Responses to The devil they don’t know

  1. Steve Nelson says:

    Sitting here in BKO talking with the workers of the compound and neighbors, I think you’ve done a great job of expressing the sentiment and making some sense of the communication confusion.
    I would really like to see an artcle reporting from interviews of the wives of the soldiers at the military camp at Kati.

  2. m231674 says:

    It would seem that the American and Malian “democracies” still have some progress to make… I should say that I was more shocked to see Bush re-elected for a second term than to see a coup in Mali.

    • mali muso says:

      I was living in BKO during that election and all of my Malian friends and colleagues were shocked as well. The young men at the corner “grin” following the election news had a better grasp on the intricacies of the US electoral college, etc. than most Americans I know. And they were all aghast that such an obviously incompetent man would be not only given a pass but given a second term. It certainly made for interesting conversations around the tea wuli-ing.

  3. mamaedge says:

    Bruce, thanks again for this! The Bamako Facebook group is making it sound like a large pro junta gathering was keeping the ECOWAS delegation from getting off their aircraft at the airport. Are you hearing anything?

  4. TH says:

    This article relfects so well opinions expressed by my Malian friends, even the most educated and pro-democratic ones. It also shows that so-called democratic processes, as often estimated as plays to content the donors and the international community, while the power is negotiated and shared in different fora. As so often, the institutions function at a different level as we toubabs think.

  5. Tanya L. Saunders says:

    Yeah, I think a lot of people are suspicious of Western “democratic institutions.” I think uncritically embracing an American inspired (how many people did George Washington own and work to death again? and where are they buried?) Western democratic system wouldn’t be a logical choice for any rational actor who has dealt with colonialism/neo-colonialism, or live in countries whose wealth is a product of continued systemic racism.

  6. Zanfato Diarra says:

    Votre analyse n’est pas juste. C’est sortie n’est ni pro-junte ni pro-ATT. Les populations ont exprimé leur désarroi face à l’incurie des politiques. Des populistes en ont profité. C’est tout. Mais tout ça n’est pas bon pour notre pays. Ces capitaines tombés sur nos têtes ne pourront rien résoudre des problèmes existentiels du Mali. Tout au contraire.
    Si je ne connais pas beaucoup le chef de la junte, ces deux bras droits sont tous des fils d’officiers supérieurs. Celui qui tient l’ORTM (la télévision) est le fils d’un général en activité. Le pouvoir les a surpris dans leur aventure de fils à papa.
    Mais il reste vrai que tout ça est la faute d’ATT et de la classe politique, lesquels ont déçu la population.

  7. Tanya L. Saunders says:


  8. mkevane says:

    You analysis is “pas juste” because it appears you you draw a conclusion “we are dealing with a very different construction of political legitimacy than the one we’re accustomed to” without atoo little concern for how to disentangle representations of current preference (“Is ATT legitimate head of state”) with an abstract concept of legitimacy (“What does it mean to be legitimate, generally”). Moreover, you paint an overly simplistic un-nuanced view of U.S. attitudes towards legitimacy, and so since Malian attitudes (as represented by you, without much acknowledgment – for an anthropologist no less!- of how unrepresentative they must be given the circumstances) end up being complex, The reason it is “pas juste” is because the Afrobarometer surveys, far more representative and judicious than your conversations, for a decade, have been suggesting that populations in the African countries polled share very similar senses of what democratic governance means and why it might be valuable and what constitutes legitimacy. Maybe you never lived in California and so didn’t see Gray Davis get ousted in a recall vote and then have Schwarzenegger get elected… legitimacy is pretty nuanced construction in the United States too,

    Legitimacy, consent, protest and rebellion are closely entangled concepts. I always worry when a writer (even a fine one such as yourself) paints cultural differences (“they think differently than we do”) with too broad a brush. I think that was the sense of Diarra’s “pas juste”, perhaps?

    And by the way, the Malians (at least the pseudonymic Malians) commenting on the blog are people you are having a conversations with too, and they do not seem to all share the same opinion.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Michael for helping move this conversation forward. Perhaps I need to revise this blog post: I tried to communicate some of the nuances more than one reader apparently didn’t see, so I must not have done so very effectively. At no point do I make any claims as to the representivity of my “data,” which are limited to a small number of conversations with a small number of people. What I wanted to argue was that there is a particular construction of political legitimacy to be found here in Bamako that operates independently of legal mandates, and that it is more widespread in Bamako than I ever assumed it would be (or had reason to believe prior to last week). I don’t claim this construction is universal, or that it applies to a majority. Frankly I have no way to know (the Afrobarometer notwithstanding–as a cultural anthropologist, I’m allowed to disregard social surveys at my convenience!). So when I refer to “they” in this post, I’m not talking about Malians in general.

  9. Jon Sears says:

    BB, I ni ce, i ni baara. As you rightly note, key is legitimacy –not only as an achievement of any particular power-holders, but also an ongoing process of building and re-building relationships from the korofo up to Koulouba. From France and the USA (as well as Canada, where I am) we have attempted to export a very restricted concept of ‘democracy’ –highly formal, electoral, and intimately linked (though rarely acknowledged) to a particular form of liberal economics. In Mali, any talk of politics ‘by of and for the people’ needs some ways of talking about rebuilding the deficits of what might be called ‘moral authority.’ These deficits are part of the “problèmes existentiels du Mali,” which populists can exploit (as Diarra says above), have some colonial roots (as Tanya notes above), and that also inform some of what has been happening between the 6e 7e, 8e régions and the ‘centre/sud’ for many years. In the face of deficits of moral authority, the stage is set for concrete social ills (as you say, “from an ineffective military to a dysfunctional school system to the high price of staple foods”) to be met by political actors ready to wield a moralizing political discourse –whether drawn from indigenous (speaking any number of national languages from Bamanan to Tammasheq), Islamic or secular sources (or a combination of these). Such actors build their claims to legitimacy on moral and material influence that is indeed “negotiated and shared in different fora” (TH above) from what is envisioned by the mainstream thinking about deepening democracy Ka an ni here be, ka here be Mali la. Que la paix soix parmis nous, que la paix soit au Mali. C.f.

  10. Maimouna Toure-Keita says:

    Bruce, I have been tune to your report and value your insight as to how things are going in Bamako. Keep up the great work and please be safe. My best to the family. i Keita!

  11. Hi Bruce,
    Interesting discussion. But who is/are the “they” in your title?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Ahhh… in the immortal words of Daffy Duck, “Pronoun trouble.” This will teach me to use third-person plural pronouns without spelling out exactly what I mean. If I had to re-write the title, it would have to read “The devil a group of people in Bamako (who have expressed certain opinions about political legitimacy but for whose representivity or lack thereof I cannot vouch) don’t know.” That’s the “they” I’m talking about.

  12. Excellent blog, though I share some of mkevane’s concerns on broad statements. Another dimension you don’t (or cannot) take into account is of course the difference between the opinions in Bamako and those in ‘rural’ Mali – not to speak about perceptions in the North of Mali.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Francois. The blog is about Bamako after all, and I will try to make that more explicit in future posts.

  13. KK says:

    Thanks Bruce. I met you and your wife and kids at Musikfest a couple years ago when Balla played there. I’m also friends with Ali who turned me onto your blog which has been fantastically helpful during this confusing time.

    As you know Balla is Malian and I found your analysis spot on. I was at first frustrated with his response until I read this analysis. Seems to be what I’ve been hearing too. I haven’t caught up with your latest post but will continue to stay connected.

    All the best to you and your family!

    Kris Kouyate

  14. aramata says:

    Hello Bruce,

    I really like your post and your sense of dealing with the events which are confused and confusing, especially in the north. (Are you treating this subject somewhere?) I found your blog by chance, and because I’m trying to fill in by my own blog the big gap of information existing in my first country, Germany, I know that it is a lot of work. And if the blog owner sometimes gets a bit of response, it may encourage. So go on, I think I’ll follow you.
    Bon courage pour les jours à venir – je pense que vous allez rester au pays.


  15. aramata says:

    I forgot: it’s

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