It was a year ago this morning that we woke up in Bamako to a changed reality. Soldiers at a barracks outside the city had mutinied against their commanders, taken over state broadcasting and the presidential palace, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré.
Yesterday a journalist with France24 asked me whether, at the time of the coup, I had anticipated the depth of the crisis that would follow. My answer was no. I remember what it felt like, listening to gunfire breaking out across the Niger River, a few hours later watching those first images of soldiers in the ORTM studio announcing the suspension of Mali’s 1992 constitution. At the time many of us hoped this episode would prove a short-lived “hiccup” in Mali’s democratic transition, followed by a speedy return to normalcy. I don’t believe I would have predicted that Malians would largely acquiesce to the junta; that 60 percent of Mali’s territory would soon fall to a coalition of separatist MNLA and Islamist rebels; that the Islamists would later overpower their secular allies and make northern Mali synonymous with barbarity; that the Malian state and its leaders would prove utterly impotent to protect their citizens or reunify the country; or ultimately that France would dispatch thousands of troops to Mali’s soil.
None of this is to say, however, that Mali’s coup arrived out of the blue. The political crisis that has shaken the Malian state to its foundations began long before those soldiers mutinied and, in hindsight, warning signs suggesting the failing health of Mali’s democratic experiment were visible all along.
Consider voter turnout. If Mali’s democracy was so vibrant, why did more than 60 percent of eligible voters consistently stay away from the process? It’s true that a large part of Mali’s population is rural and illiterate, but this doesn’t explain why voter turnout in Mali’s elections since 1992 was consistently the lowest in West Africa. At a fundamental level, most Malians didn’t feel represented by their elected officials, and the problem was growing worse. According to the Afrobarometer survey, public satisfaction with Mali’s democracy had been falling for a decade by the time the coup took place.
Another warning sign was the spike in deadly vigilante violence in Bamako, from mid-2011, as a growing number of urban residents lost faith in the ability or willingness of some of the state’s most fundamental institutions — the police and the justice system — to protect them from criminals. I mentioned this phenomenon in a post a couple of months before the coup, and returned to the subject in greater detail last April.
As for the rebellion, insecurity is nothing new in northern Mali. The latest insurgency (officially dubbed “the renewal of armed struggle” by the MNLA) was launched in mid-January 2012, but had been brewing long beforehand, even prior to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya the previous October and the subsequent return of heavily armed Tuareg fighters to Mali.
Mali’s coup and the chaos that followed were by no means inevitable. President Touré’s government was weak in early 2012 — as events have proved — but it just might have been able to limp through scheduled elections and hand power to a successor. That successor might have been able to contain the rebellion and reverse the Malian state’s decline. Of course, there’s little use speculating over how things might have played out differently. My point is that the political crisis of the last 12 months should not have come as a surprise, and might possibly have been averted if Mali-watchers (myself included) had been more attuned to the signs of trouble. For 20 years we viewed Mali as a success story, and became so heavily invested in that optimistic narrative that we failed to make an accurate assessment of the disappointments and risks.
An interesting poll conducted in Bamako last month by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation points to further evidence of popular alienation from the political process. An overwhelming majority of respondents feel that the country’s political parties pursue only selfish interests (table 4), and more than three-quarters cannot name their parliamentarian (the figure for female respondents is 85 percent; see table 2). When asked why more Malians don’t vote, the most common response is a lack of trustworthy candidates (table 9; see chart below). Maybe the only surprising finding here is that around sixty percent of respondents actually trust their interim president and prime minister (figures 1 and 2).
The same poll examines Bamako residents’ attitudes toward events in northern Mali. 98 percent of respondents approve of France’s ongoing military intervention (figure 10). They largely distrust the MNLA, and view the exclusion of Malian troops from Kidal as “unacceptable” (tables 11 and 12); moreover, 68 percent are completely opposed to negotiating with rebels for peace (table 18), though they do appear to support some kind of talks with other representatives of northern populations (tables 19 and 21). They maintain strong support for the Malian army (figure 13) and tend to be skeptical of accusations that Malian troops have committed human rights abuses (table 13). More than three-quarters favor a permanent French military presence in Mali (figure 17), and about two-thirds express favorable views toward a “permanent American presence” in Mali (figure 16). By contrast, opposition toward a UN peacekeeping operation runs fairly high (tables 15 and 16).
The man who led last year’s putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is still in the news. Just yesterday Radio Deutsche Welle published a recent interview with the captain, in which he gives a favorable assessment of the coup’s motivations and consequences. “The current political system is working well,” he claims. “And what is more, the Malian people are beginning to understand what went wrong and to realize that this is the chance to start over.” The most noteworthy part of the interview is Sanogo’s affirmation that he will not be a candidate in upcoming election. He also told an interviewer from Der Spiegel, “I have no political ambitions, and I won’t run. But if I did, I would stand a good chance of winning, because I’m very popular with the people.” Something tells me we will be seeing a great deal more of this man, who indeed maintains a public following in Bamako and who always seems to know how to reach his audience.
On the eve of my departure from Mali last year, three months after the coup, I posted a grim assessment of its impact, writing that “the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them.” Nine months later, my view has not changed. But I have a little more hope now than I did then for the country’s future. If Mali’s leaders can use this crisis to confront the problems that brought down the previous democratic experiment, if they can include more of their fellow citizens in the process of rebuilding the Malian state, they might just be able to put their country back together and keep it together. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable, but it’s possible.