Yes, Mali’s 2020 coup looked a lot like the previous one eight years ago. Frustration had been mounting, both among the general public and among the military. The army had been taking too many casualties up north. Troops in the Kati barracks finally mutinied and drove into Bamako, where they occupied the national broadcasting service and took over administrative buildings. Waiting once again for the new junta to make its late-night television debut gave me a chilling sense of déjà vu.
Much was different, too. For one thing, this time the putchistes managed to arrest the sitting president and force him to announce the dissolution of parliament and his resignation from office before the TV cameras. For another, the five officers who then appeared on screen projected a much calmer demeanor than Captain Sanogo and his unruly band of troops in 2012, and they seem to be more highly ranked. The new junta’s spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wagué, rattled off a list of grievances quite similar to those rattled off eight years ago, and announced the usual post-coup measures (closure of borders, a curfew, etc.).
But where Sanogo was always wary of foreign governments and their mediation, Wagué asked international forces–including MINUSMA and Barkhane–to “remain our partners for stability and the restoration of security.” And he called for “the efficient application of the Algiers Peace Accord.” Many of the protestors thronging Bamako’s streets over the past several weeks to demand President Keita’s resignation see this accord as treasonous, and think UN and French troops are part of the problem in Mali, not part of the solution. So Col. Wagué’s statement was remarkable–even if he didn’t mean it, he was at least diplomatic enough to pay lip service to Mali’s foreign “partners.”
ECOWAS is talking up sanctions again, and foreign governments are issuing rote condemnations and calling for a return to constitutional order. But mark my words: this genie won’t go back in the bottle. Keita’s rule was disastrous for the country, and very few Malians would welcome his return to power. He will not be allowed to come back to the presidential palace–not for the remaining three years of his term of office, not for a three-month transitional government, not even to clean out his desk. Consider him gone. And his son Karim too.
In March 2012 I wrote about the difficulty of sticking to an institutional pathway to political change when the institutions of the state have been hijacked by the people in charge. People in Western countries have not experienced this difficulty for a long time. With notable exceptions, they have been relatively well served by their constitutions, courts, and elections over many years.
This is why, even if they despise Donald Trump (whose presidency has been possibly as ruinous for the US as Keita’s was for Mali), most Americans are willing to wait until the next election to see him driven from power. But in Mali, the institutions of the state have only worked to reinforce the power and privilege of those at the top. The ruling elite put on a good show of inclusive governance, but their commitment to democratic values was hollow.
I don’t think I appreciated this fact adequately in 2012. I saw the junta’s civilian supporters (COPAM and MP22) as dead-enders, and dismissed their critiques of Mali’s democratic system as cynical. But after seven years of Keita’s presidency, I understand their position. A hard reset is necessary in Mali–the institutions of its third republic (1992-2020) will not serve the country anymore. Perhaps they never have; perhaps the system’s checks and balances existed only on paper.
What do you do when you can’t trust the legislature or the courts to rein in an executive intent on concentrating its own power and looting public resources? What do you do when the electoral apparatus is set up to ensure that incumbents never lose? You go into the streets, where the Sovereign People can make their collective voices heard.
“When a head of state fails in his obligations (by various constitutional violations) and the People, angered, rise up, all will bow down before them,” wrote Amadou Aliou N’Diaye in June as street protests were ramping up in Bamako. “The President of the Republic, the Constitution, the institutions… legality itself must bow down before their legitimacy.”
This Amadou Aliou N’Diaye is no activist or rabble-rouser. He is a former head of Mali’s supreme court.
Perhaps the streets are the only functioning institution left in Mali these days–the place where ordinary citizens can still hold their leaders accountable. I understand why so many in Bamako took to the streets to demand their president’s removal from office, and why the army eventually stepped in on their side.
But I do not celebrate these events. As Greg Mann has pointed out, a military coup is not the same thing as a popular revolution, even if it resembles or coincides with one. So here’s hoping that a fourth republic, or whatever comes next for Malians, will be better–fairer, more inclusive, and less venal—than what came before.
And here’s hoping that Americans won’t have to take to the streets to make their voices heard come November.