Taking it to the streets

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.

Meet the new bosses…

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.

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11 Responses to Taking it to the streets

  1. humu2011 says:

    This corresponds 100% to my view of the events in Mali, where I live and work since 2005. We can expect international sanctions and so on, since this was not ‘democratic’. But democracy is more than elections. It depends on a system of check and balances which is in a environment of cliëntelisme and corruption completely absent. What’s democracy worth if less than 30% vote and a great deal of that minority is manipulated? Therefore ECOWAS and other obvious international reactions will be out of place. And indeed, I hope that democratic structures in the US will correct the aberration of the actual administration.

  2. Fatou Kane says:

    I loved the last sentence, very funny. Had an interesting discussion with my US born children on coup d’etat. I couldnt quite explained to them the concept of military coup. Choc de culture et de generation.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I wasn’t trying to be funny!

      • Fatou Kane says:

        Sorry, totally get the seriousness of the current pre electoral situation in the US. It is just that it is very strange to imagine people having to taking to the street to have their vote count is even a possibility in the US! Strange times indeed !

  3. textscience0a4c39b225 says:

    As always, I am glad to read commentary on Mali that reflects a real understanding of the country. As a long-term resident in Bamako, I can confirm with @humu2011 that your article reflects the reality at 100%. While I was with the 50% that was skeptical that the opposition could bring the necessary changes to Mali, now that the coup has happened, I am with the 100% of Malians that view this as an opportunity. The provisional government asked everyone to go back to work today – we did as did everyone else in Bamako. My fear now is that ECOWAS, UN, the EU and France are preparing to crucify the Malian people for having the courage to aspire to better goverance and a better life. I was hopeful when ECOWAS came to Mali – I, perhaps foolishly, thought they would broker a deal. And I was stunned when they proposed nothing and left after a few days. Now they are sanctioning Mali ! What a disgrace ! Bruce, I know you are an academic, and, really, except for our position on the frontline of the fight against international jihadism, no one care about Mali … but please do your best to spread your analysis. This is a critical moment for Mali, many lives may hang in the balance.

    • Ann Wessling says:

      This! “My fear now is that ECOWAS, UN, the EU and France are preparing to crucify the Malian people for having the courage to aspire to better goverance and a better life.”

  4. janetgoldner says:

    Thanks Bruce, I appreciate your post and I’m glad to read your nod to our own precarious US situation. But the time to challenge IBK was during the last presidential election two years ago. Instead the opposition fought amongst themselves and didn’t unite behind a strong alternative to the IBK regime whose indisputable corruption, incompetence, etc was clear to all. Spontaneously deposing a disastrous president is the easy part. Leading Mali out of this mess is much more difficult.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      You were much more receptive to the previous coup, as I recall. Why the wariness this time?

    • textscience0a4c39b225 says:

      Certainly, the elections two years ago were a missed opportunity and a disappointment. Many Malians at that time supported IBK as the stable choice because the opposition failed to field a visibly better alternative.

      That acknowledged, and this should be particularly pertinent for someone from a US perspective, there was foreign interference in that election. I am speaking of the Turks, although there might have been other agents as well. At that time Turkey was had a very aggressive campaign to shut down the Gülen network in Africa. A lot of money was dropped in Mali and the Malian government, overnight, expelled the Gülenists. I believe you can still see posters of IBK and Erdogan on the route to the airport. As you know, the Turkish campaign reached even into US politics, as Michael Flynn, apparently, plotted to kidnap Fethullah Gülen.

      Why this moment ? What would you be willing to risk if your children had not been school for the last year because of a total shutdown of the educational system (pre-COVID) ? If faced with constant electricity cuts for weeks on end while the temperature hovered around 105° ? If the government, in response to COVID, promised a “mask for every Malian” utilising Malian tailors and never took a single step to fulfill this promise. If every government service were shutdown because, allegedly there was no money in the Treasury due to COVID, while there was no actual COVID response and those in power are ostentiously continuing to live the high life ?

      Of course, even if one acknowledges the legitimacy of the miliary and popular action, there is little to support that this will actual result in a better government for Mali. Your concern is fully justified. I don’t see anything else to do except to work to try to make this happen, as someone that has my own little role in Mali. Before 2012 Mali was a good country, a model African nation as far as the world was concerned. It is the longterm economic consequences of the jihadist attacks that has brought Mali down and, frankly, while (a modest number of) troops has been sent in to protect everyone (Europe, etc.) except the Malians from the jihadists, no sustained effort has been made to address those economic consequences or concern shown that Mali be kept strong. I would say that it has been the contrary and that the foreign interventions have destabilized the country more than the jihadists, but that’s my opinion. The world has a choice now – support the Malians in their aspiration for better government and a better life, no matter how faltering their efforts to get there may be – or crush these aspirations and further reduce Mali to a no-man’s land on the battlefield against international jihadists.

  5. Pingback: Mali: Five Things to Know About Mali's Coup - Afrinote

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