Or, Why the international community should show post-IBK Mali some love
The parallels between this week’s events in Bamako and those of March 2012 keep coming. On top of the fact that both began as mutinies at the Soundiata Keita military camp in Kati, and led to the forced departure of sitting presidents, we’ve also seen revelations this week that the officers who carried out this week’s action (and who have been calling themselves the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Committee for the Salvation of the People, CNSP) were trained by Russia. And the United States.
(Just as in 2012, it’s vital not to be distracted by such details: as Denis Tull has reminded us, most Malian military officers have received foreign training, often in multiple countries. The sometimes implicit, sometimes overt suggestion accompanying these revelations is that foreign governments somehow fomented these officers’ actions. I think it’s safer to assume that soldiers in Mali are capable, like people everywhere else, of taking initiatives without foreign prompting or assistance, and that they did so on this occasion.)
Two more close parallels, on which I want to concentrate here, have been the international response and the reaction in Bamako to that response. The international response occurs in three phases.
Phase 1: Issue expressions of concern while trying to clarify the situation. What exactly happened–was it a mutiny? Was it a coup? The US government is apparently still trying to resolve this question. Calling it a coup would require cutting off all aid. This is what the US ultimately did in 2012. (By contrast, it chose to turn a blind eye the following year when the Egyptian army deposed President Mohamed Morsi.)
Phase 2 requires condemnations and calls for a return to civilian rule. France, apparently caught off-guard by the situation, has done this without explicitly asking for IBK’s return. ECOWAS on the other hand has drawn a hard line demanding that IBK be immediately restored to office. President Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire has been advocating a particularly tough response, at least according to the francophone press–just as he did last time.
We are now in Phase 3: punishment. Mali has been suspended from regional bodies (ECOWAS and the African Union); its borders with other ECOWAS states have supposedly been sealed and financial flows to the country cut off. During this phase in 2012, I heard from many Bamakois that these measures were all for show: as I wrote at the time, few took the ECOWAS “embargo” seriously, and it was lifted after only a few days.
By going through these phases, Western leaders might be guided by lofty principles: officially, at least, they want to protect the democratic process and state institutions their governments’ aid programs have spent so long trying to build up. African leaders might share these principles but they also have more pressing concerns: they don’t want the officers in their own restive security forces getting any ideas. Ouattara is in an especially vulnerable position in this regard: Cote d’Ivoire has seen many mutinies in recent years.
Malians recognize the self-serving rhetoric and double standards at play here. Some of them (including in one Tweet from an account supposedly linked to the CNSP) have observed that when Ivorian troops ousted President Henri Konan Bédié in 1999, Ouattara himself–then an opposition leader–welcomed it as “not a coup d’état, but a popular revolution supported by all Ivorians.”
So Malians have good reason to be wary of high-minded calls for a quick return to democracy in their country, particularly since few were satisfied with the state of Mali’s supposed democracy to begin with. International sanctions and heavy-handed intervention will only strengthen their support for military rule, as I believe they did in 2012. Bamakois took to the streets repeatedly back then to demonstrate their opposition to ECOWAS.
Of the many hand-lettered placards I recall these demonstrators brandishing, the one that stood out most read “Touche pas ma junte“–best translated as “Hands off my junta.” I can imagine similar placards appearing this time. As they were in 2012, Malian social media is full of accusations that ECOWAS is acting as a French stooge in this affair.
Understandably, the international community cannot be seen to encourage coups. Yet its attempts to reverse this week’s events in Mali risk doing more harm than good. What to do?
I propose this: the world’s governing bodies will decide collectively that what occurred in Bamako on 18 August 2020 was not a coup. No, it was a group of military officers applying, let’s call them “enhanced resignation techniques,” to a sitting president. They thereby accelerated a departure from office that, let’s be honest, would almost certainly have come about before the end of his term one way or another, even if these officers hadn’t intervened. And no blood was apparently spilled, which is quite an improvement over Mali’s previous episodes of forced regime change. So we will call what happened an enhanced, non-violent resignation event.
Sure, it’s doublespeak, but it’s the kind of doublespeak the international community is accustomed to. And maybe adopting it will allow their governments to curtail the punishment phase of their response, thereby allowing Malians to get on with the process of what my previous post referred to as a “hard reset”–that is, deciding together how to redesign their political system and ultimately how to break out of this cycle of poor governance and military intervention.