The mirage of Malian democracy

Today marks 33 years since Mali embarked on its transition from single-party authoritarian rule to multiparty democracy. Many of us observing events in the country have presumed that throughout its two decades of multiparty, democratic rule beginning in the early 1990s, the Malian state commanded unprecedented political legitimacy. We believed that Malian people generally saw the elected regimes of Presidents Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992-2002) and Amadou Toumani Touré (2002-2012), despite their obvious flaws, as far more legitimate than their single-party predecessors had been. And we saw the military coup that ousted Touré, almost exactly a decade ago, as a sudden calamity ushering in a profound political crisis for the country.

But what if Malians have, for the most part, never seen their postcolonial state as legitimate? What if the Malian state has been suffering not from a post-2012 “crisis” of political legitimacy but instead from a chronic failure to generate legitimacy, a failure dating back to French colonial rule? What if, moreover, most of us have never adequately understood what “legitimacy” means, or how to measure it? These are among the provocative questions raised in anthropologist Dorothea Schulz’s latest book, Political Legitimacy in Postcolonial Mali.

I have tremendous admiration for Schulz and her research which, beginning in the late 1980s, has ranged across Mali’s western, southern, and central regions, in locales from Kayes to San. Her output, touching on everything from griot praise to media to gender to Islamic reformism, has been prolific and immensely valuable to my own scholarly work. (A search of her name on Google Scholar finds dozens of journal articles, at at least four previous books; these works make her the most frequently appearing author in the bibliography of my forthcoming book on marriage and gender in contemporary Mali.)

Political Legitimacy in Postcolonial Mali is not for casual readers. It is a challenging, theoretically rich work of ethnography. In attempting to define legitimacy and understand how it is constructed, the book undertakes a sophisticated exploration of political philosophy and theories of the African state. It faults quite a few Western scholars (myself included) for overlooking the nuances of Malian political thought, and for too readily believing Malian political elites when they spoke to us about their country’s experiment with pluralism. Peasant farmers in Kita, Schulz shows, were always highly suspicious of those elites, and for good reason. From the early 1990s onward, the Malian state may have changed its outward form from authoritarianism to formal democracy, but it remained a fundamentally extractive entity. True pluralism was never on the elites’ agenda.

Schulz unpacks her rural informants’ perceptions of modern politics (politiki, in Bambara). They tended to contrast politiki with fanga, the exercise of power associated with an unspecified precolonial political order “to which they attributed a greater stability and continuity,” she writes in the first chapter. Modern politics has come to be quite poorly viewed during the decades since independence. Peasants see the state as a neglectful father, and modern politics is the name for that father’s neglect. “Politiki stands for a disrupted social order,” Schulz asserts, “in which the family head no longer ensures family continuity by nurturing his children in exchange for their labour.” While politicians in this postcolonial order claim to act for the public interest using the rules of legality and bureaucratic procedure, people understand them to be serving their own personal interests.

Viewed through the eyes of these peasants, the trajectory of the Malian state during the 1990s and early 2000s is not an upward climb toward greater accountability and effectiveness. It is one of decreasing central authority, heightened uncertainty about where power actually resided, and ultimately the intensification of local conflicts (over access to land, resources, and power) and the multiplication of contenders for authority. The government in Bamako has “lost its teeth,” they conclude, amid bungled, donor-driven attempts to decentralize its authority and increasing corruption by the educated elites ostensibly in charge of state “reform.” Well before the 2012 coup, rural dwellers were utterly disenchanted with democracy’s broken promises.

I particularly appreciated Schulz’s chapter on Islamic renewal and the challenge it poses to state secularism in Mali. Her primary focus here is not Mahmoud Dicko, whose Islamist politics have gotten plenty of attention from Western journalists, but the charismatic preacher Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara and his movement’s softer brand of Islamism. Haïdara’s Sufi-oriented message has resonated with a great many Malians (see Andre Chappatte’s 2018 article), and while he claims not to be political, Schulz points out that he becomes political whenever he contrasts himself to Mali’s politicians–which he often does.

Schulz’s book makes a compelling case for the need to understand and engage with local constructions of politics and legitimacy. Despite its limitations (an overreliance on the perspectives of senior males, and a complete omission of relevant survey data–most notably the Afrobarometer surveys), it offers a bracing, far-reaching analysis of Mali’s postcolonial state. It could very well change how you think about politics.

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3 Responses to The mirage of Malian democracy

  1. Thanks for this insightful review — it almost makes me want to pick up an anthropologist’s dense ethnography. This line, “What if the Malian state has been suffering not from a post-2012 ‘crisis’ of political legitimacy but instead from a chronic failure to generate legitimacy, a failure dating back to French colonial rule?” resonates strongly. And the fact that it stems from an emic distinction in Bambara (“fanga” vs “politiki”) only makes it more compelling to me.

  2. priffe says:

    Doubtful if Bamako can ever gain control over the vast NE of the country. To do it while moving towards democracy is not realistic. Same problem in Niger and elsewhere – those maps were drawn not to foster a modern state but followed French ideas about centralized administration.
    The problem appears eternal and unsolvable. Bamako will never become Paris.

  3. Pingback: DER 26. MÄRZ: GEDENKTAG & LEGITIMITÄT IM POSTKOLONIALEN MALI – Le 26 mars: commémoration & Légitimité dans un État postcolonial | MALI-INFORMATIONEN

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