The political crisis in Mali, precipitated by a military coup d’état on 22 March that toppled the country’s increasingly unpopular president, Amadou Toumani Touré (popularly known as ATT), continues to deepen. Up until the coup, Mali had long been regarded as a bastion of democracy in an otherwise volatile region. Several observers of Malian politics have noted that the current political crisis, exemplified in the very occurrence of the coup, has challenged this narrative. They argue that analyses of the crisis have neglected to examine the ways in which it laid bare the corruption of the Malian state and the increasingly evident failures of the neoliberal framework within which it formulated its policies.
By and large, the seizure of power was strongly condemned by a broad spectrum of Malian society, as well as a host of regional and international players, most notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Two days after the coup, a group of Malian political parties and civil society organizations, including L’Alliance pour la démocratie en Mali (ADEMA) and Le Parti pour la renaissance nationale (PARENA), issued a manifesto declaring the formation of FRD– Le Front uni pour la sauvegarde de la démocratie et de la République. FRD states its objectives as follows:
- Defense of the 25 February 1992 Constitution
- The restoration of constitutional legality
- The immediate and unconditional release of political, civil and military prisoners
- The return of the Armed Forces and security to their barracks in order to resume their mission of defending Mali’s territory
- Respect for civil liberties and an end to human rights violations
- The reestablishment of peace and security in Northern Mali with a view to the return of refugees and IDPs and the holding of free and transparent elections as soon as possible 1
(PDF of the original French text here.)
Pressure for the junta to step down has met with little success. The coup leaders continue to hold considerable sway, despite officially handing over the reins in April to former parliamentary speaker Diouncounda Traoré, who was sworn in as interim president and charged with organizing elections. The seventy-year-old statesman is reportedly undergoing medical tests in France after being assaulted on 21 May by supporters of the junta. The coup leaders have enjoyed backing from some political camps, the most vocal of which is Oumar Mariko and his Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et l’indépendance (SADI), which formed the Mouvement Populaire du 22 Mars (MP22) in support of the coup.
The coup leader, Captain Amadou Sonogo, is a former recipient of US counter-terrorism training. Observers have noted that the “War on Terror” in the Sahel forms an integral backdrop to the Mali coup. As scholar of West African history Gregory Mann writes in Foreign Policy, “a decade of American investment in Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahalien armies and the United States, and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”
Regardless of the coup leaders motives, which are by all indications self-serving, it is clear that their populist rhetoric has hit a nerve with a segment of Malian society. Understanding the sense of resentment with which many Malians regard Touré’s tenure is difficult without looking back at 1991, a seminal year in Mali’s history. As Stephen Zunes writes in opendemocracy.net,
Two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others … created a mass movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.
In a widely-circulated piece from Jeune Afrique, Malian writer Moussa Konaté cautions, however, against equating elections with democracy, and argues that in fact, Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship was replaced by a “Mafia” for whom personal gain is paramount.
Elections were mere parodies, for those who were supposedly competing for popular votes were making secret deals to put in power whoever could best defend their interests. The play was so well acted that the world praised ‘Malian democracy’… Little by little, the Malian state became the private property of the political class and its accomplices in the civil service and in business.
Issa N’Diaye, a philosophy professor at Bamako University, further points out (in French) that for decades, Mali suffered from one of the lowest voter turnout rates in African elections. “Under such conditions,” asks N’Diaye, “can one honestly describe a democracy as legitimate when it is shunned by its own people?”
This “illegitimate democracy” described by N’Diaye manifested itself in the failure of the state to challenge the structural inequalities that plague Malian society, and that led to the nonviolent uprisings of the early 1990s. Gradually, thanks in no small part to the impunity with which the political class and their allies appropriated public resources for private gain, the state came to be perceived not so much as impotent, but as a driver of inequality in its own right. In an article for African Arguments titled “The Malian Political Crisis: Taking Grievances Seriously”, historian Brian J. Peterson writes the following:
Coming on the eve of elections—elections in which Touré was not even a candidate—[the coup] is a major disservice to the Malian people and their institutions of governance … That said, the mainstream media’s reflexive response to the coup has been to cast it as a struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘military tyranny,’ without examining the deeper structures at play, or the prevailing neoliberal order, behind the current political crisis. Indeed, beneath the surface there are deeper issues shaping the trajectories of political change in Mali. In tandem with other moving parts, these deep causes have produced the current crisis.
Peterson and fellow scholar Brandon County point to evidence of this disconnect between the ruling elites and the struggling rural communities, sketching out a “fragile economic situation that developed alongside the country’s robust electoral system.” They see these dynamics as underpinning the support of rural civil society groups such as the Syndicate of Peasants of Mali for the March coup.
In recent years … we have witnessed a transformation of the Malian economy to the benefit of foreign capital and private interests, but ultimately to the detriment of Malian peasants and workers. Much of this hasn’t made the news, and much of it has been deliberately hidden from public scrutiny. ATT’s government engaged in secretive deals at a time when Malians were growing weary of corruption and the deteriorating economic situation.
N’Diaye sees efforts by the Malian political class to rebuild the state along previous lines as futile and counterproductive. He believes that the coup disrupted “a true festival of robbers,” and that Malians, equally disillusioned with the old democracy as they are with dictatorship, are ready to take matters into their own hands through mass movement building. In a rather optimistic reading of the political moment, he writes that “a new African spring is now enshrined in the pages of the new history of Mali. Its gestation will certainly be difficult and painful. But by wanting to stop it, to contain it, it will become more charged with pressure, more violent, more radical.”
With Bamako in political deadlock, a worsening food crisis in the North, and much of the country under the control of the Tuareg-led MNLA (Le Mouvement national de liberation de l’Azawad) and its allies, it is difficult to see how a mass movement capable of building a legitimate democracy can find expression.