Mali’s Democracy–Down but not out

Is the adoption of a new constitution by Mali's military regime a starting point for getting the soldiers back under civilian rule? Let’s game this out a little bit.

Mali Defense Forces soldiers training with the US army, 2011. Image by US Army Africa via Wiki Commons.

It’s windy in Bamako, says Martin Vogl, a journalist who’s been there for about three years now. Vogl and some of his peers are doing a great job in reporting what’s going on. But with all that wind blowing, and with things happening so fast, it’s helpful too to have shelter from the storm. A little analysis from one step’s remove might be useful. Here’s another attempt to offer that, to try to think clearly and speak plainly, even if everything is provisional. Post-mortems on Mali’s democracy are premature. Why do I think that’s so?

First, because the junta seems to be spinning without a rudder. Confronted with demands from Mali’s political leaders, from regional and international bodies like the ECOWAS (the CEDEAO) and the African Union, and from external heavy-hitters like the European Union and the U.S—all of whom insist on a quick return to the constitutional order—the junta came up with a new constitution on Tuesday. As my friend Bruce Whitehouse points out in his blog from Bamako, the junta could hardly come up with an acronym (CNRDR? CNRDRE? They seem undecided, and their spokesperson had trouble pronouncing the junta’s handle in its first communiqué). It’s hard to believe they came up with a viable constitution in less than a week. Instead, they seem to have been copied from neighboring Niger, which had its own very different ‘transition’ in 2010. One of its important points is that neither the leader of the junta, Captain Sanogo, nor members of a yet-to-be-named transitional government could stand as a candidate in presidential elections.

Is this a starting point for getting the soldiers back under civilian rule? Let’s game this out a little bit. If the country’s political class and ECOWAS—which seems to be taking the lead here among the international organizations—take the junta’s effort seriously, this proviso about not standing in the elections would have real implications. It’s hard to imagine that any of the leading candidates for the derailed elections that were scheduled for next month would accept a position in government under those conditions—and they’ve already condemned the coup. On the other hand, the most marginal of them—like Oumar Mariko, the “student leader” and perennial gadfly—has already said he’d respond to any invitation from the junta. Captain Sanogo and his colleagues badly need some civilian ‘cover’ for political reasons; as I said before, they need a beard. But they need a whole lot more, too, since they clearly seem incompetent to run a government, particularly one that is losing an insurgency in the North, confronting a food crisis, and being cut off from the international aid on which it largely relies. They claim to have fifteen places in a government of national unity reserved for civilians. Maybe they’ll want to call on someone with experience… Alpha Oumar Konaré (r. 1992-2002) would seem to be out of the question, but there’s another former soldier who lives near the two places where ATT was said to have sought refuge around Djikoroni-Para. I can’t help wondering, is Moussa Traore’s phone ringing? Never say never; the man was president for twenty-three years (1968-91). More seriously, though, if the political class maintains a united front and refuses to engage with the junta, any government the latter produces will struggle to get on its feet. The question, in such dire times, is whether or not such a strategy of abstention would do more harm than good to the nation as a whole.

ECOWAS seems to have its own plan for a return to order. In it, the President of the National Assembly, Dioncounda Traore, would serve as interim head of state while presidential elections are being organized. That’s in keeping with the constitution (the old one!), but it too has interesting implications. First, any “orderly transition” that didn’t effectively rubber-stamp the coup would presumably rely on ATT tendering his resignation and stepping down voluntarily, as it were. In exchange for what? Immunity, surely, but for what and for whom? From whom? The devil here would be in the details, but ATT knows how to make a deal. No wonder he’s been working the phone, giving interviews, and keeping his whereabouts secret. My guess—more idle speculation—is that something is being negotiated. The second interesting implication of the Dioncounda Traore scenario is that it would essentially elevate to the presidency a relatively unpopular candidate by legally clear but politically dubious means. Traore had trouble winning nomination for the presidency from his own party, ADEMA, in spite of his long history as a party man. He’s got a lot of experience, but would hardly be a consensus candidate for Malians, and would not likely be seen as a fair and neutral arbiter for the presidential elections he would have to organize. In other words, this solution looks elegant on paper, as it would preserve the country’s institutions, but it would also represent a victory for a political class that many see as rotten.

Still, the second reason why I believe Mali’s democracy is not dead yet is because the country has a long history of political activism, trade unionism, and dissidence. That history is usually hidden in the tussle of contemporary Bamako, where people like to say “either you eat or they will eat you.” Still, whatever popular support the junta has is surely contingent on the moment, their rhetoric, and some results. When things go from bad to worse economically, which in the short term seems very likely, that support might dry up faster than laundry in the dry season. But in addition to looking forward, let’s step back a bit. A thousand or so people demonstrated against the junta on Monday, a national holiday commemorating the coup of 1991 (the one led by ATT, which ended bloodshed and was hailed as democratic). On Wednesday, many more people demonstrated in support of the CNRDRE, or against ATT, or in support of the troops in the North, or against the country’s enemies (variously, the Northern rebels, the “international community,” France… the message was a bit muddled). Today, according to one report, a small anti-coup contingent appears to be back on the streets. So far, all this is happening peacefully. As the chant goes, “this is what democracy looks like”—or at least one part of it.

The third reason I believe that Mali’s democracy is not dead yet is that democracy in Mali is more than what happens in Bamako—as important as that is. It’s also what happens in the rural communes and arrondissements, on the airwaves, in the animated internet sites that link the diaspora, and so on. We haven’t yet heard from “le Mali profond,” rural Mali, where most people live. I am guessing that much of the population will support Sanogo and the CNRDRE, at least in the short term, particularly if neighboring states and foreign powers over-play their hand (as they may), if the situation in the North does not get drastically worse (although it seems likely to), and if the current drought does not become a full-blown food crisis (although it probably will). But, as I understand it, local elections and small-scale democratic institutions have generated a whole new set of vested interests woven fairly deeply into the fabric of rural life. “Grassroots” might not be the right metaphor for the Sahel, but it might capture the situation here. Whoever is in power in Bamako, political life will go on. The main issue here is stunningly simple: people are poor; they don’t want to be; and they hope that their government will not make things worse, or in the best of scenarios, help them do something about it.

Let me conclude by trying to clear up some of the clutter in the more superficial reporting from the outside. There are two important misrepresentations out there. First, many foreign journalists covering the situation set the scene by arguing that West Africa is a region infected with military rule. This is false. By my count, two-thirds of the countries in the region are ruled by people who came to power in elections. If we take that as a rough measure of “democracy,” then West Africa is mostly democratic. Case in point: in spite of dire predictions right up through Sunday, Senegal just pulled off an “immaculate election.” Across the region, as I wrote before, khaki’s out of fashion.

Second, many seem to think that the fact that the junta’s leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, has American military training reveals some deeper conspiracy. Let’s put this in perspective, bearing in mind that I’m no expert on the Malian military (although I did write a book about Malian veterans). I’d bet that many—and possibly most—of Sanogo’s peers in similar units also have some form of American training. It’s not rare, hardly unusual, and it doesn’t seem to explain anything—other than why Sanogo likes to wear a U.S. Marine Corps lapel pin, as Bruce Whitehouse notes. In fact, the real question ought to be with all the millions of dollars the U.S. has invested in training and equipping Malian forces why they melted like butter under a hot knife in the North. The answer, of course, is part of the reason for the mutiny.

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.