What went wrong in Mali?

Bruce Whitehouse

The Republic of Mali has long been seen as the exception to the dictatorships or civil wars that have seemed the rule in West Africa since the end of the Cold War: a state that was able to shift from autocracy to democratic governance. Arid, landlocked, larger than France (its former colonial master) and Spain combined, and among the world’s poorest nations, dependent on foreign aid, Mali shook off single-party rule in 1991, when massive protests touched off a coup that ended the 23-year reign of General Moussa Traoré. The coup’s leader, Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, presided over a transition that brought a new constitution and multiparty elections the following year.

Every five years since then Mali has held elections which have been considered generally free and fair by observers. Alpha Oumar Konaré, who won the presidential election in 1992, reformed state institutions and negotiated an end to a long-simmering rebellion by Tuareg nomads in the northern deserts, where central government had never had much control. Konaré stepped down in 2002, respecting a constitutional two-term limit, and was succeeded by Touré. Privately owned newspapers and radio stations, once a state monopoly, flourished, and the country became popular with aid donors, a destination for tourists and a regular venue for music festivals. It was a tranquil place that never made the news.

It lost that distinction on the afternoon of 21 March, when troops in Kati, just outside the capital city of Bamako, launched a mutiny. Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn’t trust their commanders and accused officials in Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards, just weeks before the end of his second and final term.

The mutineers, by some accounts, had come to dress down Touré, not to topple him, but with the president gone, the state fell into their laps. Nobody in the government spoke to the soldiers, mostly enlisted men with a few lieutenants and captains, to ask what their demands were or challenge them. After a few hours, in what many have called an ‘accidental coup’, they decided to fill the power vacuum themselves. The next morning, a lieutenant in camouflage fatigues went on state television to announce that the constitution had been suspended. A military junta was now in control.

Foreign governments and international organisations were quick to condemn the putsch. Western donors froze much of their aid, and Mali was suspended from regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union. ECOWAS took a hard line, threatening economic sanctions and even military intervention unless constitutional rule was restored. Under pressure, in April the junta agreed to reinstate the constitution and begin a transfer of power to civilian authorities. But in Bamako there was little mobilisation against the military; most people seemed glad to see Touré gone. A poll conducted a month after the coup showed that about two-thirds of Bamako residents backed the junta and its charismatic leader, the US-trained army captain Amadou Sanogo.

The standard explanation now blames the coup on the Malian military’s disaffection after a string of defeats at the hands of a motley alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists. The rebels had benefited from an influx of fighters and arms from Libya in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall. Earlier this month Hillary Clinton claimed that ‘Mali was, by most indicators, on the right path until a cadre of soldiers seized power.’ But why was it so easy for a few dozen sergeants and junior officers to topple the government? Why didn’t more Malians stand up in defence of the institutions put in place after 1991?

The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. Touré’s presidency had begun under a cloud. Although international observers noted irregularities during the 2002 election, they declared it free and fair. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe Touré won only because the scales were tipped in his favour: the constitutional court annulled half a million votes, roughly a quarter of the ballots cast in the first round. Konaré, the incumbent, had chosen Touré as his successor and had acted to ensure his victory. Touré has been accused of orchestrating an ‘electoral hold-up’ for his 2007 re-election. Turnout for Mali’s elections throughout the decade was the lowest in West Africa. Recently Laurent Bigot, a French foreign ministry official, succinctly described Mali as a ‘sham democracy’.

Touré wasn’t a member of any political party, but most of Mali’s established parties joined a coalition in support of his policies. He was able to push sweeping legislation through the National Assembly with little or no debate. In 2009, after the Assembly passed a progressive bill to reform Mali’s 1962 laws governing women’s rights and families by 117 votes to 5, Islamic groups stirred up vociferous opposition, and parliamentarians had to distance themselves from a bill few of them had actually read. The law was never enacted. Touré’s ‘rule by consensus’ became a euphemism for the suppression of political debate and a trend towards absolutism. Checks and balances existed only on paper. Journalists were afraid to challenge the president’s agenda, especially after five of their colleagues were arrested in 2007 for writing about a teacher in Bamako who got his students to comment on a short story about a girl made pregnant thanks to the ‘carnal escapades’ of an African head of state. In Mali’s restive northern regions, ‘rule by consensus’ invited more problems. When a group of Tuareg rebels – seen in the south as gangsters involved in the region’s drug smuggling – rose up in 2006, Touré negotiated a controversial peace accord and withdrew the army from much of the north.

‘A fish rots from the head,’ Malians say. To keep the aid money flowing, Touré maintained a veneer of progress. His government at first boosted the number of children enrolled at school, which pleased donors, but never invested adequately in the country’s dilapidated education system. Only 12 per cent of students passed the high school leaving exams this year, the lowest rate ever recorded. Touré purchased a temporary peace in the north but never made good on promises to reduce the acute poverty there. He accepted millions of dollars of US military aid, which was supposed to be used to drive out al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but he never actually went after the group’s encampments. The military itself was racked by nepotism, and officers often skimmed off their soldiers’ ammunition and pay.

In 2010, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria suspended aid to Mali after it found that officials had pocketed millions of dollars of its grants. This fraud was noteworthy only because some of its perpetrators were held to account: Touré’s health minister is awaiting trial for embezzlement. The perception that corruption went unchecked at the highest levels of the state cost the president much of his legitimacy at home. At best, Malians felt he had turned a blind eye to the problem; at worst, they accused him and his wife of being directly involved.

As Touré’s second term approached its end, Malians had also lost faith in the rule of law. On the outskirts of Bamako, residents saw their property seized by members of the president’s inner circle, and were powerless to seek redress through the courts. Few Malians felt protected by the police, who were busy extorting bribes from motorists. Judges sold favourable verdicts to the highest bidders. There was the revival of a practice known as Article 320, first seen in the lawless days after Moussa Traoré’s fall: accused thieves were doused with petrol and set alight. (The name comes from the price of a litre of petrol and a box of matches, which in 1991 totalled 320 local francs.) At least seven such vigilante killings were reported in Bamako in the first two months of this year, and it seems likely that many more have taken place since.

The putschists capitalised on the popular disappointment with bogus democracy and weak government, using it to justify their actions. Hours after taking over, Sanogo spoke of his men’s desire for reform: ‘not of the army, of the state’. The junta duly called itself the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State. Sanogo described Mali’s democratic edifice under Touré as a sagging wall that he and his men would knock down and rebuild. The coup had not derailed Mali’s democracy, he claimed, but had been necessary to save it. ‘When at a high level of state responsibility,’ he said in a televised interview in May, ‘you allow yourself to look a citizen in the eyes and lie to him, when you allow yourself to rig elections, to buy elections … is that what you call democracy?’

Whether Sanogo intended to save Mali’s democracy or confiscate it is an open question. But he and his men could never have hoped to overthrow Touré, and win support among Malians, had the country’s core institutions – the police, the courts and the electoral process – been sound. The soldiers who stormed the presidential palace on 21 March knew that Touré no longer had any legitimacy for the Malian people. So did Touré himself: hence his swift and silent departure. He resurfaced weeks later to sign a letter of resignation before the television cameras, then flew into exile in Senegal.

Five months after the coup, military and civilian factions are still vying for control of what remains of the state. Negotiations over a national unity government have dragged on without resolution. ‘Mali can collapse,’ one observer said, ‘and as long as Bamako remains, they will all squabble over scraps of power in Bamako.’ In April, discord within the army had set off an uprising by Mali’s parachute regiment, which the junta put down at a cost of dozens of lives. The junta used the attack as a pretext to strike against perceived threats to its security. Its spokesmen claimed that ‘mercenaries’ from elsewhere in Africa, financed by Bamako’s political establishment, took part in the revolt. A wave of hysteria swept the capital, and innocent traders from Senegal and labourers from Burkina Faso were caught in the dragnet. No evidence of foreign involvement came to light, but the supposed menace provided cover for the junta as it hunted down surviving paratroopers. Stalwarts of the old regime were arrested for allegedly bankrolling the insurrection, and several journalists were detained and beaten. Human Rights Watch claims that twenty men have disappeared and others have been tortured, and alleges that Sanogo played a direct role in these abuses. On 21 May, a mob of junta supporters attacked Dioncounda Traoré, the civilian transitional president, in his office and knocked him unconscious. His security staff were either unable or unwilling to protect him. Traoré went to Paris for medical treatment, where he remained for two months.

In the north, the alliance between Tuareg separatists and the Islamists has unravelled, with the Islamist militias throwing the separatists out of the towns they had controlled. The Islamists, widely believed to have links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as well as to kidnapping and narcotics rings, have consolidated their hold in the north, an area the size of Texas, and drawn fighters from across Africa to join them. They have also recruited local youths, some as young as 14.

Those rallying under the Islamist banner don’t necessarily share the same agenda. Some are cocaine traffickers seeking new partners and protection. Others hope to get a piece of the million-dollar ransoms collected from Europeans kidnapped in the area in recent months. The goal of imposing Sharia law may unite them for now, but it is fiercely opposed by many locals, especially young men, who don’t want to be banned from watching TV, smoking cigarettes and playing football. In the city of Gao young people have repeatedly gathered to challenge the Islamists, and intervened to stop abuses against residents. The Islamists have been condemned, too, in Bamako and around the world for destroying centuries-old mausoleums in Timbuktu and for dispensing harsh punishments: stoning young couples accused of adultery and lopping the hands off alleged thieves. But these measures are no more extreme than Article 320, which has caused no outcry at home or abroad.

It’s difficult to see any way out. Malians love to blame their country’s predicament on foreign (particularly French) interference, but they seldom examine their own role in the weakening of their country’s institutions. They condemn their classe politique, but by explaining away corruption as a matter of individual greed, they obscure the social and structural factors that allow their leaders to abuse their authority and circumvent the law. A proverb of Mali’s Bambara people holds that ‘those who say “power is bad” have not been close to power.’

What does Mali’s spectacular slide from celebrated democratic model to failed state augur for the rest of Africa? The number of electoral democracies on the continent has fallen from 24 to 19 in the last seven years. It may be that Mali is a portent of state collapse to come, as the façade of democracy erodes, exposing the informal government mechanisms that really run the show. What if, as the historian Stephen Ellis has argued, the increasing fragility of African states is ‘an early sign of a wider problem with the system of international governance’ built after World War Two? Western powers are discovering that in Africa, as in Afghanistan, there are limits to their ability to impose or even reform state systems. It may be that the way to help these societies sort out their conflicts is to let them do it on their own.