"A Festival of Brigands": In Search of Democracy and Political Legitimacy in Mali

By Whitehouse, Bruce | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, November 2013 | Go to article overview

"A Festival of Brigands": In Search of Democracy and Political Legitimacy in Mali


Whitehouse, Bruce, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


1. Introduction: A surprise collapse

Mali is a nation with a proud history, of legendary empires and kings dating back over centuries, of vast quantities of gold and of fabled conquests. Since its independence from France in 1960, however, Mali has been a beggar on the world stage, among the poorest of the world's modern nation-states. In terms of climate and geography, its people face daunting handicaps: malaria is endemic, regular droughts threaten agricultural production in southern Mali, while in its arid northern regions farming is only possible in a few irrigated zones along the Niger River. The country has always been highly dependent on foreign aid, annual disbursements of which ranged between US$500 and $1 000 million in constant dollar values, amounting to 12 per cent of gross national income in 2009 (Van de Walle 2012: 3-4).

Nonetheless, for most of the last two decades Mali was widely hailed as a good example in an otherwise troubled region. In 1991 a popular uprising culminating in a coup mounted by an army colonel named Amadou Toure (usually known in Mali as 'ATT') ended the 23-year reign of General Moussa Traore, the country's autocratic president. An era of multiparty politics and liberalisation followed the adoption of a new constitution in 1992. Alpha Konare, who won free presidential elections that year, reformed state institutions and negotiated an end to a long-simmering rebellion by nomadic Tuareg in the north, where no central government had ever had much control. Konare stepped down in 2002, respecting a constitutional two-term limit. The election to succeed him was won by ATT, whom many Malians fondly remembered for driving out dictatorship 11 years earlier. He belonged to no political party, and characterised his governing style as consensus-based rather than partisan. He was elected to a second five-year term in 2007.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where heads of state routinely change their constitutions to acquire more power or remain in office indefinitely, Mali stood out. Most observers believed the country had successfully negotiated the transition to democracy. Malians were still poor under Konare and ATT, but were believed to be subject to the rule of law rather than the whims of Big Men. Mali was stable and, most foreign observers (including me) believed, heading in the right direction--toward a more responsive government, greater freedom, and better lives for its citizens. Mali was a donor favorite and an international tourist destination, the venue of trendy cultural and music festivals.

Then, on 21 March 2012, Malian troops at the barracks in Kati, just outside the capital city Bamako, launched a mutiny after a visit by their defence minister. The issue appeared to be the government's two-month old campaign against a resurgent Tuareg rebellion in the north: rank-and-file soldiers distrusted their commanders and accused officials in Bamako of withholding equipment and support. After one contingent of mutineers took over the state broadcasting facility in the afternoon, another stormed the presidential palace. President Toure went into hiding, just weeks before scheduled elections to choose his successor (Jeune Afrique 2012b).

Malians who tuned in to state television the next morning saw what looked like a throwback to an Africa of decades past, as a lieutenant in camouflage fatigues announced the suspension of the constitution and the creation of a ruling military authority, "putting an end to the incompetent and disavowed regime of Mr. Amadou Toumani Toure" (ORTM 2012). An army captain, his camouflage cap pulled low over his eyes, then read a brief appeal for calm; a caption identified him as Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of Mali's new ruling junta.

Governments throughout Africa, Europe and North America, along with international organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), quickly condemned the Bamako coup. …

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