Mali: Beacon of Democracy Gone Dark

by Kamissa Camara on August 2, 2012

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Ironically, the Republic of Mali made its democratic debut through a coup d’état. Since then, the country has been seen as one of the most advanced democracies in francophone West Africa. Yet the recent political upheaval in Mali quickly proved that its democracy was no more than an illusion.

In a 1992 coup d’état, General Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) overthrew the longtime dictator Moussa Traoré. ATT led a twelve-month successful transitional government and smoothly handed power over to democratically elected president Alpha Oumar Konaré. No one imagined that almost 20 years later, ATT, who in 2002 was welcomed as the second democratically elected President of Mali, would himself be overthrown by a poorly armed military on the sunny afternoon of March 22, 2012.

“Coup d’état,” the commonly used French expression that translates to “a hit to the state,” is accurate when dealing with an actual state with functional institutions and systemized checks and balances. However, in the case of Mali, the coup laid bare deep inefficiencies and inadequacies of the state apparatus. Since the beginning of ATT’s tenure in 2002, Mali’s so-called democratic gains have disappeared so quickly that to remain in the international community’s democratic hall of fame, the Malian government had to resort to clever maquillage of its governing mechanisms.

Interestingly, ATT came to power as an apolitical, independent candidate, ruling on what the political press called “le consensus d’ATT.” What this “consensus” actually meant, however, was that political parties, particularly the opposition, were pushed into positions where they were unable to contest the president’s rule. During the 2007 presidential elections, opposition parties decided that not one of their potential candidates would stand a chance against ATT, thus letting him win in the first round of what electoral observers called “a generally free and fair election.” The truth is, democracy under ATT was a democracy without opposition, without political dynamism, and regulated by weak republican institutions.

During his ten years in power, ATT maintained a solid macroeconomic balance, multiplied the construction of roads and monuments, and succeeded in maintaining solid and stable economic growth. However, the fact that poverty did not decline shows the persistence of Mali’s deeper issues. Tellingly, the already wide poverty gap between urban and rural areas grew wider as poverty declined in urban areas but remained virtually unchanged in rural areas. Furthermore, as the country has the world’s third-highest population growth rate, macroeconomic growth has left out most of the rapidly increasing population. Private initiatives substantially increased, but the country continued to suffer from dependence on the weather for its agriculture and international assistance for its national budget and investments. Finally, despite the appointment of Mariama Sidibé Kaidara as the first female prime minister in the history of Mali, gender inequalities remained significant, especially outside Bamako where the government’s development efforts were almost nonexistent.

It is important to note that on the security front the turmoil in Mali’s northern region did not start under ATT’s rule. Over the past fifty years, the Malian central government and the Touaregs signed several accords, demonstrating the willingness of Malian authorities to ease frictions and prevent conflict. Likewise, the Malian government was receptive to a series of efforts put forward by neighboring countries—Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso—to provide Mali’s northern region with more autonomy. Nonetheless, the ATT government failed to proactively monitor the impact and implications of Gaddafi’s fall in Libya. At the beginning of December 2011, ATT welcomed back the heavily armed Malian Touaregs who had fought for Gaddafi with a hefty stipend without disarming them. The January 17 rebellion and the ensuing coup d’état were direct consequences of this mistake.

With a former defense minister now in the position of interim president, what should we expect? It is now clear that Mali will not be able to hold elections until an agreement is reached on the fate of the so-called “Azawad” region in the north. However, with the recent aggression of the interim president and a quiet prime minister, coupled with a passive action plan from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali’s artificially created identity crisis will only worsen over the coming months. It is now hard not to foresee the secession of northern Mali from the rest of the country, which would surely have spillover effects for Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Chad, and potentially result in similar outcomes in the near future. With the precedence set by the independence of South Sudan, the African map might just be on its way to a complete makeover.

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