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Restoring Democracy and Peace in Mali

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Malians gather in front of the headquarters of the main trade union building as political and civil society leaders call for the army to hand power back to civilians after a coup d'etat, in the capital Bamako, March 26, 2012. The sign reads: "Military to the front - power to the people." REUTERS/David Lewis
Photo credit: 
Reuters Staff

On March 22, a military coup abruptly ended two decades of uninterrupted democracy in Mali, the well-reputed West African country and key counter-terrorism partner of the United States. The coup leader Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and his mutinous troops suspended the 1992 democratic constitution, took over the presidential palace, the state television and several institutions, arrested members of the government, and promised a more efficient fight against Tuareg rebels. Interruption of the Malian democracy by a belligerent military faction is a serious threat to stability, peace, and human rights given the domestic context.

Since the coup, the conflict with the Tuareg rebels has continued to worsen. The two main Tuareg groups — the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamist Ansar Dine — have gained ground and seized new territories in the north of the country, pushing for sharia law. If a domestic solution is not found quickly, African regional organizations and the international community should act in concert with Malian democratic defenders - either diplomatically or coercively  - to restore democracy and peace, and stop rebel progression before it is too lateAfrican regional organizations and the international community should act in concert with Malian democratic defenders — either diplomatically or coercively — to restore democracy and peace, and stop rebel progression before it is too late.

The Coup in Mali: Who is Behind it and Why?

Plotters deposed the widely respected and democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré, a little over a month before the scheduled presidential election on April 29. Coup leader Captain Sanogo justified the unconstitutional seizure of power under the guise of national security, accusing President Touré of inefficiently fighting the decades-old Tuareg rebellion, and not providing enough resources to the army.

However, given the electoral timing, reasons advanced by Captain Sanogo to justify the coup are illogical. President Touré was not a candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and had just over a month left in his second and last term in office. As a visionary leader, he respected the unique Malian societal and political culture, improved governance, and put the country on a path to sustainable economic growth. Therefore, it is not surprising that Freedom House has continued over the past two decades to classify Mali as a democratic regime — whether electoral or liberal — despite several challenges such as; weak public institutions and central government, poverty, aid dependency, the Tuareg separatist rebellion, and labor or social unrests. The coup leader’s argument is further weakened because the democratic Malian government was offering public space to potentially unsatisfied military personnel to negotiate within the constitutional framework, along with the option to openly discuss issues of concern with presidential candidates.

The Coup is Reinvigorating Fear of a Repressive Military Regime 

The coup is reinvigorating fear of the resurgence of repressive rule that reigned for decades after successive military coups. Such repressive rule must be prevented. In 1968, Lieutenant Moussa Traoré ousted the civilian government, eight years after Mali gained its independence from France. Because he was resistant to democratic changes, Traoré was ousted in 1991 by Amadou Toumani Touré in the face of widespread civil unrest and demands for greater political rights and democratic reforms.

In 1991, the Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People (CTSP) was formed by various groups representing civil society and under the supervision of Amadou Toumani Touré. The Committee organized successful political liberalization, which included; a national conference, a constitutional referendum, a founding election won by President Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992-2002), and consequently a democratic transition in 1992. Many hope that twenty years of democratic developments are not eradicated by this coup. Captain Sanogo still has the window of opportunity to respect the Malian values and people, and end his rule, as requested by the people.

The Devastating Consequences of the Coup in Mali and Africa

The coup has significant implications on the political developments in Mali, West Africa and the African continent. It weakens the already fragile democratic institutions, and calls into question the solidity of the unique political culture, visionary leadership, and the subordination of the military to the executive that were considered by many as the foundation of Malian democracy.The coup weakens the already fragile democratic institutions, and calls into question the solidity of the unique political culture, visionary leadership, and the subordination of the military to the executive that were considered by many as the foundation of Malian democracy. In addition, it worsened the situation in the north of the country, with rebel militias controlling more towns than before the coup. The coup has consequently increased the risk of disproportionate use of force, potentially leading to more violent and deadly conflicts threatening minority groups in Mali, with negative consequences for the entire West African region.

 The coup also gives reasons — not necessarily valid — to citizens and pessimistic observers to despair about the prospect of democracy in West Africa. The spirit of democracy has recently been challenged in countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. If most plotters manage to stay in power, Africa may face a resurgence of military coup plots, reviving the violent nightmare of the two last decades of the twentieth century.

 Malian and International Reactions to the Coup

Malian domestic leadership and the international community have all taken serious steps towards returning the country to civilian rule and restoring the democratic system. Malian political and civil society leaders have clearly shown deep opposition to the rupture of the constitutional order, and they have requested return to the rule of law. They are peacefully demonstrating to avoid violence and to preserve national unity. On March 28, the ousted President Touré called for a consensual solution and told French Radio station RFI "what is important is democracy, institutions, and Mali." In the same vein, the international community has strongly condemned the coup, applied some diplomatic sanctions, and requested a return to an elected civilian government.

The U.N. Secretary General has called for immediate restoration of constitutional rule, and the U.N. Security Council echoed a similar sentiment by calling for "the restoration of constitutional order and the holding of elections as previously scheduled." The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reiterated its policy of “zero tolerance” for unconstitutional seizures of power, organized high-level meetings with heads of state to persuade the junta to step-down, readied its stand-by forces, and placed an economic embargo on Mali.

The African Union immediately suspended the membership of Mali until constitutional rule is restored, and the U.S. paused military aid to Mali and urged rebels to end fighting. France has suspended its official cooperation with Mali, but maintained humanitarian aid and is pushing the U.N. Security Council to explore avenues to support ECOWAS in their efforts to restore order. Canada, the African Development Bank, the European Union, and the World Bank have all suspended their aid. These diplomatic actions, especially from ECOWAS, have pressured the junta to announce (formally but not yet effectively) the restoration of the 1992 constitution on April 1, a few days after unconstitutionally promulgating a new one. Further actions should be made in a timely manner to pressure the junta to step-down, to ensure that power is transferred back to civilian rule and constitutional order restored.

Restoring democracy and peace in Mali — diplomatically or coercively — is imperative. It will send a strong warning to those who try to undermine democratic efforts that unconstitutional appropriation of power and threats to peace and security will not be tolerated. Citizens will also be shown that they are supported in their battle for democracy and peace.