A guest post by Jonathan van Eerd, a PhD candidate at the University of Zurich. He recently completed field work in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, and is currently a visiting scholar at Cornell University.
Mali was considered to be one of the few functioning democracies in West Africa. It never experienced a military coup since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1992. Considering that, last Wednesday’s coup comes as a surprise.
The group under the lead of so far unknown Capt. Amadou Sonago claims that they have overthrown the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré (short: ATT) because of its “incompetence” in handling the Tuareg Rebellion in Mali’s North.
The Malian army was indeed poorly prepared for its newest task of defending the nation’s unity. The soldiers are badly trained, have outdated weaponry and not enough supply. There were failures in informing soldier’s families about fatalities in combat.
Mali is one of West Africa’s few fairly working democracies. Why was there no national or international political force that pleaded for the strengthening of the Malian forces in the combat against the rebellion?
Being one of the least developed countries in the world, the internationally supported downfall of the Gaddafi’s regime in Libya caught Mali on the wrong foot. Many of Gaddafi’s former Tuareg-soldiers became jobless and went back to the Sahel region, of which Mali’s North is a part. They have not been disarmed by anyone. And in January of this year they started a new Tuareg-rebellion in Mali’s North. Its goal is the independence of Mali’s northern regions.
Mali has experienced recurring Tuareg-rebellions since the sixties. However, the intensity of this new rebellion was unprecedented. Along with that appeared a new generation of well-armed Tuareg-fighters, which came back from Libya. Together with some factions of older Tuareg-rebellions, they formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The Malian government and its army were taken by surprise. They were ill-prepared because the peace treaty they have signed after the last Tuareg-rebellion in 2008 with the old generation of Tuareg-rebells and the generous “development aid” of the Malian government for the Tuareg to keep them at ease gave the government a misleading feeling of security. Additionally, the foreign, most notably French, diplomatic and military aid for Mali was rather weak or even counterproductive: The French engaged in direct talks with the MNLA, because they hoped to gain their help in France’s battle against the terror-organization Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQMI), which kidnapped and murdered French and other Western tourists and expats in the region. This boosted the MNLA’s self-confidence and led to diplomatic tension between France and its former colony.
But these are not the only causes of the coup. One important cause lies in the nature of ATT’s governing style and Mali’s political culture itself. ATT, who was without any partisan affiliation, preferred to govern with a consensual-styled all-party cabinet. Since his re-election in 2007 he included every important party – with one exception – in one way or another in his government: Out of 160 parliamentarians, only 4 of a small socialist party were in the opposition before the coup.
In such an ethnically heterogeneous country like Mali the inclusion of every important power-base has many advantages. The fact that Mali experienced relative stability or no ethnic conflicts in contrast to its neighbors Ivory Coast, Niger or other West African countries in the last 20 years proves this point.
However, Mali’s financially and organizationally weak political parties are not only in ATT’s all-party government due to political sanity, but also for their very political survival: In most African democracies and semi-democracies, access to state resources is crucial to win important client’s favor with gifts and other privileges, in order to make sure that they give support in elections. Consequently, no Malian political party was willing to occasionally play the indispensable part of the opposition, meaning that no important party pointed out to the deficiencies and failures of the ATT government in its handling of the newest Tuareg-rebellion. The parties did not want to risk their participation in the government and the consequential loss of access to state resources.
Switzerland is the world’s most famous example of a functioning consensus democracy. However, in contrast to Mali and most other democracies in the world, Switzerland’s democracy features extensive direct-democratic rights for Swiss citizens. This ensures that the citizens itself occasionally play the missing part of the opposition to a consensus government.
As no party wanted to harm its share in the Malian government, they criticized ATT only off the record for his lack of foresight on the fallout of the conflict in Libya, his hesitant diplomatic and military reaction, as well as his almost non-existent information policy regarding the rebellion in the North.
On the contrary, all political parties awaited ATT’s orderly replacement in April’s presidential elections. The unexpressed consensus was to first await the new president and only after that to strive for a solution of the conflict in the North. Until then, the parties concentrated on their preparations for the elections. Yet even while doing that, they did not consider to raise the issue of the Tuareg-rebellion as a topic for their individual election campaigns; again for the sake of the all-party consensus.
As a result, one part of the Malian army decided to take matters, or respectively, the part of the opposition in their own hands. In a drastic and non-democratic manner they pointed out the deficiencies and grievances of their army.