Comparative Politics

Why Mali is making headlines (and why we should care)

Jun 6 '12

The following is a guest post from Jessica Gottlieb, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University:

Mali is a country that rarely makes headlines.  A stable democracy since 1992, there has been no election violence to report, and a history of tolerance between diverse groups has meant little ethnic conflict either.  However, Mali has recently popped up in Western newspapers for two related reasons: a short-lived military coup, and the loss of the northern half of its territory to Touareg rebel groups.  The latter of the two is a far more pressing and dangerous issue.  However, for students of democracy, the political crisis in the capital provides some interesting lessons.

The political crisis

Mali’s March 22 military coup was first thought to be a mutiny by disgruntled soldiers who had failed to get the support they needed to combat the growing Touareg rebel threat in the north.   (There are rumors that the former government’s laxity was due to its complicity in illicit trade in the north).  It is still unclear whether the junta leader, Amadou Sanogo, had been plotting the take-over or whether it was simply an opportunistic move at a moment when the president’s public approval ratings were at an all-time low.  Sanogo has since ceded power to a transitional civilian government and Bamako has remained relatively calm in recent weeks.

The international community was quick to oppose the coup, with donors withdrawing all but humanitarian support.  International media was also quick to praise the fallen elected leader, Amadou Toumani Touré, and the shining beacon of an African democracy he helped to create.  If Mali were such a healthy democracy, then how can we explain the fact that a small group of young officers so easily toppled it?  And why did Malians not rise up in droves against the junta?  A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime.  Contrary to Western accounts, a Malian writer said the coup was foreseeable.  In his words (I’m translating), “The elections were no more than parodies where those who were supposed to compete for votes secretly agreed to bring to power those who were best able to defend elite interests…the comedy was so well played that the world applauded the Malian democracy.”

Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.  Praising democratic leaders who engage in questionable practices at home only adds to their legitimacy and access to resources to further consolidate power.  In the aftermath of the coup, more information has surfaced of the extreme levels of corruption and nepotism pervasive in the former government.  This should give pause to donors who have long celebrated, and rewarded, Mali’s exemplary democracy, and to analysts trying to measure democratic consolidation.

The Northern problem

While the capital was dealing with coups and counter-coups and negotiations with ECOWAS (West Africa’s regional power), two disparate rebel groups were busy taking over Mali’s northern region.  All three regional capitals in the North are currently controlled by rebels, some of whom are allied with al Qaeda’s Sahelian arm AQIM.  Rebels in the north are not new.  The lighter-skinned, nomadic Touaregs who populate the deserts that comprise two-thirds of Mali’s territory led secessionist rebellions in 1990 that reignited in 2006.  The difference this time is the goal of one rebel group, Ansar Dine, is to impose sharia law, compared to the more traditional goal of secession still held by the MNLA.  These groups have not yet managed to unite, though it looked close in recent weeks.

Fearing violence and harsh sharia retribution (e.g. cutting hands off thieves), an estimated 320,000 locals have fled to neighboring countries or elsewhere in Mali according to the UN.  The threat of kidnapping of Western journalists makes reliable reporting scarce.  However, a Reuters reporter worries Northern Mali is the next jihadi launchpad with an influx of foreign fighters and income from narco- and human-trafficking.  He outlines current options on the table for the international community: sending in an ECOWAS military force, stepping up the role of the UN, or a purely Western military intervention with France and the US at the helm.  With a growing refugee crisis, flagrant human rights abuses and a looming famine, something should be done…and soon.