Massive corruption does not justify Malian coup

Excuses for the coup do not warrant the overthrow of a democratically elected government and set a dangerous precedent.

Coup in Mali
Attempts by West African leaders to visit Mali were rebuffed by coup-sympathetic crowds at the airport [EPA]

Gaborone, Botswana Explanations differ for the coup d’etat that took place in the West African nation of Mali on Thursday, March 22. The conventional wisdom in international circles is that it was a series of defeats by a poorly provisioned army fighting a heavily armed Tuareg insurgency in the country’s north that led the military to stage a coup or mutiny. Commentators closer to the grassroots suggest that these defeats were merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – and that the military had the support of many Malians because they were fed up with an administration that was riddled from top to bottom by corruption. Wherever the truth may lie, those concerned for the long term wellbeing of this West African country must realise that they are playing with fire if they attempt to justify the forceful overthrow of a democratically elected government.

Mali’s recently deposed president, Amadou Toumani Toure (also known as ATT), had an auspicious beginning in politics, followed by a long, slow decline in popularity. He first entered the public arena in 1991 when, as a military officer, he helped topple then-President Moussa Traoré. Traoré was a despot who ruled undemocratically between 1968 and 1991, squandered his country’s resources, and ordered the military to fire on its own people. Following the imprisonment of Traoré, ATT led a one year transition government and then stepped aside to allow for the democratic election of Alpha Konaré (who served two elected five-year terms between 1992 and 2002). ATT did successfully run for president in 2002 and was re-elected again in 2007. He was at the tail end of his second term when the March 22 coup d’etat occurred.

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Whether knowingly or unknowingly, ATT had allowed his administration to become phenomenally corrupt over time. While Malian democracy was much applauded by Western donors, the average Malian only saw more and more corruption and the rich getting richer. The average Malian saw little if any improvement in his or her life. Recent defeats of the Malian military to heavily armed Tuareg militants in the north (rejuvenated by arms and fighters from Libya) only turned public opinion further against the ATT government.

Dangerous precedent

Little is known about Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the March 22 coup. If we are charitable and assume the best, then Captain Amadou Sanogo may be a well-intentioned subaltern who unwillingly led a coup because he was fed up with rampant corruption, improper support of the military, and the declining welfare of the Malian people.

Sadly, however, the ends do not justify the means. Coups are steely sharp, double edged swords, as one violent transition of power opens the door a little wider for yet another violent transition of power. And this is the problem, because the next coup plotter may not be such a nice fellow. Rather, it may be a person of real ill intent that has simply amassed enough guns to assert his will on the country. It is this future, this vicious cycle, of which the Malian people must be especially wary. While democracy is messy and imperfect, it at least guarantees a platform for ideas to be heard and debated, and the hope that the most meritorious candidate (not the one with the most guns) will triumph, from time to time.

A solution to the Malian crisis must be found quickly if some semblance of the country’s 20-year democratic legacy is to be maintained. While it is not easy to “undo” a coup, such an event could be discursively recast as a mutiny that was peacefully resolved through negotiation. If there is any hope of this happening, the situation must be addressed in the coming week, if not days. Unfortunately, the most recent attempt by neighbouring West African leaders to visit the country was aborted due to hostile crowds gathering at the airport. 

But the international community must not give up. Furthermore, the Malian public must realise that it is in their best interests to let neutral international negotiators broker an agreement which allows both the ATT administration and the mutineers, led by Captain Sanogo, to save face. If these two men and their supporters really care about the future of their country, then they will do whatever it takes to recast the recent coup as a minor blip in an otherwise democratic transition of power.

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The future

ATT, having recently spoken on French television, has indicated his willingness to step aside if it will allow the country to come together again. As such, he should be allowed to return to power for a few days and then resign to make way for a transitional governing committee. He should further agree to not press charges against Captain Sanogo or his associates.

It is absolutely imperative that the transitional governing committee include no members of the Malian military. Such a committee, whose sole purpose would be to keep basic government services functioning and prepare the country for elections in a few months, would ideally be led by a well respected elder statesman, such as the former, democratically elected, President Alpha Konaré. Captain Sanogo, for his part, must publically declare that he and his committee, known as the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), no longer wish to be involved in politics and fully support ATT’s brief resumption of power and decision to hand over power to a neutral, civilian led transition committee. 

Democracy is certainly no panacea for a poor country struggling to improve its standard of living. But if the Malian people are truly outraged by poor governance and rampant corruption, then let them champion and elect a reformer who pledges to clean up government. This is far better than the dangerous precedent of ephemeral reform by military coup. 

William G. Moseley is a human-environment and development geographer. He is a professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN USA and, currently, visiting scholar in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Botswana, Gaborone. Moseley has worked on and off in Mali since 1987.