Mali Coup Offers Lessons in Democracy Building—but Junta Must Go

Mali coup leaders meet with ECOWAS officials

Mali coup leaders (left) meet with ECOWAS officials. (Photo: VOA)

In defiance of a Sept. 15 deadline to step aside for a civilian transitional government set by the West Africa regional body, ECOWAS, Mali’s coup leaders have proposed a plan that would keep the military in charge. A convenient provision of the plan is that leaders of the Aug. 18 coup would be granted judicial immunity. In effect, the mid-level officers who committed treason by deposing a democratically-elected government have appointed themselves as the guardians of a return to democracy. Building on that irony, these same individuals want to use the law to absolve themselves of their lawless actions.

Clearly, ECOWAS, the African Union, and the larger democracy-supporting international community should reject this latest gambit on the part of the junta to claim power.

There is a broader lesson to take from the Mali debacle, however. Frustrated by corruption and the government’s inability to defeat jihadist insurgencies in the country’s northern and central regions, many Malians initially came out on the streets to support the coup. Shortly thereafter, acting as though this were a normal way to change a government, some political parties, unions  and business groups sought out the junta to rule on issues of national concern. Such appeals are misplaced and reflect a shallow understanding of how change occurs in a democratic system.

Many of those who have expressed support for the military coup probably are not aware that Mali’s previous experience with military government from 1968–1991 went very badly. Economic growth was largely stagnant, corruption widespread, protests squashed, and opposition leaders tortured. When Mali moved to a multiparty system in 1992, it was one of the poorest countries in the world—largely because of the misgovernance of its military regime.

Since then, Mali has realized annual per capita growth of 4.5 percent and per capita incomes have tripled to roughly $1,000. Mali is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but it has made progress. So, Malians who pin their hopes on the military to solve the country’s poverty, corruption, or security challenges are likely to be sorely disappointed.

If there is to be a positive take-away from the coup, and if a serial pattern of coups is to be avoided, then Malians must recognize that the only way they will see genuine reform is if citizens stay engaged in demanding change—through legal means. This is a fundamental lesson of how change occurs in a democracy.

Toward that end, those in the military who seized power should not be rewarded. None of the coup leaders should gain a position of influence in the transitional government. Instead, they should face justice. Incentivizing coup leaders for their extra-constitutional actions only invites future coups (in Mali and elsewhere in Africa). Neither should the military have any role in the transitional government.

Corruption in the government of ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is a commonly heard rationalization for the coup. Malians should be pressing for the establishment of an experts-led, independent investigation into systematic government corruption. Given the alleged endemic nature of corruption in Mali, some form of hybrid Malian-international court along the lines of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala may be needed. Regardless of the course ultimately taken, the point should be to demonstrate how corruption, which exists at some level in every government, can be addressed transparently in a democratic system.

These institutional reforms are the hard work of democracy building. They may seem less decisive or exhilarating than a coup. However, this is how sustainable progress is achieved. This is why African countries with more robust institutional checks and balances—such as in Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa—have seen sustained economic growth, development and stability. This is not to say that these countries don’t have their own challenges. But they have developed ways of dealing with their problems within constitutional means.

Fear and frustration with the eight-year jihadist insurgency is another commonly heard justification for the coup. Addressing this security threat will require institutional reform. Mali underwent an extensive security sector reform initiative following its 2012 coup. Lessons of why this initiative was so ineffective—in terms of both depoliticizing Mali’s military and improving their capability—should be a starting point.

Another immediate priority should be an independent audit to assess recurring allegations that funding and equipment intended for Mali’s armed forces are being diverted. Malian security forces need better counterinsurgency training and a force structure that supports more mobility and communications to keep pressure on the constantly shifting militant Islamist groups. Malian security forces also need better human rights training and effective accountability mechanisms so that they do not alienate the very communities they are trying to assist.

Again, process matters. The key lesson here is that institutional change can and must be addressed through legal processes. Experience shows that this often requires sustained pressure from citizens groups. Rather than supporting the junta, Malians seeking lasting political change should transform their frustrations into an ongoing reform movement. Change does not happen in one fell swoop; it requires sustained engagement. The question is, can Malians who want reform stay organized to sustain the changes that are needed?

Frustrated Malians must take hold of the steering wheel and embrace democracy to achieve the change they are seeking. Democracies do not guarantee honest leaders, competent government, or the correct policy — but the ability to change and self-correct is one of democracy’s greatest virtues. This requires citizen engagement. It’s built into the system through elections, a free press, freedom of expression, protections of civil society, the right to protest, and the ability for people to organize and advocate on their own behalf. This is the work Malians now need to do.

This article first appeared in The Hill.