Thousands of cheering Malians came out onto the streets to show their support for the August 18 military coup against democratically-elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Reports of the event point to this support as popular validation of the coup and the need for regional mediators to find common ground with the coup leaders in ongoing negotiations. This reasoning is problematic for many reasons.
First, a coup is a coup. It boils down to individual members of the military deciding that they have the authority to replace a democratically-elected leader. Using this rationale, what is to stop others in the military from claiming the right to replace the current junta? And so on.
How about the millions of Malians who have stayed home? Where is their voice and representation in this extra-constitutional action? That is what elections are supposed to determine.
While much is being made of the thousands of Malians who came into the streets to support the coup, how about the millions of Malians who have stayed home? Where is their voice and representation in this extra-constitutional action? That is what elections are supposed to determine. And despite protests and vociferous opposition during the 2018 presidential elections, Keita won a second term—with 67 percent of the vote—in an election EU and other observers deemed free of fraud.
Rationalizing a coup because people are in the streets also overlooks the reality that nearly every coup is greeted enthusiastically by some. Citizens (mostly young men) frustrated by a lack of jobs, perceived incompetence, corruption, or a host of other grievances may reflexively welcome a change of political leadership.
What these crowds presumably do not realize is that they are also cheering the loss of their democratic rights. Once coup leaders have taken control, constitutional protections go out the window. Without any constitutional rules, what is legal or enforced is now up to those who seized power. This includes if, when, and how citizens may eventually get to vote again for their leaders. This is a reality that Egyptians and Zimbabweans, who came onto the streets to support military takeovers in those countries, now regrettably realize all too well.
Pointing to people on the streets as legitimation for seizing power, furthermore, ignores the fact that recent years have seen a surge in African protests. Across the continent, 32 countries have experienced sustained protests in the past year demanding improved governance, transparency, and service delivery. With Africa’s rapid urbanization, such large gatherings will be easier to organize. Protest is a well-established, and democratic, means of popular expression and vehicle for reform. It is never a legitimate cause for a military to remove a democratically-elected leader, however.
Although protests preceding the coup in Mali raised valid grievances, it is important to recognize that these protests were organized by a coalition of self-interested opposition parties alongside the populist Islamist imam, Mahmoud Dicko. Both now stand to gain influence, if not power, as a result of the coup. By bringing people into the streets, these political opportunists, who could not win a fair election on their own, may be vying to use civil unrest as a Trojan horse for their political interests.
Protest is a well-established, and democratic, means of popular expression and vehicle for reform. It is never a legitimate cause for a military to remove a democratically-elected leader.
Characterizations of popular support for the coup have also been mixed with seemingly incongruent images of Malians waving Russian flags and pro-Russian messages. In an unlikely coincidence, these pro-Russian sentiments gained prominence after a murky memorandum of understanding on security cooperation was signed between Russia and Mali in June 2019.
It was around this time that the infamous Russian mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, reportedly arrived in Mali. Russia and Wagner have been increasingly active in Africa, most notably in the Central African Republic and Libya, where they hope to build on the Syrian model of swooping into a fragile state facing a security threat and, in the process, maximize Russia’s geo-political leverage—and often access to natural resources.
These Russian engagements are invariably linked with disinformation campaigns aimed at delegitimizing democratic governance and the West. Precisely this messaging became increasingly prevalent in Mali during the past year. It should come as no surprise, then, that other protesters have been critical of the former colonial power, France, or have denounced the international security coalition that has been working with the Malian government to defeat militant Islamist groups in the region.
In other words, there is likely much more going on than jubilant Malians in the streets cheering the removal of a democratically-elected leader.
Following an extraordinary ECOWAS Summit, the West African regional body issued a nine-point set of guidelines on August 28 to establish a political transition in Mali. The guidelines call for the creation of an interim government led by a civilian president and prime minister who will be responsible for organizing new elections within 12 months. The selection of the leaders of the interim government is to be made through consultations with the Constitutional Court, political parties, and civil society organizations. The military is explicitly directed to play a subordinate role to the civilian leadership.
Under the circumstances, where Keita has told ECOWAS he does not wish to resume the presidency, the ECOWAS plan is a means for returning Mali to constitutional rule. To be effective, this plan will require ECOWAS to continue denying the coup leaders any legitimacy as sovereign authorities. Such recognition would empower the junta with undue influence over the transition. Sanctions and international condemnation should remain in place. This includes from France, which may be eager to resume security cooperation in order to maintain pressure in the fight against the jihadists.
If coup leaders are allowed to continue playing a political role … it will invite further attempts to unseat legitimate governments.
Regional negotiators must also recognize the tenuous leverage the junta has. Without international political and financial support, the junta cannot stand. The risk of economic crisis and the sudden loss of whatever popular support they hold leaves the junta with very few options.
In short, ECOWAS and the international community must remain steadfast in insisting on a constitutionally-based path forward. Diplomacy and creativity will be required. ECOWAS has demonstrated both on other occasions when facing unconstitutional changes of government in West Africa. This includes navigating the return of civilian rule following Mali’s 2012 coup. Mali needs more than a replay of 2012, though. Instead, lessons from 2012 should guide ECOWAS to set Mali on a path of renewal, not just a return to business as usual.
‘Popular support’ for the coup in Mali has masked a politicized military, opportunistic opposition figures, and possibly Russian meddling. If the coup leaders are allowed to continue playing a political role or opposition actors are able to leverage themselves into a position of power, it will invite further attempts to unseat legitimate governments. The lesson for any aspiring coup leader or usurper of power would be, quite simply, to bring people into the streets.
This article first appeared on AllAfrica.com.