It is bad enough to read that the military has launched a coup in Mali and ousted the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré. Even those of us who believe that Francis Fukuyama made a sound and defensible point about the "end of history" know that there will continue to be setbacks for a long time in much of the developing world. Just because there is now no credible social, economic, or political argument in defense of tyranny does not mean that there won’t still be attempts to make that argument by self-serving or even well-meaning putchists.
But it is most disheartening to learn how and why the coup came about just weeks before a scheduled election that was to peacefully replace Touré, only the second democratically elected president of a democratic Mali. Worse still to learn of the reaction to this coup by Malians who should know better.
Mali was somewhat of a success story in the African Sahel region. Only five years ago it hosted the Community of Democracies gathering attended by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. As we planned for this event (I was then the deputy assistant administrator for democracy and government programs at USAID), there was considerable internal discussion of how well things might go and what the optics would be like for the world’s democracy promoters (states as well as NGOs) to gather in Bamako for this important meeting. All were aware that there was of course still much poverty and lack of development in Mali along with unresolved tribal and sectional strife. But the elected government of Touré had been for several years working with the IMF and World Bank and other international donors to cut spending and regulation and improve governance. So it was deemed worthwhile to hold the meeting there. It was a success and the Malian government was a gracious host.
Fast forward to today, a few days after an ill-planned coup by what appear to be incompetent military leaders who have already broken their promises to begin restoring democratic order. Sanctions have been imposed and there are reports that the rebels in the north have taken advantage of the chaos and are furthering their rebellion and implementing sharia law, while as many as 200,000 people are fleeing.
So, democracy has been violently interrupted and al Qaeda, which has designs on Mali as it does in the rest of the Sahel, now has a widening gap in which to insert themselves and to work their wicked will.
But all these problems are compounded by the reaction of the Malians themselves. The coup has been welcomed by various civic groups, peasant leaders as well as other important sectors. Their interest in maintaining democratic processes is as weak, apparently, as the Touré government. The reason is because they have not seen sufficient improvements to their livelihood and an end to the northern rebellion. They have also grown fed-up with the way in which foreign interests have been able to, in their view, exploit the country and its land resources. Their motto is "peace first, elections later."
This is the enduring problem we see in several areas of the developing and democratizing world: Democracy and markets cannot make enough headway before the people become disillusioned to the point of being willing to welcome a coup if it will achieve the objectives they seek. There seems to be no permanent turning away from democracy and polls continue to show that people support democracy and want it for their country. We see this in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But some people in some states and regions are not willing to endure the progress that democracy can make only slowly. And there is a severe shortage of indigenous far-sighted leaders who should be encouraging the public to work tirelessly and patiently for democratic success instead of taking advantage of public disillusionment and rancor to promote themselves.
This is not a flaw in democracy, representative institutions, or law-based governance. The question is not whether freedom and liberty under law is the solution to lack of development and disorder. They are the only elements that can bring sustained order and progress.
The question is how long will it take and will the public endure the wait? That question is answered only by cultural factors, but Western and international forces can help with wise policy and firm commitments to the democratic path. Now is the time for the West and the U.N. and related organizations to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with African organizations and the leaders of other African countries who are condemning the coup, imposing sanctions, and insisting on a return to normal democratic order. It is also time to support, encourage, and even warn Mali’s civil society leaders that they should not make a deal with the devil, as it were, by welcoming violations of democratic order in hopes that good can come of it. Good is very likely not to come of it, especially with a deepening and widening rebellion in the north that the incompetent military cannot control and that is being used to its advantage by terrorist groups like al Qaeda.