Terms of Engagement

Two Cheers for Malian Democracy

The West African country has a lot going for it, but sadly that's not enough.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

It has been extremely gratifying to watch the swift reaction to the coup perpetrated last month against President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, a democratically elected figure who had planned to step down after an upcoming election. After barely more than a week, Ecowas, the West African regional organization, closed all borders with Mali, froze the flow of currency, and imposed travel bans on the junior officers who had led the coup. The United States, France, and other Western nations issued sanctions of their own. Angry crowds protested the coup in the streets of Bamako, Mali’s capital. And after less than three weeks in power, the junta agreed to disband in favor of an interim civilian government. Hooray for democracy!

I have a soft spot for Mali. When I spent time there in 2007, I was struck by the peaceable atmosphere of Bamako, at least compared to other African capitals I knew. People spoke of cousinage, a sense of consanguinity which promoted an easy familiarity across ethnic lines. Malians seemed disinclined to fight one another; the traffic circles featured statues of animals rather than soldiers. And, for what it’s worth, Mali makes beautiful music and lovely textiles. At the time, the country was hosting the biannual meeting of the Community of Democracies; poor as it is, Mali had been holding free and more or less fair elections since 1991. Mali was then, and suddenly has become once again, a reassuring symbol of Africa’s commitment to democracy.

But then why the coup? Since successful democracies don’t usually experience coups, the events of this past month raise the question of just what kind of a democracy Mali actually is. As the Economist noted, "Graft, increased perceptions of corruption and allegations of government involvement in smuggling drugs and arms mean that few are sad to see the back of Mr. Touré, who had already foiled two earlier coup plots in 2010." Despite those free and almost-fair elections, Mali has the kind of government you get in a very bad neighborhood, where states are easy prey for drug lords transiting cocaine from South America and smugglers ferrying cigarettes and pharmaceuticals across the desert. The cousinage just keeps things calm.

And let’s not forget the other half of last month’s drama. Captain Amadou Sanogo and his fellow putschists insisted that they had taken action because President Touré had failed to stem an insurgency by Touareg tribesmen and al Qaeda forces in the northern half of the country. In the midst of the coup, those forces overran remote military outposts, seized a vast chunk of desert — including the provincial capital of Timbuktu — and proclaimed the sovereignty of "Azawad," an area equal in size to France. Mali’s military is helpless to respond, and must look once again to Ecowas, which may deploy its standby force to re-take the region. This democratic darling is looking a little bit like a failed state.

What good is a semi-failed state with elections? One answer is: Better than the alternative. According to Morton Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael Weinstein, the authors of The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, in the 1980s under the strongman rule of Moussa Traoré, Mali "experienced negative growth in eight years out of ten, underwent a 20 percent decline in per capita income to $250 and recorded unending fiscal deficits that doubled the national debt to 98 percent of GDP." After Amadou Toumani Traoré and other officers overthrew Touré and stepped aside for civilian rule — an example, by the way, of a good coup — a new president, Alpha Konaré, cut back on patronage, raised taxes, reduced government spending, and decentralized power, in turn encouraging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make loans and international donors to increase aid. The authors of The Democracy Advantage use Mali as a prime example of their claim that democracies offer more economic benefits than autocracies. For all its weaknesses, democratic Mali is much to be preferred to autocratic Mali.

That’s a meaningful answer; but it’s all too easy to exaggerate the democratic advantage. The figures which Halperin et al. cite show that from 1960 to 2001, growth rates were about the same in low-income democracies and low-income autocracies, though the democracies do better on "social indicators" such as health and well-being. So that’s one cheer for democracy. The high-growth states in Africa tend to have oil, like Nigeria and Angola; governance is beside the point. The few high-growth, low-resource countries include non-democracies like Ethiopia and Rwanda as well as democracies like Ghana. Mali is in the middle of the pack, at about 4.5 percent growth per year, though its population growth rate of around 3 percent has wiped out much of the effect. And now former President Touré — or ATT, as he is known — proved a less determined reformer than was Konaré.

Mali is a desperately poor country. The IMF ranks it 156 in the world in GDP per capita, two notches above Haiti. Social indicators, which democratic governments are supposed to boost, are much worse. Most Malians live in small villages without electricity or fresh drinking water or health clinics or schools. As Robert Kaplan recently pointed out, channeling Samuel Huntington, what Africa’s weak states lack is not democracy but governance — a functional state presence extending even into the hinterlands. The modern Malian state, whether elected or not, has never exercised authority in the vast wastelands of the Sahel in which the rebels have proclaimed their new state, any more than, say, the government of Sierra Leone has in the jungle interior. The feebleness of the West African state apparatus creates vacuums which are filled by smugglers, drug lords, or jihadists with global ambitions.

If the regional problem is not so much despotism as frailty, the solution is not so much democracy as capacity. Many Malians might be willing to swap their feckless democracy for, say, Rwanda’s version of Prussian bureaucracy. Of course they can’t, any more than the Rwandans could trade their murderous ethnic politics for Mali’s cousinage. States are shaped by history, geography, and ethnic identity. In West Africa, authoritarianism has typically worn the garb not of the benevolent dictator but of the mutinous officer or the mumbling gerontocrat. Modernization theory, which once purported to explain how democracies develop, posited a phase of authoritarian state-building before nations were "ready" for democracy. There have been very few such cases in Africa. If Mali is ultimately going to build a real state which can provide at least minimal education, health care, and electric power, it will be because democratic leaders succeed in the slow work of forging economic growth and mobilizing citizens around public goals. So really, it’s two cheers for democracy.

It is, of course, profoundly in the interest of the West to enhance the capacity of weak states, lest international criminal gangs and terrorists turn their hinterlands into a playground. That’s why, for example, the United States agreed in 2006 to spend more than $400 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to help build up Bamako’s international airport, and to increase land under irrigation. The MCC is an excellent program — devised, let us not forget, by the George W. Bush administration — which requires the recipient to draw up and carry out the development program while the United States retains oversight capacity. But after five years, progress in Mali looks pretty modest: The MCC lists many of the targets as being zero percent fulfilled. "Improving state capacity" is harder than it sounds — by several orders of magnitude.

Still, it’s good news that the people of Mali are still attached to their rickety democracy after 20 years. And it’s good news that Ecowas was able to restore that democracy without firing a shot (though re-taking Azawad will prove a much harder job). Mali will probably have an election some time next month. Another free-and-almost-fair one will be nice — but it won’t be enough.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.