A Coup Won’t End Mali’s Corruption and Insecurity
Replacing the president won’t resolve the country’s deep-seated political problems. If neighboring nations and global powers don’t demand a democratic transition, it could lead to greater instability across West Africa.
Tuesday’s arrest of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita by mutinous soldiers may have been the kind of climax many of the president’s opponents hoped for, but it will not solve the country’s problems.
Mali’s West African neighbors, and the entire international community, know that a leadership crisis could create more turmoil and destabilize the entire region. That’s why the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, and the European Union rushed to condemn the uprising and called for the swift release of the Malian president, as well as Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, the president of the National Assembly, and the finance minister.
Mali risks repeating history. A similar coup in 2012 that originated from the army base in the town of Kati, where Keita and Cissé are currently being held, toppled then-President Amadou Toumani Touré and contributed to the fall of northern Mali to Islamist militants. Tuesday’s uprising by mutinying soldiers, who may have been irked by widespread protests against Keita in recent weeks, could throw the fragile country into further chaos.
Since early June, Mali has seen thousands of its citizens pour into the streets of major cities demanding the resignation of Keita’s government. Opposition politicians, trade unions, civil society organizations, religious associations, and even personnel from security agencies came together under the June 5 Movement, or M5-RFP, to express their anger at the government’s poor response to the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment, rising inequality, and the unending violence in Northern and Central Mali by local extremist groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Their anger is justified. Too many Malians—particularly the young, who make up a third of the country’s workforce—have no work. Unemployment among young people has reached almost 15 percent, up from 7 percent eight years ago before Keita took office. The country’s poverty rate has increased from 45 percent in 2013 to almost 50 percent today. More Malians were displaced by insecurity in 2019 than at any time in the country’s history. The health care system is in shambles, and the threat of violence has left millions of kids without schools. Despite French military intervention, violent extremist groups—one of which kidnapped a perpetual runner-up in presidential elections—are still very active in parts of the country.
It was clear for weeks that the protesters, who named their movement after the date of the first demonstration, weren’t going to stop until the president left office. Although Keita offered some concessions, including the dissolution of the Constitutional Court which the June 5 Movement accused of overturning this year’s legislative election results in order to install candidates loyal to Keita, they weren’t enough to quench the demonstrators’ bitterness. They wanted his resignation and were not going to end their protests until he relinquished power, or at least pledged to do so.
The Keita administration’s response to the demonstrations made matters even worse. A brutal crackdown by security forces in mid-July left nearly a dozen people dead and, rather than scare the protesters, reinforced their call for change. In addition to Keita’s resignation, the protesters further demanded an independent investigation of arbitrary arrests and deaths linked to the protests and the resignation of the president’s son, Karim Keita, from his legislative seat for a perceived extravagant lifestyle despite having quit his position as National Assembly deputy in the early days of the protests. But that wasn’t going to come easily from a 75-year-old leader with a reputation for not giving up on anything easily.
One thing the plotters of Tuesday’s coup probably considered was the stubbornness of the two men at the center of the crisis: Keita and Mahmoud Dicko, the outspoken and widely popular imam who led the protests. The soldiers may have worried that the never-say-die attitude of both men could bring ruin to Mali.
Keita, who was sworn in as Malian leader seven years ago, has been involved in government since the early 1990s and fought tooth and nail to become president, including two failed attempts at becoming leader in 2002 and 2007, before being elected in 2013. Keita was certainly going to fight to preserve his authority, and only a forceful eviction—as happened on Tuesday—was ever going to get him out of power.
Dicko, on the other hand, has a history of mobilizing Malians and winning the support of those fed up with the government. Last year, he mobilized tens of thousands to force Mali’s prime minister to quit his job. Not all of his successes have been for progressive causes: A decade ago, he successfully protested against legislation promoting gender equality and later led a successful campaign that forced the government to order the removal of a textbook about homosexuality from schools.
While the news of the president’s arrest may please Dicko, who had vowed the protests wouldn’t end until Keita left office, the highly vocal imam knows too well that if Keita’s supporters—including those loyal to him in the military—decide to protest against his forceful removal, Mali’s political crisis could inflict economic and humanitarian pain on the fragile country.
For now, Mali’s best bet is to embrace ECOWAS’s mediation efforts. But the regional bloc, which last month proposed a unity government that includes the opposition and demanded the resignation of dozens of lawmakers installed by the Constitutional Court, must come up with a more practical plan than the last one it put on the table, which was not fully embraced by the opposition.
History shows that a unified national government under a presidential system hasn’t succeeded in addressing underlying political problems in other African countries that have previously embraced the model. If anything, it has escalated tensions. The best-known example of a failed attempt to incorporate an aggrieved opposition into government was in Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangarai unsuccessfully tried to solve the political crisis in the country by working together. Even Mali has had its own bitter experience with a government of national unity.
Between 2002 and 2012, the unity government of Amadou Toumani Touré, Keita’s predecessor, undermined a once-vibrant opposition by offering government positions to figures from other parties and interest groups and overlooking their excesses. The political class then became notorious for enriching themselves at the expense of citizens and turning a blind eye as top military and intelligence officers got involved in drug trafficking.
As the opposition, which refrained from criticizing Touré, became compromised, Mali became perhaps the most corrupt country in West Africa, a position that pushed angry military officers into overthrowing the Touré regime in 2012. The experience proved that national unity politics in a country like Mali, where poverty is high and corruption is rife, could tempt those in the opposition into becoming corrupt themselves in the very government they are supposed to keep in check.
That is a dangerous risk because Mali needs to have strong voices putting checks on the government. As Susanna D. Wing, a political scientist at Haverford College noted in her 2013 report on democracy and conflicts in Mali for the United States Institute for Peace, “dialogue and a healthy democracy are rooted in a vibrant opposition” and “opposition parties allow citizens to share ideas and challenge viewpoints in the hopes of building consensus or, at a bare minimum, having their own views heard and acknowledged, if not accepted or adopted.”
The best way the opposition can play that role is through the parliament, and achieving that will mean the country needs to elect a new national assembly that is truly independent and composed of members freely and fairly elected. Adherence to the electoral law and ensuring the security of candidates, local leaders, election officials, and election observers—all of which were basically lacking during March’s parliamentary elections—is what the government of the day must guarantee to ensure a truly free vote.
ECOWAS has a major role to play here. Severe pressure from the international community that has stood strongly in support of Keita could return the ousted president to office. And if by any chance the embattled president regains power, the regional bloc must ensure that the national assembly is not only dissolved, but that the June 5 Movement plays a part in the emergence of a new parliament by convincing it to back reputable and popular candidates who would not fear standing up to the government of the day when elected into parliament.
Insisting that the Keita government be replaced by other politicians will only mean bringing in another group of people who will likely use power for their personal benefit, thereby maintaining the status quo and leaving much of the country discontented.
The June 5 Movement must also realize that having a robust presence in the national assembly is the best route to a vibrant opposition that can hold the executive accountable. They can draw an example from South Africa where initial threats from the Democratic Alliance (DA), a small but vocal opposition party, to have then-President Jacob Zuma impeached for violating the constitution played an important role in building broader opposition to Zuma’s rule—including within his own party—paving the way for his eventual departure from office. In fact, DA parliamentarians have long held the government—led by the African National Congress with an absolute majority—accountable through excellent oversight functions within committees in the upper and lower houses of South Africa’s bicameral parliament.
Insisting that Keita, a legitimately elected president, does not return to office would not end Mali’s problems. The mutinying soldiers and the opposition have to be more clever and more patient. For the stability of the country, it will be better to let him serve his legitimate term but check his powers through a new and robust parliament.
What comes out of any dialogue is vital not just for the future of Mali but also for the stability of the entire Sahel region, which has suffered from years of jihadist insurgency. If Keita, the military, and the opposition fail to reach an understanding, Mali is likely to face more turmoil and bloodshed.