DAKAR - When Malian soldiers seized power on March 22, they said it was to oust a president who failed to handle the rebellion in the north.
Many Malians say this failure and the abysmal state of the military were just symptoms of a wider problem: a corrupt system that served an elite few, while the rest of the population was largely excluded politically and economically. Today, as regional leaders push for a return to constitutional rule, observers say it would benefit the country and the region to look closely at the flaws of pre-coup Mali.
Model for democracy?
Mali has long been cited as a model for democracy in West Africa. But many citizens and analysts say that portrayal was based on a gross misunderstanding of the reality on the ground.
They say profound corruption and favoritism, and the lack of a meaningful political opposition, meant that the average Malian had no voice and little opportunity to advance economically.
Issa Ndiaye is professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako in the Malian capital.
He says, I think that well-meaning people on the outside sincerely believed in this image the Malian government put up of being the ideal democracy. They did not properly analyze the situation on the ground to get a solid understanding. He says, sure, there are a lot of newspapers and radio stations in Mali - things like this gave the impression the government was democratic. But there was no political debate, he says - no genuine democracy at all.
Since its first multiparty election in 1992, Mali has held national elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007. But voter turnout has been around 30 to 40 percent for presidential polls, lower for parliament elections. Professor Ndiaye and others say the elections became empty rituals.
Lehigh University anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse has been conducting research in Bamako. “I hope that the events since March 21 and 22 have been a big wake-up call to foreign governments and regional bodies and human rights and pro-democracy NGOs (non-governmental organizations) around the world," he said. "Because what this shows is that you cannot accept simply the surface impression of democratic governance in a country. You really have to look at what’s happening at the grassroots level and do ordinary citizens in that country feel included in the political process? Do they feel that the progress their country’s making is something that they will be able to have a share of?”
Whitehouse says it’s time to reconsider what democracy means. “If you can’t demonstrate any of those things, then I think you really need to reassess supporting a government, even if it is going through the motions of respecting democratic procedures and building democratic institutions. If it’s not fulfilling those basic aspects of a democratic state then its role needs to be re-examined. My hope, if there’s a silver lining in Mali’s coup," stated Whitehouse. "It’s that various institutions will start reassessing just exactly what it is that makes for a healthy democracy.”
Validating a military takeover
Analysts say that in their fervor to condemn a coup d’état, regional and international organizations and governments are reluctant to bring up the possible causes, for fear of appearing to validate a military takeover.
Union College history professor Brian Peterson researches Islam in Mali. He says, to explore the causes of a coup is not to justify it. “That’s precisely, I think, what was going on - sort of a disciplining of an African state that’s fallen into disarray. To try to peel back the layers of what was going on politically, socially and economically running up to the coup would be to justify it. But explaining is not justifying," he explained. "In thinking post-coup, we really need to look at the popular roots of the coup.”
Youth activist Ousmane Dadié Touré explains what he sees as some of the roots. “There was a big rate of corruption in the country, a big rate of injustice, education was going badly, the rate of poverty was increasing all the time, health care was a big issue. There was bad governance, most definitely,” said Touré.
Making a better future, learning from the past
Malians calling for a deeper look into what triggered the coup say those who refuse to consider such causes are people who profited from the status quo and have no interest in change.
With Malian and regional officials now preoccupied with the rebel takeover of the north and Mali’s transition to elected civilian government, some observers say it is vital not to ignore the aspirations the coup has awakened in many Malians.