Mali's Colonel Coup Syndrome

In his first interview after seizing power, Mali's self-proclaimed junta leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo tells a journalist from Africable that he has never cast a vote in his life. If there are three candidates standing for election, he explains, rest assured he won't have confidence in any of them. And he'd rather not vote than choose.

Earlier this week, Sanogo and his supporters within the army voted with their guns, ousting the government, arresting senior officials, and dissolving democratic institutions. They did all this just a month before democratic presidential elections were scheduled. They weren't interested in voting in another guy; they were interested in overturning the entire system, as Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, argues.

The immediate trigger for the coup was frustration among mid- and lower-ranking military officials over the government's handling of an ongoing rebellion in the North. In recent months, Tuareg rebels aiming to capture and liberate territory from the government, have intensified their fighting—armed with a cache of weapons that leaked out of Libya as Col. Muammar Qaddafi fell.  In January, a UN expert report warned that "unspecified and unquantifiable numbers of arms and ammunition from the Libyan arsenal" stood to destabilize the government. It seems they were right.

But there are a few more layers here, I think. The combination of weak institutions coupled with vast and quickly growing security threats is proving alarmingly destabilizing—not just in Mali but throughout the region.

First, what happened in Mali strikes me as an unfortunate reminder of just how fragile democracies—especially new ones—still are in the Sahel. I'm not just talking about how easily they break. I'm talking about how perilously they function. Elections and good constitutions get countries such as Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria the stamp of "democracy" in the international eye. But to the average citizen—or say, your average civil servant, like a soldier—they still seem a lot like something else: a regime that benefits only a few. Part of that is simply a lack of resources—even if you redistribute, there's a small pot to share. And if you look for more resources, say from international aid, someone overseas is probably—in the very least—helping to dictate your priorities. Meanwhile, big pockets of poverty persist and may take generations—not voting cycles—of economic growth to overcome. The idea of elective and representative democracy inceased the demand for public services and development in Mali—and the government wasn't able to deliver fast enough. And in fact, a 2011 report from the UN Development Program in Mali found that corruption there had actually increased—not decreased—when the government and the economy began to open up.

It's also worth thinking for a moment about the grievance of the coup-makers. They actually have a point. Militaries and police forces in West Africa more broadly—and in Mali in particular—are woefully equipped to deal with the increasing security threats in the region. As such, the individual soldiers are paying a high price. This is not news of course; the United States, for example, has been involved in training militaries in the region for the last decade in hopes of preparing them for terrorist and other enemies. (There is some speculation that at least some of the junta members in Mali received US-backed training.) What has changed, however, is the magnitude of the threats. Qaddafi's weapons cache is one example; another is Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgent group in Nigeria. More broadly speaking, there are alarming signs that extremist groups (think al-Qaeda and its admirers) see this region as promising breeding ground for new factions of their movements. In the mere days since the junta took power in Mali, rebels in the country's north have gained considerable ground.

The combination of these two things—weak democracy and dysfunctional security systems—has provoked not one but four coups in the last few years in the region. Niger, Mauritania, and Guinea saw similar (though of course not identical) events; Burkina Faso also saw a failed coup attempt. It has produced, in other words, the Colonel Coup syndrome that I described in 2010: middle-ranking officers with little to lose who are willing to take matters into their own hands. Generals would never be the coup-makers; they are usually close to the regime. Lower ranks don't have the resources. The middle understands what the army is up against—and how poorly equipped the system is to fight back.  Sometimes, they think the only option is to bring the system down.

Mali's unfolding drama has all taken many people—myself included—off guard. Before this week, the country conjured overwhelmingly positive images. The vast and largely rural West African state was a democracy, lauded by the international community and the region. It was the site of model development projects, like the UN Millennium Villages and the U.S. Millenniun Challenge Corporation. (Just last month, the latter fund announced triumphantly that Mali was seeing "Prosperity Take[s] Root.") More anecdotally, the country of 15 million has an amazing jazz scene; it's a favorite of tourists who encamp between various French expatriat-run bed-and-breakfasts in the big cities. The art museum is impressive—host to a beautiful black-and-white photo exhibit of rural Africa last time I was there.

I think Mali will bounce back—democratic aspirations are a hard thing to shake from people who have grown accustomed to them. The threats in the region, however, are around to stay.


Photo Credit: Marco Bellucci

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