Mali’s Coup–‘Politics is Bad’

The idea that because the coup happened, it's no longer worth taking positions on it is wrong-headed and dangerous. We should ask why, and why now.

Bamako, by Aene Gespinst. Via Flickr Creative Commons Licensed.

Politiqui mayni,” sing Amadou and Miriam, “Politics is bad.” No kidding. But sometimes it’s worse than others, and sometimes it’s needed. In order to think clearly about Mali’s confusing coup, we need a little politics, now more than ever. Where I’m from, we call this the hair of the dog. In this case, a little historical perspective wouldn’t hurt either.

The first step is asking the right questions. The idea that because the coup happened, it is no longer worth taking positions on it is wrong-headed and dangerous. Now is the time to ask why, and why now.

Obviously the rebellion in the North counts for a lot. Corruption and malfeasance do, too. And, somewhat paradoxically, so does the fact that presidential elections were scheduled for next month, elections for which the incumbent, Amadou Toumani Toure (‘ATT’), was not a candidate.

ATT’s record was mixed at best. There’s lots to criticize — rising crime, deepening inequality, systemic corruption, narco-trafficking at the highest levels… and above all the disastrously passive response to the rebellion in the Sahara (which is too much to go into here). People who live in the affordable housing units he sponsored — the ‘ATTbougou’ phenomenon — might see a brighter side. But the question of whether or not ATT’s government succeeded is the wrong question to ask. Ditto the question of whether he might come back to power. The real question is when the junta will leave it, how, and at what cost. That’s the million dollar question, and those of us on the outside ought to be listening for its answer.

That said, some other things might seem confusing. They aren’t.

First, did corruption cause the coup? The junta says it is down on corruption. So is every Malian I know. Who isn’t, at least in public? And which junta in the last twenty years or more hasn’t said it would stamp out corruption? The novelist Moussa Konate wrote a strong piece in Jeune Afrique condemning the fact that the Malian state “became the private property of the political class and its accomplices.” True. But that’s been true for several years. The rot in the Malian state, from roots to branches, didn’t cause it to fall, it only allowed it to.

Second, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the junta, says he wants to get Mali’s democracy back on track. Did this noble cause inspire the coup? After all, the junta calls itself the “National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State”. But just because they used the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t mean these soldiers are democrats. Seriously. Moussa Traore’s crew (1968-78) was the Military Committee for National Liberation — and the ‘L’ didn’t stand for much. Neither did the ‘D’ in the Democratic Union of the Malian People, the single party that succeeded it (with Traore at its head), from 1978-1991. With elections scheduled for a month from now, this coup was not meant to re-establish democracy, but to de-rail it.

Third, some have argued that because people in Bamako have not taken to the streets, the coup has popular support. Not so fast — people didn’t take to the streets to support it either, unlike during Mali’s two previous coups (1968 and 1991). This might be because the situation was (and is) so unclear, but honestly it is hard to know what level of support the junta has (no matter how unpopular ATT might have become). Whatever the reason for Bamako’s relative quiet, Monday was the 21st anniversary of the coup that briefly brought ATT to power before he handed it over to a popularly elected president, until being voted into office himself in 2002. It is a national holiday, and on this occasion reports have it that as many as 1,000 people marched from the Bourse du Travail to the television studios to demand a return to constitutional rule. They disbanded, their point made. But no one should assume that was the last march, or that ‘the street’ will be quiet forever.

Other movements are afoot. On Sunday, the leading political parties — in fact, almost all the political parties — met to establish a united front to demand that the soldiers give their democracy back. And the government ministers, party leaders, and presidential candidate who are being held without charge announced a hunger strike to demand their release and a return to civilian rule. Over the last few days, two of the top contenders in the presidential race–Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Soumaila Cisse–condemned the coup in no uncertain terms, one just before the other. They are politicians, and they know which way the wind blows. As a wise man once said, you don’t need a weatherman for that.

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