What went wrong in Mali before the world started paying attention

Last August, Bruce Whitehouse wrote: The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion [which began in January 2012]. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. [Amadou Toumani] Touré’s presidency had begun under a cloud. Although international observers noted irregularities during the 2002 election, they declared it free and fair. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe Touré won only because the scales were tipped in his favour: the constitutional court annulled half a million votes, roughly a quarter of the ballots cast in the first round. Konaré, the incumbent, had chosen Touré as his successor and had acted to ensure his victory. Touré has been accused of orchestrating an ‘electoral hold-up’ for his 2007 re-election. Turnout for Mali’s elections throughout the decade was the lowest in West Africa. Recently Laurent Bigot, a French foreign ministry official, succinctly described Mali as a ‘sham democracy’.

Former President Amadou Toumani Touré (top) and Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the March 2012 coup.

Touré wasn’t a member of any political party, but most of Mali’s established parties joined a coalition in support of his policies. He was able to push sweeping legislation through the National Assembly with little or no debate. In 2009, after the Assembly passed a progressive bill to reform Mali’s 1962 laws governing women’s rights and families by 117 votes to 5, Islamic groups stirred up vociferous opposition, and parliamentarians had to distance themselves from a bill few of them had actually read. The law was never enacted. Touré’s ‘rule by consensus’ became a euphemism for the suppression of political debate and a trend towards absolutism. Checks and balances existed only on paper. Journalists were afraid to challenge the president’s agenda, especially after five of their colleagues were arrested in 2007 for writing about a teacher in Bamako who got his students to comment on a short story about a girl made pregnant thanks to the ‘carnal escapades’ of an African head of state. In Mali’s restive northern regions, ‘rule by consensus’ invited more problems. When a group of Tuareg rebels – seen in the south as gangsters involved in the region’s drug smuggling – rose up in 2006, Touré negotiated a controversial peace accord and withdrew the army from much of the north.

‘A fish rots from the head,’ Malians say. To keep the aid money flowing, Touré maintained a veneer of progress. His government at first boosted the number of children enrolled at school, which pleased donors, but never invested adequately in the country’s dilapidated education system. Only 12 per cent of students passed the high school leaving exams this year, the lowest rate ever recorded. Touré purchased a temporary peace in the north but never made good on promises to reduce the acute poverty there. He accepted millions of dollars of US military aid, which was supposed to be used to drive out al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but he never actually went after the group’s encampments. The military itself was racked by nepotism, and officers often skimmed off their soldiers’ ammunition and pay.

In 2010, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria suspended aid to Mali after it found that officials had pocketed millions of dollars of its grants. This fraud was noteworthy only because some of its perpetrators were held to account: Touré’s health minister is awaiting trial for embezzlement. The perception that corruption went unchecked at the highest levels of the state cost the president much of his legitimacy at home. At best, Malians felt he had turned a blind eye to the problem; at worst, they accused him and his wife of being directly involved.

As Touré’s second term approached its end, Malians had also lost faith in the rule of law. On the outskirts of Bamako, residents saw their property seized by members of the president’s inner circle, and were powerless to seek redress through the courts. Few Malians felt protected by the police, who were busy extorting bribes from motorists. Judges sold favourable verdicts to the highest bidders. There was the revival of a practice known as Article 320, first seen in the lawless days after Moussa Traoré’s fall: accused thieves were doused with petrol and set alight. (The name comes from the price of a litre of petrol and a box of matches, which in 1991 totalled 320 local francs.) At least seven such vigilante killings were reported in Bamako in the first two months of this year, and it seems likely that many more have taken place since.

The putschists capitalised on the popular disappointment with bogus democracy and weak government, using it to justify their actions. Hours after taking over, [Captain Amadou] Sanogo spoke of his men’s desire for reform: ‘not of the army, of the state’. The junta duly called itself the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State. Sanogo described Mali’s democratic edifice under Touré as a sagging wall that he and his men would knock down and rebuild. The coup had not derailed Mali’s democracy, he claimed, but had been necessary to save it. ‘When at a high level of state responsibility,’ he said in a televised interview in May, ‘you allow yourself to look a citizen in the eyes and lie to him, when you allow yourself to rig elections, to buy elections … is that what you call democracy?’

Whether Sanogo intended to save Mali’s democracy or confiscate it is an open question. But he and his men could never have hoped to overthrow Touré, and win support among Malians, had the country’s core institutions – the police, the courts and the electoral process – been sound. The soldiers who stormed the presidential palace on 21 March knew that Touré no longer had any legitimacy for the Malian people. So did Touré himself: hence his swift and silent departure. He resurfaced weeks later to sign a letter of resignation before the television cameras, then flew into exile in Senegal. [Continue reading...]

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