In an all too familiar scene, on Aug. 18, Malian soldiers arrested the president and other senior officials, took over state television, and put themselves in charge. This is the second coup in Mali since 2012, when the country spiraled into a multi-layered crisis that persists to this day. The leaders of the coup are calling it a popular revolution, and Mali’s main opposition movement, known as M5-RFP, has celebrated the forced resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
I care deeply about Mali and West Africa, and as someone who is actively resisting bad governance and authoritarianism in the United States, I am concerned about the implications of accepting or inviting military intervention in domestic politics.
Mali, like the U.S., elected its president in a flawed but publicly accepted democratic process. Unlike the U.S., Mali’s presidential election in 2018 wasn’t even close—Keita won a second term by nearly 35 points, though turnout was low and there were irregularities. Since then, a sizeable portion of the Malian public lost confidence in his handling of security threats and the economy, opposed his party in legislative elections, organized demonstrations, and sought his resignation. Protests grew so large and effective that regional mediators deployed last month to broker a compromise. The discussions were unsuccessful, and the proposed government concessions fell far short of what many Malians thought was warranted. In the U.S., President Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate, which fell short of what many Americans thought was warranted.
As critical as I think it is to change U.S. political leadership, it would be a grave and unacceptable mistake for the U.S. military to remove the president on its own accord, outside the rule of law. For the same reasons, I fear the Malian military’s undemocratic shortcut to political change will make things worse for Mali and West Africa.
Why a coup is not a people’s revolution
The most obvious and important point when a coup happens in a democratic country is that it marks a grave departure from the appropriate role of the military in governance. Militaries are designed to use coercive violence to achieve political objectives in support of and at the direction of a democratic government. Most often, this means defending a country from outside aggressors. Internal military mobilizations that involve the use of force (in contrast to disaster relief or infrastructure development, for example) almost invariably signal the start or the consequence of a breakdown in democratic governance. In the case of military deployment to counter peaceful demonstrations, as we saw in the U.S., this is a breach of democratic principles by political and military leaders. In the case of a coup like we are seeing in Mali, military officers decided that immediate political changes were more important than constitutional order and that they could substitute new rules for governing on account of their ability to employ violence.
It is exceedingly tempting to delicately excuse the Malian military’s actions and adopt their chosen people’s revolution label. Malians have protested for months against Keita and his rotating cast of ministers who made a raft of poor decisions and woefully underperformed—even accounting for the extremely difficult political, security, and economic problems he inherited. But a coup is an act of poor governance not a remedy for it, and some of the statements condemning the military action from African institutions and partners try to highlight the nuance. The Keita government may well have needed to address public criticism in a dramatic fashion, possibly including the president himself resigning. Peaceful public pressure to make this happen was entirely appropriate and a truly impressive show of popular participation in the democratic political process. Military action to topple the democratically elected government was not.
Even after regional mediators failed to find options that came close to meeting popular demands, there were still tools available to civilian resistors and frustrated military officers. For the M5-RFP movement, this could have been continued peaceful protests that forced the government and external mediators back to the table with an increasingly weak hand to play. For the military, officers who felt they could not stand by any longer could have resigned, spoken publicly about their concerns, and joined the protest movement. While these steps would not have guaranteed Keita would resign or that the officers would be protected from reprisal, launching a coup implies these officers were willing to accept the personal risk of ending up in prison or worse. Resigning on principle reinforces the responsibilities of citizens and soldiers in democracies and eliminates the suspicion of personal ambition that typically accompanies a coup.
Authoritarian shortcuts and democratic dead ends
The military intervention has weakened Mali’s democracy. Instead of forcing institutions and processes to be responsive to citizen demands through the tools of democracy, the military reinforced — and a vocal part of the population embraced — the acceptability of the armed forces taking over the country in an instant and running it as they see fit. While there is always a chance that some good outcomes could eventually come from bad actions, the risk does not outweigh the reward. As a starting point, we can look back to how extremist violence spread rapidly following the 2012 coup and prompted successive international interventions.
To further illustrate the point, imagine that Mali’s military remains in charge for a year, and during that year they champion a particularly aggressive approach to their goal of tackling corruption by accounting for every citizens’ assets. It may evolve to rely on force and extrajudicial processes that the public rejects. This time, when citizens attempt to organize and take to the streets, military leaders view it as a threat to public order and their ambitious reform agenda and use force to stop protests. In this scenario, absent constitutional democratic governance, Malians will have fewer options for recourse and might have to rely on external intervention to halt abuses and reassert civilian control over the military.
Outside Mali, in a region facing most of the same political, security, economic, and environmental challenges, a fresh cycle of military intervention in politics could have devastating consequences. For much of the last five years, West Africa made progress as a region with powerful youth-driven social movements and a bloc willing to defend democratic norms. But in 2019, the region posted the sharpest decline globally in political rights and civil liberties, according to Freedom House’s annual review. In just the next few months, several West African countries will hold national elections amid internal controversies and the pressures of the pandemic, economic contraction, and security threats. There almost certainly will be additional circumstances in which civilian populations and their militaries will be tempted to take shortcuts to political change. As partners and leaders in the struggle to protect democracy, we should resist this urge.