THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | So another military coup has taken place in Mali removing an unpopular yet democratically elected government of President Ibrahim Keita. Keita came to power as an opposition firebrand in 2013, after a military coup had overthrown President Amadou Toure. His promises turned out to be pipedreams. The people, tired of corruption and incompetence, have been demonstrating for months, leading to an army mutiny and coup. The Mali coup is popular with “the people” (meaning those angry urban youths and intellectuals we see screaming on the streets). However, the UN, AU and ECOWAS have rejected it and have imposed sanctions on the country.
Given the naivety of many democracy (and pseudo democracy) evangelists in Africa, it is important to give a brief historical background of this nation’s troubled democratic experiment. Toure was the military man who led the coup against long serving “dictator” President Muassa Traore (1968-1991). After the coup, he did not stay in power long. He freed political parties and organised a national conference. It wrote a constitution with “democratic safeguards” like the proverbial term limits, which in Africa are assumed to guarantee peaceful transition of power.
One year after assuming office, Toure organised elections in which he did not participate. Alpha Konare was elected president. A nice and jovial man (I met him in 1997 on my first and last visit to that troubled country), Konare respected term limits. In 2002, as he was retiring, the respected Toure ran for the presidency and won. The world began to consider Mali a “successful democracy.” Articles were written, books published, lectures given and television interviews aired about “democratic consolidation” in Mali.
Fast forward, in 2012 a Tuareg rebellion erupted in Northern Mali, precipitating heightened opposition to Toure’s rule, which was coming to an end. The rebels captured the northern region and declared independence. A military upstart, Amadou Sanogo, staged a coup, which was welcomed by opposition groups led by Keita. It took the intervention of French troops to end the rebellion.
The collapse of Mali’s democratic experiment was itself a result of foreign efforts to enforce democracy in Libya where the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi left gun stores open. Toureg rebels got access to these weapons and used them to launch their rebellion. An effort to promote democracy in one country led to state collapse in two. Nonetheless, and fortunately for Mali, the soldiers organised elections in 2013 that brought Keita to power. He was reelected in a hotly contested second round in 2018.
The lessons from this Mali story are simple but fundamental. In his 1968 masterpiece, Political Order in Changing Societies, American political science professor, Samuel Huntington, argued that the most important political distinction among countries is not their form of government but their degree of government. The form of government is not the only important thing about a country, not even the most important – passionate though we may be about this. For instance, the distinction between order and anarchy is much more fundamental than one between democracy and dictatorship. Even before talking about democratic consolidation in Mali, we need to talk about state consolidation.
Secondly, in our evangelical pursuit of democracy, we ignore the many prerequisites that make it work in some societies and not in others. There is a suffocating belief among democracy (and pseudo democracy) evangelists today that it is possible to democratise governments anytime, anywhere and under any circumstances. Indeed, many people believe that the fall of tyranny leads to the inevitable conquest of democracy. Yet most historic experience shows that the end of tyranny can lead to anarchy (Somalia, Liberia, Uganda in 1979, etc.) or to renewed tyranny (Eritrea, Ethiopia, etc.).
Democracy (and pseudo democracy) evangelists make the wrong assumption that there exists a democratic alternative to incumbent autocratic governments. Yet often, many opposition groups are fighting for power, only using slogans of democracy and freedom to win (largely) international support. We see this in Uganda in both Defiance, led by Dr. Kizza Besigye, and People Power led by Bobi Wine. Yet both these movements, though very popular among the urban poor, are radical extremist cults intolerant of dissent.
In his famous essay Representative Government, John Stuart Mill, identified three things vital for its success. First, people must be willing to accept it. Second, they must be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation. Third, they should be able to fulfill its duties and discharge the functions, which it imposes on them. But doing these three things imposes heavy demands on leaders and citizens alike. As American political scientist Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued in her famous book Dictatorships and Double Standards – shese are demands for participation and restraint, for consensus and compromise. So leaders in a democracy must be skilled at finding and/or creating common ground among diverse points of view and interests and willing to compromise on all but the most basic values.
Democracy also needs an appropriate political culture and public institutions strong enough to channel and contain conflict. The higher the level of economic prosperity, education attainment, national socialisation and urbanisation, the better would be the chances of democratic consolidation. The fact that Malians can celebrate a military coup against an elected government shows how shallow the democratic impulse is in that country. This was even more tragic in 2012 because the government of Toure was overthrown a few months from an election where the incumbent president was not going to be a candidate.
The most impoverished area of debate about Africa concerns its politics. As our own Prof. Mahmoud Mamdani has argued, while our problems are local and the demands to solve them are locally generated, when it comes to designing a solution we retreat to textbook theories published in London and New York, themselves explaining the experience of Europe and North America. That is why we dichotomise governments as democratic or autocratic, ignoring the many nuances that shape how leaders act by domesticating alien institutions on a very specific reality.
Democracy is not an event but a journey; traversed at a creep, not a gallop. Democratic development does not follow a continuously raising curve, as does the growth of an individual, but follows a ragged path – three steps forward, two steps back. The history of the West is a good reference point. From the Magna Carta to the establishment of modern democratic institutions in Britain took 700 years. From the French Revolution of 1789 to the democracy of the 5th French republic took 170 years. America’s own democratic journey has lasted 250 years and been characterised by a long civil war (which ended slavery) and an even longer civil rights movement to give black people the right to vote.