The day of 18 August began in Mali with shots fired in the garrison of Kati, 15 kilometres from the capital Bamako. The last coup in 2012 also began there. Later, military forces arrested President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita and his Prime Minister Boubou Cissé in Bamako and drove them to Kati. Around midnight local time, the day ended with the resignation of the President and the dissolution of the government and the National Assembly.
Claus-Dieter König is the Head of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s West Africa Office in Dakar, Senegal. Translation by Loren Balhorn.
At 3:30 in the morning, the military junta then emerged as the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple. Its core message: “Civil society and socio-political movements are invited to join us in creating the best conditions for a civil political transition process leading to universal suffrage for the exercise of democracy through a roadmap that lays the foundation for a new Mali.” This invitation was to be accepted by the actors of recent weeks. The initial reactions from their ranks that same morning were along those lines.
People have been protesting on Mali’s streets for three months now. The 5 June Movement (M5/RFP) again mobilized hundreds of thousands in the capital Bamako and other cities of the country on 11 August. Their core demand: President Ibrahima Boubakar Keita and his government should resign. The demonstrators come from all sections of society and various political camps. SADI (Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocratie et l'Indépendence), the partner party of Die Linke in Mali, is mobilizing for the movement, whose main leader is Imam Mahmoud Dicko. This is not a natural alliance: Imam Dicko first rose to national prominence for his religiously motivated opposition to a progressive reform of family law in 2009. Members of SADI make it clear that it is important for the secular Left to participate in the movement so that it is not shaped exclusively by religious leaders.
The movement justifies its demand for the president’s resignation on the grounds that he is incapable of governing the country and driving it into an ever deeper crisis.
It is true that Keita has failed, but not mainly because of personal incompetence. Rather, he is symbolic of the false solutions to a crisis Mali has been in since the rebellion and coup of 2012. That rebellion and coup, however, can be traced back to events long before 2012 and are deeply rooted in the structures of the state. To name but a few: a lack of prospects, especially for the youth—not only in the North although there it is striking, state services such as health care and education in particular are precarious, and there is no police force that fulfils its tasks conscientiously: namely, fighting crime by prevention and prosecution. There is no judiciary in which the population has confidence. Various forms of illegal economies support the power of the militias: drug trafficking, kidnappings.
The lack of security against acts of violence reorganizes society: people join religiously and ethnically based armed groups. Divisions and differences arise where religious tolerance was strong for decades and ethnic affiliation was often only diffuse. Violence and terror are now also determining elements of everyday life in the centre of the country, the fertile inland delta of Niger.
In addition to the inner-Malian lines of conflict, international conflicts are also being fought out in Mali. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) emerged from Salafist groups who fought in the Algerian civil war. The MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad), a non-religious separatist militia of the North, is supported by France. The importation of international conflicts means that there are no negotiations in Mali, although this would be possible and necessary for a path to reconciliation and peace. The “War on Terror” excludes groups from the negotiating table that need to be part of a peace process.
The military intervention of France and its partners conforms to this logic of international conflict and has therefore contributed to the intensification of terror and military violence in Mali and neighbouring countries. Military intervention from Europe is now rejected by large sections of the population.
These conflicts and crises will not be solved by a change at the top of the state.
Snap elections now, and then it goes on as before: the standard model for situations like this. The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, is already calling for an immediate transition to constitutional order. The same is true of the European states, which exert influence through their military involvement—the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, is already eagerly on the phone with the presidents of the region, including Alassane Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire, who, by announcing his candidacy for a third term, just violated his country’s constitution and faces resistance from the street in his own country.
The model will fail again in Mali, however, because it is based on the repeatedly refuted assumption that the country’s current electoral system produces legitimate governments. That is not the case. Liberal democracy with majority elections for the President and the National Assembly—this does not result in a government capable of action, and certainly not a legitimate government in this country. The same elites in a somewhat new constellation will hardly govern differently than before. For decades now, voter turnout has signalled the system’s lack of legitimacy. Since 1991, no more than 30 percent of those eligible to vote have ever participated. The result has always been regimes that deepened the expropriating system of neoliberal economics while enriching themselves in the process.
The state thus became a part of the expropriation system, and its revenues ended up in the Swiss bank accounts of the ruling class through many forms of corruption and patronage. The state was not there for the people, it was not designed by the people, and consequently it was not democratic. Elections gave the impression of democracy, but nothing more.
Could a national conference, which already produced a new constitution for the country in 1991, offer an alternative instead? Such a conference has been demanded by many actors in recent years. Two weeks, like in 1991, will hardly be enough. Now more than then, a new constitution followed by new elections should be the result. This will require a longer process of economic and social re-foundation of the country. What is needed is economic sovereignty and a “État regalien”, i.e. a state that derives its legitimacy from the functioning of state tasks and services: schools, health care, legal certainty and, last but not least, security.
Thus, the movement must now ensure that it does not collapse after this initial success, the resignation of the president. It can only succeed in doing so if it quickly engages in internal discussions on how it wants to shape the Mali of the future and if it finds stable and long-term forms of organization. It must ensure that the participation in the transition process being offered really happens. What is decisive is how far-reaching and substantial the change now beginning in Mali really is. The work of civil society and socio-political movements such as M5/RFP must guarantee this.
Solidarity and clarity of demands is needed from the other countries of West Africa. Given that, in many of them, the legitimacy of incumbent presidents is also dwindling, their governments and the Economic Community of West African States will try to prevent the necessary radical reform of society. They call this an “immediate return to constitutional order”. But leftists and democrats in Mali, as well as those in solidarity with Mali abroad, should instead demand a democratic process towards a fundamentally different new order. This path offers the chance for a stable and democratic Mali. Whether a national conference will be a milestone on this path or which other routes will be taken is a decision that is up to the Malians. Mali’s right to take this path is something we must also demand in Germany and the other states with a military presence in Mali. It has to be accepted that this path will take longer than holding quick elections, which would result in the same instability and the same lack of democratic order.