from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: Mali: ’No Country for Old Men?’

May 17, 2012

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers. In Jim’s post, he discusses recent events in Mali, and how they may point towards a possible democratic renewal.

Last Friday, AFP reported that while Bamako’s political class and ECOWAS want Dioncounda Traore to continue as interim president, the group of low-ranking soldiers led by Amadou Sanogo, who carried out the March 22 coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure, don’t. Nor does the international community want soldiers leading a transition back to civilian rule in the country.  But Sanogo, reportedly, "wants to take back power once Traore’s 40-day mandate is up."

Having served as an analyst of West African militaries for many years, I cannot say that Sanogo’s desire to hang on to power is unusual.  However, the extent to which the military has become, or could become, a vehicle for the expression of popular dissatisfaction with old elites--a form of grassroots assertion--must also be considered.  As John Voll observed in his February 13 Wilson Center lecture, we have moved into a new era in which the modes of protest have changed.

We now live in a time of grassroots ascendancy, a fact which is being recognized across a spectrum of informed opinion. In her April 16th article in USA Today titled "When Spirituality and Religion Collide," Diana Butler Bass discusses the phenomenon in the religious realm, but observes that the "shift to the grassroots" is a problem for a broad range of organizations and is discernible in many contexts.  Not the least of these contexts, of course, is Europe.  Financial Times editorialized in its weekend edition about Europe’s "painful democratic renewal," saying that, "Voters in Greece, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France, are understandably turning away from a disconnected political class and looking for those offering new ideas and solutions."

The expression of discontent with an old, entrenched, and non-performing political class via a coup from below should not be surprising in states where institutions are weak and such discontent cannot be expressed through conventional political channels.  In this connection, Nigeria bears watching, since Major General Sarkin Yaki Bello, coordinator of the Counter Terrorism Center in Nigeria’s presidency, last month told the press that the "army is the greatest employer of labor now in the country," which would mean it includes a large number of young men, an element of society often prone to express discontent.

Policymakers see recent events in Mali as a threat to democracy, but democratic roots there were very shallow to begin with.  Given that in a system where, despite elections viewed internationally as positive, those at the grassroots (including the lower ranks of the military) feel their voice in the government is inadequate, could Mali’s coup be regarded as an effort at democratic renewal?  Just like Sheriff Bell in the Coen brothers’ popular film "No Country for Old Men," policymakers may sense that a new form of disorder is on the loose, and they are unsure how to handle it.

 

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

Elections and Voting

Regional Organizations

Mali

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