Brian J. Peterson is an associate professor of history at Union College (NY). His recent book is Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960 (Yale University Press, 2011)

When the protest movement of Malian women erupted in the town of Kati on January 30, few took notice. The women were mostly “war widows” of Malian soldiers recently killed in fighting against the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The women were protesting the lack of government support, in particular the shortage of weapons and food, given to Malian soldiers. And they were enraged to hear reports that their husbands, sons and brothers had been massacred in the most dishonorable way by MNLA forces. As the protest movement gained steam, the women began marching on Bamako, burning tires along the 12 km road from Kati, and heading for the presidential palace overlooking the city on the “hill of power.” Within days, the movement evolved into a more broad-based march in Bamako, soon spreading to Segou, the country’s second city. Thousands of civilian protesters threw up barricades and burned tires, effectively shutting down the capital as President Amadou Toumani Touré desperately tried to restore order. Government security forces were dispatched with tear gas and blank bullets to stifle the street demonstrations. As we have seen, this was only the beginning. But it provided the initial spark that eventually triggered the mutiny in Kati, which in turn evolved into the coup overthrowing the President.

This has led some to view the coup as “accidental” and “improvised.” But this improvised genesis of the coup still raises questions: to what extent is the junta expressing or reflecting the will of the people in the street? Is there any overlap between the junta’s populist rhetoric and the grievances of ordinary urban and rural Malians? Indeed, in assessing the crisis of Mali’s democracy, the world community must seriously address Malian popular grievances. And the main grievances I have in mind are ones that reach beyond dissatisfaction with the Malian government’s mishandling of the anti-separatist wars in the north.

The coup has occurred. Hence it is of limited utility to discuss whether one is “for” or “against” the coup. For the record, this author views the coup as a retrograde political development and an unfortunate mistake; coming on the eve of elections—elections in which Touré was not even a candidate—it is a major disservice to the Malian people and their institutions of governance. As such, the international community has rightfully condemned the coup. That said, the mainstream media’s reflexive response to the coup has been to cast it as a struggle between “democracy” and “military tyranny,” without examining the deeper structures at play, or the prevailing neoliberal order, behind the current political crisis. Indeed, beneath the surface – that churning and frothing epiphenomena of political theater – there are deeper issues shaping the trajectories of political change in Mali. In tandem with other moving parts, these deep causes have produced the current crisis.

Among those moving parts, much has been said about the unintended consequences and spillover of the Libyan wars into the Sahel zone. Arms and mercenaries have flowed into northern Mali in the wake of Qaddafi’s overthrow, fanning the fires of Tuareg discontent. But these once-proud desert warriors have perennially opposed the state, leading to a series of rebellions against the post-colonial Malian government from the 1960s. Even during the pre-colonial and colonial periods, these nomadic groups existed largely outside state-spaces. Thus, a fundamental cause continues to be the unresolved tensions in the north, and the inability to convince the Tuareg that belonging to the Malian state is in their interests. Now, more recently, with ample arms, vehicles, and skilled fighters, they have stunned the Malian army with their rapid conquests in the north. At the moment of this writing, they are on the verge of even taking Kidal and Timbuktu. Again, they are mostly separatists, but not monolithically so. The MNLA wants to carve out an independent nation of Azawad, free from the Bamako-based Malian government, which it views as tyrannical and unresponsive to northern concerns. Another group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) appears primarily concerned with operating its smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom business. And it should be noted that the MNLA has stated that one of its goals is to defeat AQIM, which has severely damaged the Tuareg economy by virtually ending tourism in the region. The third major group, Ansar Dine seeks to establish northern Mali as an Islamic state based on shar’ia law, according to leader Iyad ag Ghali. His group has been purportedly backed by Saudi Wahhabis. Taken as a whole, the “northern insurgency” has overwhelmed the Malian government and thrown it into a crisis that threatens to deepen and spread beyond its borders.

Back to Bamako, where the coup leaders saw a kind of political opportunism in the run-up to the April 29 elections. While it is impossible at this stage to impute particular motives or intentions, we know of the military’s dissatisfactions as expressed by the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR). Furthermore, their stated and perceived intentions will be evolving in response to forces on the ground. Echoing the grievances of the women protesters, they state that they overthrew the government because of its “incompetence.” We’ve heard their rhetoric about defending democracy, fighting “terrorism,” restoring effective governance and such. And we’ve also been forced to contemplate the junta’s statements about returning to democracy once the country has been “unified” and “no longer threatened.” All of this is fairly familiar boilerplate reminiscent of African leaders, such as Mobutu and others who since the 1960s spoke of national unity while remaining clients of former colonial rulers or Cold War powers. In this light, U.S.-trained Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the head of the putschists, has neglected to count the presence of U.S. counter-terrorism forces, neoliberal economic policies or Franco-African neocolonial relationships as threats to “national unity” or “territorial integrity” alongside corruption, state paralysis and the northern insurgency.

In looking more deeply into rural and urban grievances in Mali, we must acknowledge the subsistence crisis at a time when the country is entering the “hungry season” as last year’s grain stocks dwindle. Mali is primarily a peasant society in which ordinary rural people produce subsistence crops to survive and grow cotton or peanuts for income. As such, their livelihoods depend on adequate rainfall, which has been in decline since the late 1960s and caused several devastating famines. With West Africa’s Sahel region suffering a widespread drought in 2010 and another in 2011-2012, more than 13 million people in the region are facing a food crisis. This includes 3.5 million Malians threatened by malnutrition and possible famine. Food prices have skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the northern insurgency has disrupted trade and spurred the flight of roughly 200,000 Malian refugees.

It would seem that the grievances generated by subsistence pressures on peasants might well be contained within rural areas far from the recent happenings in Bamako. But rural peoples are often integrally connected to urban areas via migration and the remittance economy. Furthermore, the general dearth weighs especially heavily on urban-dwellers who typically buy food rather than produce it. Nevertheless, beyond environmental and agricultural vicissitudes, there is a widespread sense in Bamako that democracy has not been working for ordinary Malians. More educated urban-dwellers have grown impatient with the lack of economic opportunities, and the slow pace of improvements in education and the judicial system. Many have adopted jaded views of democratic institutions and commonly bemoan the corruption, nepotism, and patrimonialism associated with the Touré government. As one young migrant worker in Bamako said to me: “What is democracy? Democracy is about theft from the people. It is about SUVs hitting children on the road and never going to jail.” Or more broadly, as the Malian writer Moussa Konaté recently observed, it has meant the replacement of the military regime of Moussa Traoré by the mafia-like clique of ATT “for whom personal interests are above public interest.” Elections have become empty exercises and “parodies of democracy,” in which votes are purchased and governing elites are recycled. So far, Malians have been rather risk-averse in publicly expressing support or opposition to the coup, except in social media, where they overwhelmingly oppose the coup, and during the recent March 26 demonstrations and hunger strikes of detained ministers. The silent majority is clearly waiting to see which way the wind will blow, and whether adequate security can allow Malians to get on with the business of everyday survival.

In a more nebulous way, we might consider the cultural geography of the separatist conflict in Mali. Thus, the inability of the “southern” government to deal with the “northern” insurgency, and the humiliating defeats the MNLA has inflicted on Malian soldiers, have conjured up histories of enslavement and the indignities associated with it. These evocations of domination by “Arabs” and “Berbers” on northern battlefields are popular themes and ones that rally people in Bamako. This is something that the CNRDR could sell, and indeed sell profitably, particularly as they couch their grievances in the language of “terrorism,” language that draws on collective memories and popular understandings of enslavement and the racial basis of slavery. However, there are dangers lurking in using the “race card.” We have already seen that during the street demonstrations of January and February, there were reports of attacks on Tuaregs, and destruction of Tuareg businesses in the south, mainly in Bamako and Segou. There was also talk of possible wider anti-Tuareg pogroms. To keep his hold on power, Capt. Sanogo has moved quickly to quiet the xenophobia and anti-Tuareg hysteria. In a recent interview, he stated that the “Tuareg people in the north, the Arab people, are our brothers,” while noting that the “door is open” for discussion and resolution of the crisis. This could be intended for a Western audience. But for his stated “total control” over the country to be fully realized he cannot risk Mali slipping further into chaos.

In short, it remains to be seen to what extent the intentions and interests of the coup leaders represent or overlap with those of civil society. But let us not be fooled by the myth of “Mali as a flourishing democracy,” and unduly over-dichotomize the proponents of democracy versus the forces of military autocracy. Did not democracy emerge through a military coup? When ATT overthrew military ruler Moussa Traoré in 1991, he made similar statements to those of Capt. Sanogo during the transition to multi-party democracy. And, since then, given the lack of state capacity and general state fragility, Mali has done admirably well in maintaining its commitment to democratic institutions, a free press, and so forth. Narrowly positing the CNRDR as just the latest manifestation of a “typical” African coup by power-hungry soldiers does not help in analyzing its origins or implications. To be clear, the coup is a big step back. The CNRDR should be viewed with no legitimacy. The coup is certainly not cut from the same cloth as the populist uprisings in the Arab Spring. It would have been better to allow voters to express their grievances, once again, via the ballot box, and cross one’s fingers that this time democracy would work beyond the performative rituals of elections. Regardless, this is where we are now. At present, Capt. Sanogo appeals to a populist language, but only because without doing so the CNRDR risks losing all potential legitimacy. Indeed, coups are games of high stakes: Sanogo either sees this through or faces the prospects of elimination. To survive, he will need to merge his “wars of maneuver” with whatever forms of populist support of the CNRDR emerges in the ensuing weeks. He will need to constantly revise his purpose and political tactics.

Of course, whether or not the CNRDR stays true to its commitments to democratic institutions and sundry reforms of the state remains to be seen, and depends on whether or not a counter-offensive ever materializes, which at this point is appearing less likely. In the short-term, the coup leaders will seek to clamp down on looting and prove their ability to govern. If not, expect a quick and furious civilian backlash.  Tolerance and cooperation are central values in Malian society, and indeed the mostly bloodless nature of this coup is remarkable. But when their sense of “moral economy,” that is to say their popular notions of justice and fairness at a time of dearth, is threatened, Malians have proven themselves more than capable of mobilizing against tyranny and conditions that they deem intolerable, as seen in 1991. And, in the end, it will be for Malians to decide what they’re willing to tolerate. For outsiders to blindly rally behind the word “democracy,” without acknowledging what it means in local contexts, or even how “politics” operate in rural and urban Malian settings, is a disavowal of the risks Malians are willing to take for a better future.

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One Response to Taking Grievances Seriously in the Malian Political Crisis

  1. Kalao says:

    Hi Brian,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Malian crises.

    I agree with you that it is very important to nuance different aspects of the coup in Mali.

    I would like to add two themes for reflection.

    In the first place, the implication of foreign powers in the coup and/or in its aftermath. I still think it was largely an accidental coup, not inspired by any national or foreign power, albeit with some indirect push caused by Nato interference in Libya. Apparently, frustration about corruption, weakness and lack of information led to a demonstration and then to a mutiny and then to a coup (illustrating perfectly the weakness of the regime: the mutineers hardly met with any resistance, and the red berets limited themselves to saving ATT). After the coup, however, France took the lead in mobilizing aggressive international and especially West-African reactions against the coup.
    Why would France act in that way? It is my guess that France was very much disappointed that their president-to-be was ousted by this coup. ATT never was France’s favorite and he even was the object of France’s scorn over the last few years.

    At the same time, it seems clear that France’s close ties with the MNLA have influenced their decisions.

    I have an impression that Mali’s coup leaders want to distance themselves from this kind of foreign influence and I congratulate them for it (even if I wonder why captain Sanogo is proudly showing his USA lapel pin).

    In the second place, I would like to refer to Malian culture as it is used in commercial and administrative relations: Privileges are given and taken because of relations of kinship, friendship and prestige, complemented by financial transactions. One might call this corruption and corruption it is, but at the same time it is far more complicated. For most people in Mali it is expected, nay normal that one can profit from relations of kinship, friendship and prestige. For many westerners this seems nice too, especially if they themselves are privileged. Waiting in line in an office, a hospital, a bank or anywhere, one may be called forward to be attended with priority being a cousin, a friend, a diplomat or whatever owes one the privilege. One can get on because of one’s relationships. Someone who doesn’t have that relationships will probably have to wait – or to pay. And it’s not only about waiting, it is about much more fundamental things.

    It seems to me that the Malian coup leaders want to act against this pernicious aspects of Malian culture.

    To conclude my argument, I think that the coup leaders have some important themes in their hands, and I hope these themes will not be spoiled when the pressure is mounting.

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