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Mali: Democracy Failed?

September 24, 2012

Failure of A Democracy? Former US ambassador in Mali stated in 2006 that “Mali has achieved a record of democratization that is among the best in Africa”. The government of Mali was seen by many as a democratic model in which elections were held and presidents were leaving offices upon completion of their terms. But in March 2012 the democratic game broke down: soldiers angry at the government for the mishandling of the counter-rebellion operation overthrew the president. For many Mali was on the right path: why then was so easy to reverse it? To understand why this happened one can look at the record of democracies around the worlds and tease out what tips the balance against the survival of a democratic regimes. Political scientists Przeworski and colleagues did so and asked what conditions are to be in place this year  if a randomly selected country is to have a democratic regime next year. Their findings are revealing: a country is more likely to be a democracy next year if it is a democracy this year i.e. if it holds elections where the opposition stands a fair chance to win. Democracy is very unlikely to survive in countries with a per capita income less than $1000 but its odds augment if they are able to generate economic development and to reduce inequality. Similarly, an enabling international climate make the survival of any democracy more likely. If one looks at these factors one can make sense of what went wrong with Mali’s democracy.

From Sham Democracy to Dictatorship?[1] Every five years since 1991, year in which Mali put an end to the single party rule, Mali held elections considered by observers as free and fair. If one scratches the surface however a different reality comes out. Electoral hold-ups were the norm and the elections seemed to formalize a transfer of power from a person to another which was chosen before and outside the ballot. Many in Mali thought that the current president Touré had been chosen by his predecessor and that elections were orchestrated to legitimize the investment of power. For this reason many did not bother to cast their ballots: turnout for Mali’s elections was the lowest in West Africa. Despite this, president Touré was successful in creating the illusion of functioning democratic institutions: the form was in place but not the function. Donors were happy with this status quo and kept pumping money into the country as long as the government was making an effort to increase enrollment rates. Other, more substantial changes could wait. Mali in other words missed one of the factors which increases the odds of having a democracy next year: a democracy this year. It had a sham democracy with no legitimacy to the population and propped up by foreign money.

Quest for Affluence. In Mali the income per capita in 2005 is 1,077$ (PPP) and 51% of the population lives below 1.25$ PPP per day. Mali in other words is extremely poor and democracy in poor countries has a tough life to survive. Plus Mali failed to produce any significant economic growth which could have increase democracy’s odd to survive.

International Climate: Systems in a Vacuum? Przeworski and colleagues found out that the more  democracies in a region the higher the chance of  a democracy to survive. Another way to look at it is that institutional instability is no good for democracy. Political systems do not exist in a vacuum but are inserted in a regional network where uprising can spill over. When NATO intervened in Libya the instability spilled over the border into Mali. On one side Qaddafi armed Tuareg groups willing to fight for him in exchange of weapons that they could use for whatever use they could see fit once the fight in Libya was over. On the other side the transitional government from Benghazi encouraged the leaders of the Tuareg Islamist movement Ansar Dine to prompt the defection of those Tuareg within Qaddafi’s security forces. At the same time the Tuareg Islamist Movement was tightening its links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This group also benefited  from the weapons bonanza in Libya insofar as it participated in the pillage of weapons in the rebels held areas in Libya. As they did so, they were becoming, in the words of Chad president Idriss Deby Itno, the best armed group in the Sahel.  The war in Libya did not create the rebellion in Mali but there is no doubt that it contributed a great deal to its militarization. As the region was experiencing a terrible food crisis events in Libya made sure that there was no shortage of weapons. Awash with weapons, different groups could now try to impose more assertively their own agendas: be that the autonomy of the region (for the secularist Tuareg movement MNLA) or the application of extreme forms of Sharia laws (for AQIM and Ansar Dine).

In sum a seemingly flourishing democracy unraveled overnight as a result of an accidental coup. A look at what makes democracy survive across the globe sheds light on factors that conjures up the end of a democracy. One should have been more cautious before defining country like Mali  as a stable democracy on the right path: experience around the world shows that  democracies in poor countries and unstable regional environment are far from being stable.


[1] This section draws on the article “What Went Wrong in Mali?” on the London Review of Books

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One Comment leave one →
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