A Post-Coup World? Mali and the Slow Decline of Military Dictatorships

What the decline of military leaders in Africa portends is that African peoples are gradually coming to terms with the fact that the state must be accountable to them and should not be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few.

On 18 August 2020, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the president of Mali, was ousted by the Malian military under the auspices of Colonel Assimi Goita. This coup, one of many in the political history of the troubled West African state, was cheered on by ordinary Malians who, for months, have protested against the insecurity, poverty and unemployment they insist is caused by the greed and incompetence of Keïta’s government.

While this ‘unconstitutional’ change in Mali’s political order enjoys support from the political opposition and the majority of Malians, the military intervention has received condemnation from regional and continental organizations such as the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as by states including Turkey; the United States, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, China, and South Africa, all of whom demand a restoration of constitutional order and the rule of law. These contrasting reactions raise important questions. Should transitions through non-democratic, unconstitutional means—like coups—be legitimized especially when they are supported by the people? What is the value of the democratic process?

Since 1952, there have been over 476 coups globally, 206 of which have been attempted in Africa. What coups everywhere share is that they are fuelled by a deficit—real or perceived—in governance, a deficit the military purports to correct by a swift and potent recalibration of the existing political order. Coup-prone states are of course beset by elevated levels of poverty and insecurity, the atmosphere of instability that has bred coups not only in Mali but in Sudan, Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe.

The Problem with Coups

The increasing demand for accountability in myriad political systems has meant that both autocracies and democracies are under stress. Regardless of the system, citizens everywhere are increasingly demanding public wellbeing, rights and freedoms. In weak democracies with feeble institutions, the popular clamour for political change is without any specific regard to methods, and, as in Mali, the military is cheered when it overrides the mechanisms of democratic transition. And though this outcome may seem a decisive corroboration of the popular will, coups hamper state-building and democratic consolidation.

To begin with, there are no real guarantees that coups will engineer democratic transition and consolidation or address the very problems they claim as justification. In some cases, military coups—successful or not—have ushered in and helped to consolidate authoritarian regimes. Although coups are not necessarily opposed to capitalism and market forces, in some cases military regimes create hostile environments for entrepreneurship, innovation, and business investments. In Zimbabwe, for example, when Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule was truncated by the military, a new dawn for democratic transition seemed to have arrived. But to the disappointment of Zimbabweans, his replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has stifled political opposition  and cracked down on anti-corruption protesters, describing them as ‘dark forces’ and ‘terrorist opposition groupings.’ Meanwhile, Zimbabwe continues to suffer economic malaise.

Failed coups seem even more dangerous to democratic freedoms than successful ones as they could lead to the abrupt suspension of parts of, if not the entire, constitution. Take Turkey, for instance. In an unprecedented deployment of extensive emergency powers, in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the summary dismissal or extrajudicial arrest of more than 5,800 academics who were accused of connection with the coup and the Gulen movement. The collateral damage for scholars who have faced such charges is not only the loss of their right to work in the public service but the loss of their freedom to emigrate as their passports were confiscated. With the threat of such wanton deprivations hovering over the heads of scholars, subjects such as the state of emergency, the constitutional decree and Turkish foreign policy toward Syria—to mention a few—have implicitly become unexplorable terrain.

Coups set bad political precedents for any polity because they betray the absence of strong democratic institutions and the willingness to build them. Building strong institutions is hard work that requires sustained collective effort on the part of citizens and their representatives. Strong institutions serve as effective checks against corruption and economic mismanagement. But, rather than build strong democratic institutions, the masses hew to the political rhetoric of the military elite to bypass the prerequisite for democratic consolidation. Only later—or perhaps never—is it realized that coups set a precedent for a vicious circle of military intervention that threatens political stability—a ‘coup culture’, as political scientists call it.

Sudan, for instance, had undergone 14 coups before Omar al-Bashir’s 1989 coup. In 2019, he was himself ousted by a coup. Further west in Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré—who himself came to power through a successful coup in 1987—was in 2014 ousted by the 10th of such coups. An 11th coup failed in 2015 because of popular demonstrations and international remonstration. In Mali, the August 18, 2020 coup is reminiscent of the 2012 coup that toppled Amadou Toumani Touré’s government. That coup created ‘functional holes’ in governance and was pivotal to the occupation of northern Mali by Islamist militants. And in Turkey, there have been five coups, the latest of which failed in 2016.

The Value in Democratic Governance

Perhaps the state most renowned for its coup culture is Thailand, which with 13 successful coups, may be considered the ‘coup capital of the world’. In 1932, the Thai military abolished seven centuries of absolute monarchy in what is termed the ‘Siamese revolution’, establishing a constitutional monarchy in modern Thailand by forcing King Prajadhipok’s submission to the people’s rule. Less than a year later, the Thai military forcibly removed its first democratically elected prime minister, Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, and installed its second prime minister, Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena who served for five years. In 1938, Thai military officer Plaek Phibunsongkhram assumed the mantle of dictatorial leadership and used it to enlarge the coast of his cronies while purging the state of his rivals and political enemies. Further coups by the Thai military occurred in 1947, 1951 (the ‘Silent Coup’), 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991, 2006, and, more recently, in 2014. Despite being swayed by the early promises of historical coups, today, ordinary Thai citizens are demanding a complete overhaul of the constitution and the eradication of coups. Thai protesters’ signs read ‘Democracy must come from the people. We don’t hate our nation. We hate dictatorship. No coup.’

Democracy is valuable, trumping other forms of governance in terms of its balance of merits and demerits. Democracy is as much about procedures as it is about outcomes, and, with regard to inclusion, stability, and respect for rights and freedoms, democratic mechanisms tend to guarantee better outcomes. The reason is simple: the majority is more likely to represent the commonwealth than the instincts of a few. In her book Democratic Reason, the political theorist, Hélène Landemore, contends that because collective decision-making considers multiple viewpoints, it is surprisingly more accurate compared to individual decision-making based on multifarious biases and heuristics. Creating the conditions for the free airing of differing opinions promotes a sense of inclusion in the political system, and rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed and enforced by democratic institutions.

The combination of both these factors produces a stable polity, a condition not guaranteed through even the most palatable military dictatorship. As far as democratic governance is concerned, political authority derives from the ‘constituent power’ and the ‘constituted powers’ are accountable to the constituent power.

How Democracies Effect Change

The problem with coups is that they subvert the constituent power as the foundation of the polity as they are more often than not based on the biases of a select few in the military in collaboration with some civilians. Coup-plotters tend to portray democracy as a flawed political system that cannot address problems such as endemic corruption, lack of economic growth, unemployment, and poverty. But coups themselves rarely resolve political crises: the solutions to political conundrums can be found in democracy itself, most especially in the power of elections, civil disobedience, and the judiciary, among others, to shore up accountability and public legitimacy. Democracy is its own cure—for, the solution to weak democratic governance is more, and not less, democracy.

There is pervasive evidence that democratic mechanisms deriving from the constituent power can force positive change. In Ethiopia, protests over the perceived discrimination and marginalization of the Oromo ethnic group which commenced in 2015 gradually transmogrified into demands for political rights so that, by 2018, the authoritarian regime had collapsed and ushered in a more democratic one under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that has so far instituted policies to safeguard citizens’ rights and liberties. The same pattern occurred in Armenia where, in 2018, protesters marched into the streets of Yerevan to condemn the rampant corruption in the political system, which forced the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan. His successor, President Nikol Pashinyan, has so far made efforts to build strong democratic institutions to stymie corruption and boost accountability. And, in Algeria in 2019, after almost 20 years of dictatorial rule, peaceful mass protests—the ‘Revolution of Smiles’—forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Although this has not necessarily led to the democratic consolidation in the Algerian political system, it shows how much the constituent power can force regime change through non-violent protests against incompetent, corrupt governments.

The force of democracy to effect positive change is not limited to mass protests, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. In countries like Gambia, Malawi and the Maldives, inefficient governments and military dictators have been removed through free and fair democratic elections. In Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the small West African state for 22 years, was voted out by Gambians in 2016. The wrongfooted Jammeh grudgingly relinquished power to Adama Barrow, the triumphant opposition candidate. Perhaps Jammeh would not have considered elections had he entertained any thought of losing. In the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, accused of undermining the Maldivian democratic institutions through human rights abuses and stifling of the press, was voted out in 2018. His successor, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has worked to address evident human rights abuses by prosecuting their perpetrators. And, recently, in Malawi, opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera garnered 59 per cent of the electoral votes and defeated the incumbent Peter Mutharika, whose regime had been blemished by accusations of corruption and bad governance. It is increasingly difficult for autocracies and weak democracies to maintain their clout when people want more in terms of political rights, civil liberties, and good governance.

The End of Military Dictatorships?

All of these is to suggest that peoples everywhere are increasingly demanding democratic governance.  Citizens of myriad polities want accountability and good governance, which guarantee less corruption and economic wellbeing. Across Africa, the demand for democracy is high but the supply is low, and this creates not only a disequilibrium in African political systems but also a vast army of dissatisfied democrats who want more from the system. Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, coups have generally declined not just in Africa but around the world. What the decline of military leaders in Africa portends is that African peoples are gradually coming to terms with the fact that the state must be accountable to them and should not be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. Africa is not a stagnant continent with impoverished, unenlightened, masses but a dynamic space for cultivating the democratic spirit. But the case of Mali is evidence that we should not get too comfortable with the supposed decline of military dictatorships.

What we learn from a plethora of undemocratic transitions is that they are unlikely to solve societal problems such as corruption and poor economic development. Instead, they worsen the case for citizens, increasing the likelihood of repression, instability, and economic decline. As Malian citizens and the political opposition cheer on their military for overthrowing a democratically elected government, they paradoxically endorse the subversion of their own collective will, enchain themselves to strongmen, internalize a coup culture of abrupt fixes, sacrifice their rights and liberties, and ignore the necessity of building strong institutions. To rejuvenate the ‘democratic impulse’, Malians must regain self-consciousness and recognize the supremacy of their own will—the democratic will—over that of a military clique. For only a democratic solution to corruption and economic mismanagement can salvage its democracy.

Democracy may well not be a perfect political system, but it is the best compared to its authoritarian alternatives. Many decades ago, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl endorsed, what he termed ‘tragic optimism’—the idea that one should remain optimistic in spite of the existential conundrums in our frail human lives. In our multiverse of peoples, ideologies, traditions, languages, cultures, genders and religions, we might as well be optimistic about the possibility of democracy to heal the wounds that divide us and facilitate the pursuit of happiness

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