Malian democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy. Or perhaps, more accurately, Mali is no longer a democracy but it faced a crisis of legitimacy – before the recent coup. The question remains if Mali can establish legitimacy during the post-coup democratic transition. On August 18th, members of the Malian Armed Forces stormed a military base in Kati, to acquire weapons and armored vehicles, and then proceeded to Bamako, the capital. On arrival, several government officials, including President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, were taken into custody by soldiers. President Keïta quickly announced that he would resign and dissolve the government and parliament. The military coup, and Keïta’s resignation, were not a complete surprise as these actions are consistent with the argument of Acemoglu and Robinson in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy that both democratization and coups are more likely during political and economic crises. However, due to the failure of the government to adequately respond to the multiple crises facing Mali, a coup resulted rather than democratization.
Mali’s relatively new democracy – it was only eight years since the last coup – faced considerable strain. In its time in power, the democratic regime failed to adequately address corruption, economic struggles and the conflict with rebel groups in the northern region. These failures contributed to a crisis of legitimacy. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz defines legitimacy as “the belief that in spite of shortcomings and failures, the existing political institutions are better than any others that might be established, and that they therefore can demand obedience”. Widespread support among the citizens in Mali for the military coup demonstrates that the democratic regime in Mali did not have legitimacy. Linz also explains that it is crucial for those in authority to follow the rules of the games, especially those who have control of the armed forces. Additionally, he goes on to argue that a military is unlikely to go against the government unless it believes that its views have popular support. The demonstrations conducted throughout the summer likely helped to affirm the military’s views. Notably the demonstration on June 5, where the opposition movement led by Mahmoud Dicko called for the resignation of the president, sent a clear signal to the military that it would enjoy support if it were to attempt a coup. So the military did just that. The COVID-19 pandemic and the mounting protests from the opposition movement helped to pave the way for a democratic breakdown and the resulting military coup.
Given that Mali had become democratic only recently, democratic norms were not able to take hold and people were not able to learn to respect and appreciate democracy. In Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding by Ellen Lust, one of the theories of democratic backsliding mentioned relates to political culture. Theories of political culture assert that widely shared norms, beliefs and practices contribute to political outcomes (Lust 14). In Mali’s relatively young democracy, norms and practices around democracy had not been fully established and consolidated, legitimacy had not been solidified, thereby presenting an opportunity for stresses on the system to lead to a coup.
Colonel-Major Ismael Wague, a spokesman for the coup, justified the action by explaining, “Mali descends into chaos day by day [with] anarchy and insecurity because of the fault of the people in charge of its destiny. Real democracy doesn’t go with complacency, nor weakness of the state authority, which must guarantee freedom and security of the people.” Colonel-Major Wague expressed sentiments of democratic failure and justified the coup as saving Mali from further chaos with the intention of restoring democracy in the future. This justification falls in line with Nancy Bermeo’s definition of promissory coups, explained in On Democratic Backsliding. Bermeo defines promissory coups as ones in which the ouster claims to have conducted the coup to restore democracy and promises to hold elections.
Promissory coups are a common problem of democratic erosion and are understudied. With better attention to backsliding and fragility of legitimacy, could these crises be averted? Could the international community have exerted pressure or offered assistance to prevent the coup in Mali from occurring in the first place? So far, pressure from the international community has been aimed at putting Mali back on the track to democracy. The international community has encouraged the military regime to hold elections in eighteen months and, in the meantime, to appoint civilians to positions of power. The Economic Community of West African States indicated that it would not lift sanctions imposed on Mali unless a civilian prime minister was named, something the military regime accomplished recently.
For Mali to have a brighter democratic future, it is imperative that the democratic regime enjoys legitimacy. I hope that in eighteen months a democratic transition with free and fair elections occurs. It is crucial that these elections be legitimate, with the opportunity of many people to have the chance to get support in order to establish legitimacy and move democracy in Mali forward. It is essential that a democratic regime is established that is respected by the people and is able to respond to future crises.