Alpha Oumar Konare carries the distinction of being the only Malian leader to have completed his constitutional term since the country’s Independence in 1960. Modibo Keita, Mali’s founding president, was overthrown in a 1968 coup by Moussa Traore who ruled the country until his own ouster, in another military coup, in March 1991. A two-decade experiment with civilian rule was rudely interrupted in March 2012, when president Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown by the military.
Last week, Col Malick Diaw led soldiers in another coup d’état, the fourth in a checkered political history that saw mutinous soldiers oust President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18. By and large, coups have fallen out of fashion and the action in Bamako drew immediate condemnation and sanctions by the Ecowas, the African Union and the wider international community.
That is the way it should be. The frequency of coups is, in itself, evidence that they rarely solve problems. As has been amply demonstrated, while they might deliver short-term satisfaction in the departure of a reviled figure, coups rarely resolve the underlying economic and political grievances at the core of societal discontent. In the majority of cases, the disruption they cause only reinforces the persistent challenges of poverty and hunger, setting the stage for yet more discontent.
A few examples suffice. The reasons advanced by the coup makers of Mali have barely changed since the first putsch in 1968. Zimbabwe and Sudan are facing popular protests, months after popular uprisings against their former rulers. Extreme cases such as the Central African Republic have descended into total collapse of the State, with no end in sight to the spiral of violence.
Yet the political elite cannot be completely absolved of blame. Their dogmatic hold onto power, even after their welcome has gone rancid, and violent repression of their political opponents, makes coups an attractive proposition.
There is an urgent need for a reconstruction of the social compact in Africa. In many African polities, there is no constitutional provision to allow an incumbent to interrupt his tenure with a snap election, to revalidate their mandate to govern. The fusion of several elections into a single cycle denies citizens an opportunity to express their displeasure by shifting support from the ruling party through mid-term elections. Electoral systems also tend to be so opaque and compromised that the outcomes of elections are always a contentious matter.
Democratic elections and leadership changes through the ballot may not always result in ideal outcomes. Despite their shortcomings, however, they represent a system that, over time, has been proven to be the lesser evil. Mali, supported by the African Union, should therefore work hard at making its electoral process credible.
For long-term peace and stability, Mali needs to move away from rule by the gun to rule of law, presided over by a civilian regime that is accountable to the electorate. By design, the armed forces are structured to defend the state against external aggression, or the illegal actions of internal actors that threaten national integrity. The soldiers who mutinied in Mali must give up political power and return to the barracks in the shortest time possible. That is where they belong.