Soldiers toppled the government of Mali in a coup d’etat yesterday. As Stanford Ph.D. candidate Ken Opalo notes on his blog, this turn of events has caught many people by surprise, because Mali has long been regarded as a democratic standout in Africa.
Since (re)democratization in the early 1990s Mali has routinely been cited as a case of democratic consolidation despite seemingly insurmountable odds (poor HDI scores, etc.). The current developments, however, raise serious questions with regard to whether the Malian political and military elite have wholly bought into the idea of settling their battles for power and influence at the ballot.
As it happens, the risk of a coup attempt in Mali in 2012 was more apparent in a statistical forecasting exercise I did at the start of the year. According to that analysis, Mali was the 10th riskiest country in the world, ranking behind nine other African countries–most of which, unlike Mali, have suffered coup attempts in the past few years–and Bangladesh.
The statistical modeling isn’t as complicated as it sounds. That analysis pushed Mali toward the top of the list because Mali’s structural conditions in 2011 look a lot like conditions in other countries that have suffered coup attempts in recent decades.
I wonder, though, if a coup in Mali also seems surprising because we’ve been overstating how democratic that country really was. Since 1992, when Mali began holding competitive multiparty elections, many observers have called out Mali as an African success story, an inspiring example of how democratization can progress under challenging conditions.
That’s not what I saw, however, when I took an admittedly cursory look at politics in Mali several years ago, while making data for a research project on transitions to and from democracy. At the time, I saw legislative elections in early 1997 that had been plagued by serious flaws, and many of the accounts I read implicated members of the leading Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) party in the discovered instances of electoral misconduct. Under an agreement between the incumbent president Alfred Konare and several opposition leaders, the Constitutional Court annulled the results later that month, but the court refused to reschedule the presidential contest, and Konare cruised to re-election with nearly 96 percent of the vote when the opposition boycotted. Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that dozens of members and supporters of the opposition had been arrested ahead of the elections, and some were allegedly tortured. When legislative elections were re-run later in 1997, Konare’s allies won a large majority of seats, effectively consolidating the ruling party’s grip on power by questionable means.
When I mentioned my take on Malian democracy on Twitter this morning, I heard some affirmations, but I also got some pushback. Senam Beheton, for example, argued that, “Regardless of Western plaudits, Mali stood out because the process was driven by Malians based on Mali’s interests.”
I concede that Mali is an ambiguous case, whatever your precise definition of democracy. Still, the surprise many people are expressing about the coup makes me wonder about the consequences of our lowered expectations for democratization in poor countries, and perhaps for Africa in particular. For logistical reasons alone, it’s really hard to hold fair elections. And, as anyone who’s spent any time watching politics can tell you, the logistical challenges are only part of the problem; people everywhere will also do all sorts of things in search of an edge. When we see this stuff in rich countries, we call it a crime. When we see it in poor countries, though, we’re more likely to excuse it as growing pains or technical difficulties.
In school, we’d call that grading on a curve, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As I noted in a previous post, there’s often an instrumental quality to Western narratives about democratization in places like Mali. Looking for exemplars that might inspire other societies, we sometimes choose to ignore or downplay procedural flaws that would raise howls in other contexts. For purposes of democracy promotion, that might even be a sound idea.
Still, in the wake of Mali’s coup, I can’t help wondering if all that cheerleading isn’t part of why we’re so surprised and confused today. I see similar problems in our thinking about Senegal, another supposed exemplar of democracy in Africa where an elected president has tightened his grip on power. Ditto for Ukraine, which went from Orange Revolution darling to creeping authoritarianism in about the same amount of time it took Mali to make its slide in the 1990s. When we keep telling ourselves that things are going great, we often stop refreshing our view and miss the signs of decline and change. “Surely it can’t happen here” turns out to be a pretty dangerous idea.