Forget the Coup in Mali for a Moment–Why Wasn’t There a Revolution?

At the Monkey Cage, Stanford Ph.D. student Jessica Gottleib posted yesterday on why “we” (by which I think she means Americans) should care about the recent coup in Mali. Most of the analysis of Mali I’ve read since March has focused on explaining the coup itself, which was widely (though not universally) considered a surprise. The country had chosen its national government through competitive, multiparty elections since 1992, and during that time, it saw a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Those patterns had convinced many observers that democracy in Mali was more or less permanent, and by that reckoning, the March 2012 coup shouldn’t have happened.

Surprises are crucial opportunities for theory-building, because they tell us that something in our prior models or measures was wrong. I think there’s another aspect of the situation in Mali that’s equally relevant for theories of democratic consolidation, though, and that’s the apparent popularity of the coup after its occurrence. Support for the coup certainly isn’t universal, but it’s higher than we might expect in a country where democratic norms and values were supposed to have taken root. As Gottleib writes,

A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime…Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.

This support is manifest in street politics. Not long after the coup, a plane carrying a delegation of West African leaders to negotiate with the new junta turned back before it reached Bamako because pro-junta demonstrators were staging a sit-in on the airport tarmac. In May, when those leaders reached a deal with coup leader Capt. Sanogo to keep interim president Dioncounda Traoré in office for a year, thousands of Malians turned out in Bamako to protest the foreign pressure on Sanogo, shouting “Down with Ecowas!” and “Down with Dioncounda!” and eventually attacking Traoré in his office.

Bridges from Bamako blogger Bruce Whitehouse sees the popularity of the coup as “an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States.”

Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government.

If so many Malians were so fed up with their ruling elites, why wasn’t there a revolution long before the March 2012 coup? I’d be very interested to hear what Malians and area experts have to say about this, but in the meantime, I think social-science theory suggests some promising leads.

One possible answer is what economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” Writing about the surprising revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kuran observes that

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

In the case of Mali, it was the coup itself that seems to have uncovered a stronger desire for change than many outside observers had seen. A coup is hardly an “insignificant event,” but the basic mechanism is the same.

Kuran’s theory emphasizes the role of uncertainty in the production of a revolution, or the lack thereof. Uncertainty induces caution, but that caution may evaporate when some event signals that it’s finally safe for citizens to reveal their true preferences. I’m sure that’s relevant, but I wonder if more conventional collective-action problems aren’t at least as influential. One of the things I’ve learned from my work on democratic breakdowns and mass mobilization is it’s very hard to organize a popular uprising, even in cases where popular frustration is clear. Where Kuran sees incomplete information as the driving force, I’m more inclined to see a couple of more conventional hurdles to collective action.

The first of these hurdles is the well-known free-rider problem. When the benefits of some course of action will be widely shared, it’s hard to convince people to contribute to its production, because unless lots of people pitch in, each person’s narrow slice of those benefits will often be smaller than the expected costs of producing them. I might rather live in a democracy than this dictatorship, but why should I risk my life and career so a bunch of people who can’t be bothered to do the same can enjoy the fruits of my labor? This problem plagues attempts to organize for all kinds of objectives, from collective bargaining with employers to pot-luck dinners, and organizing for national policy change surely lies near the harder end of this spectrum.

The second hurdle I have in mind has to do with expected gains. When popular uprisings do happen in democracies, they rarely succeed, in part because political outsiders lack the means to directly effect major change without breaking the system–and they usually can’t do that, either. If would-be participants are aware that the odds are against them, then it’s going to be even harder to convince them to rebel, because the expected payoff from their actions is going to be much smaller.

We can see this problem clearly in Ecuador in 1997, when a deepening economic crisis helped to drive millions of Ecuadorians to participate in a general strike aimed at forcing President Abdalá Bucaram to resign. The National Assembly responded to this massive show of force by voting to remove the already-controversial Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity”–and then installed Assembly leader Fabián Alarcón as his replacement. The end result of this tsunami of popular action was a change in the face of power with no attendant change in the system.

A similar dynamic occurred early this year in the Maldives. After ordering the arrest of the country’s criminal court chief justice, democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed survived several weeks of street protests, only to “resign” when police and military officials allegedly showed up in his office and gave him an ultimatum. According to a Reuters investigation, the immediate beneficiaries of this “coup of opportunity” were not the protesters but the police and soldiers who were allegedly paid off by associates of the ancien regime and the self-same businessmen whose graft cases were thrown out by the criminal court after Nasheed’s departure. Here, protesters played an instrumental role in the termination of democracy, but they seem to have gained little for their efforts.

Citizens were more successful in Bolivia in 2003, when farmers, students, and indigenous groups responded to an unpopular plan to export more natural gas with a wave of strikes, demonstrations, and roadblocks. That uprising drove President Sánchez de Lozada to suspend his plan and then resign, but that resignation had much less impact on national policy than the election several years later of Evo Morales. In other words, it wasn’t until an opposition took power by more conventional channels that it succeeded in changing the system, and even that change has been less radical than many of its agents would like.

The combination of free-rider problems and the inherent difficulties of effecting political change from the outside help to explain why we so rarely see popular uprisings against nominally democratic regimes, even when many citizens are openly dissatisfied or disgusted with the status quo. This pattern matters for theory-building because it suggests that popular attitudes about democracy are less influential than we often presume. Even in democracies, the struggle for national power is primarily an elite affair contested by a small number of fairly insular organizations. Democracies are distinguished by the presence of rules and practices that allow citizens to determine (nominally, at least) the outcome of those contests, to join those organizations, and sometimes even to form new ones, but those rules and practices don’t negate the basic tendency toward oligarchy in all political systems. That’s ironic and sad, but we get better theories when we acknowledge instead of ignoring it.

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  1. Mike

     /  June 8, 2012

    Interesting article for Mali buffs such as myself, so I thought I would add some comments on why no revolution before.

    Having spent some time in Mali, it is pretty hard to imagine a popular uprising against the government for the reasons you mention, and I believe the contextual factors which create free rider & expected gains problems are:

    – Mali is twice the size of Texas and has a population half as large
    – Mali’s population is mostly rural and heavily engaged in subsistence farming
    – Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world
    – Mali has one of the lowest adult literacy rates in the world (~23%)
    – Nearly have of Mali’s population is under the age of 15
    – Mali’s government provides very little in the way of public services, and Mali’s citizens pay very little in the form of taxes

    What all this means is that you have a widely dispersed, ill informed population that is primarily focused on meeting today’s needs and is pretty skeptical that the government is serving their interest in any meaningful way. Not paying taxes and having a huge part of the population unable to vote means that election outcomes on the national level are probably not that materially important to most people. And when you talk about corruption around government finances, whose money is it that they are stealing exactly? To a large extent it is donor money intended for the poor, but which the poor does not view as being theirs.

    Another important factor is to look at the neighborhood where Mali exists. Malians look around and see election violence in Guinea, thousands dead in Cote d’Ivoire, and the remnants of not so long ago civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And as you aptly point out, what did all that death and destruction earn the average rural family in the end. For Malians, there are not too little expected gains, but too large expected losses. The current situation seems to bear this out as donor money takes flight and a looming food security and struggle for the north continues.

    Under Toure’s Govt., at least the donor dollars flowed generously, if not efficiently. Where the govt. seems to have made a critical miscalculation is that they stole from the wrong constituency, the military. Poorly provisioned army units were left to be massacred by a much better seasoned and equipped rebel force in the north. In response, the military (wealthier, better educated, better organized, better armed, more aggrieved) swept the govt. who they would have likely kept in power had the challenge come from any other group.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. How does support for this coup compare to support for coups in other countries which were supposed to have established democracies? I can’t help but wonder if after-the-fact support for a coup might be almost as high even in the U.S., if the outgoing president had a very low approval rating and the coup was executed in the name of some very popular issue.

    In the U.S. this is completely uncharted territory of course, but I’d like to introduce a grain of doubt in regards to assumption that populations satisfied with democracy one moment might not favor a coup in the next moment, given the right circumstances.

    I’m not a coup expert though, so I’d be happy to hear a counter-argument or any other information from other countries that might shed light on this issue.

    • Granten

       /  June 18, 2012

      Coups don’t just require that the leader be unpopular. The entire system must seem to have failed comprehensibly enough that the legislators and bureaucrats do not appear to have legitimacy. Also real democracies share a great deal of power among several different groups, robbing would-be coup leaders of much early support*.

      Considering the very low ranks of the leaders of the coup there could be a strong class element both between the population and the previous government and between the soldiers and the generals.

      *Which is also, in my opinion, why real democracies rarely have revolutions.


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