Mali's Political Crisis Providing a Chance to Refocus Democracy

When Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and other low ranking soldiers deposed Mali's elected President Amadou Toumani Toure in a coup d'etat last March, the international community acted quickly, cutting off aid money and demanding an immediate return to democratic rule. At the same time, many Malians – tired of what they viewed as a dysfunctional and self-serving political class – welcomed the coup.  

While Mali's democracy was lauded by many in the West, voter turnout in the country has never exceeded 30% (of eligible voters) and by 2012, a large number of Malians lacked confidence in both their elected officials and the country's supposedly democratic institutions.  

While the coup was celebrated by many Malians, the euphoria did not last long. The same grievances that were previously raised with respect to Mali's political class began to surface in conversations about Sanogo and the coup leaders.  

More than a year after the coup, Mali still has not held elections and there are ongoing concerns that Malian security services are still able to intervene in politics. At the same time, Mali has not yet recuperated all of its territory and there are lingering security concerns in many northern towns.

It's hard to overstate the extent of Mali's crisis. That said, Mali's current situation offers a chance to reset and refocus the country's approach to governance.  

Now more than ever, Malians are conscious of the fact that their democracy existed in name only. They will tell you how political parties operate – putting on parties in villages, giving out fabric and sacks of rice to effectively buy votes – and how elected leaders fleece money from the state. There is widespread awareness that this is not how things should work. The question is, will this awareness provoke any substantial change, and, do enough Malians understand and believe in the greater potential of a democratic system - one that is founded on transparency and voter participation.  

Over the past several months, I have been attending meetings for SOS Democratie, a newly formed organization in Bamako. Founded by Coumba Bah Traore, who “began seriously thinking about Mali's politics and future after the coup d'etat,” SOS Democractie is a civil advocacy outreach program formed to educate and explain how democracy should function and why voting is imperative. It didn't take long for the group to grow its membership. At the moment, there are roughly 40 members and there are rarely enough seats during the weekly meetings.

The group has already held several gatherings in Bamako neighborhoods, inviting residents to participate in a day of action and awareness. In a recent meeting in the neighborhood of Bankoni, the neighborhood chief, after an animated discussion between SOS Democracy members and Bankoni residents, said that "if we had only had these meetings in the 90's, we could have avoided the crisis we find ourselves in today." In the next month, the group will begin sending volunteers to villages and towns throughout Mali to hold similar meetings in order to “engage people on the topics of democracy, governance, and voter participation.”  

Mali's political crisis could easily worsen in the weeks and months to come. July elections have been called for, yet Mali still has not recaptured all of its northern territory and hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to live in neighboring countries. The enormous task of distributing new voter cards has not even begun. Entrenched political parties with large sums of cash are well positioned to take advantage of hasty elections, and there is a chance that Mali could see yet another recycling of leaders that have proven ineffective. And this is to say nothing of the fact that elections are going to be held during the rainy season and the month of Ramadan. 

Despite these challenges and potential pitfalls, Mali's political crisis has afforded an opportunity to refocus the country's democracy. It has provoked serious reflection on the part of many Malians, and it will be increasingly difficult for politicians to succeed with the same tactics that they have used in the past. While it may be some time before Mali finds itself on the path to a credible democracy, the first step requires the realization that the old path was not leading there – that has happened now.    

Phil Paoletta is an expat splitting time between Bamako and Abidjan, working on music and dance projects, running a small restaurant business with two Ivorian friends and teaching people how to draw camels. He blogs at philintheblank.net.