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Trouble in paradise?

March 23, 2012

The news of a military mutiny, possibly a coup, in Mali is being reported on the BBC World Service in terms of damaging “a beacon of democracy in the region”. This takes me back to the mid-1990s when I lived in Bamako. Malians were then experimenting with democracy after years of dictatorship and I wondered how succesful this would be.

By chance, I happened to read Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Extremes which was published then, in a chapter of which he explored the resilience of democracy in Europe between the two world wars. As I recall, he framed his analysis within four factors which he deemed structurally necessary for democracy to survive the political, economic and social stresses which were prevalent in Europe in the 1930s. These were wealth, tolerance, decentralisation and a sense that people’s citizenship of the country – France, Britain, Germany, say – prevailed over other aspects of identity such as protestant, catholic, Bavarian, working class, etc.  How did Mali look, and how does Mali look, when viewed through these four analytical lenses?


Mali was very poor then, and remains very poor now. GDP per capita is around $1200 at purchasing power parity, up from about $850 in the late 1990s, so growth has been strong. But using Hobsbawm’s assumption you need to be somewhat comfortably off, as a nation, to have a resilient democracy, Mali always seemed vulnerable, and still does. The majority of Malians worked on the land then, and still do so, which confers some resilience provided the rains are adequate and the locusts stay away. The Gini score for wealth distribution was 50 in 1994 and has improved to 40 today (Sweden is 23 and Sierra Leone 62). If GDP and wealth distribution are taken into account, democracy looked vulnerable in the 1990s and still does today, despite improvements.


Hobsbawm’s idea was that in a resilient democracy, people in the minority must accept and tolerate as legitimate, a situation in which their political choices are superseded – through elections – by those of the majority. Meanwhile the majority has to accept that even if its candidate has won the election, he or she must govern in the interests of everyone, including those who voted against. This always seemed difficult to me in Mali in the 1990s, as I wondered how people could  have this sense of “adherence” without being brought up in a democracy, which Malians had not been then. Now, of course, many Malians do have several years of democracy under their belt, and have been fairly well-led by presidents willing to relinquish office through election. Looking back, I also think that Mali had something else going for it on this score, because there is a genuine sense of mutual tolerance within Malian society – except perhaps in and vis-a-vis the north – a sense of live-and-let-live, and of being content and confident enough of one’s own identity to accept others. Perhaps therefore on this criterion of tolerance, Mali scored higher than I then thought back in the 1990s, and higher still today. The fly in the ointment is certainly the north, where actual or potential Tuareg insurgency has always been a feature of Mali’s history, and has been dealt with outside democratic politics, through a combination of military action and short-term political-economic deals. These have not just disrupted democracy in the north, but nationally.


Hobsbawm’s view was that democracy is more resilient in a decentralised polity, because decentralised decision-making means the central executive has less to do, and can therefore be held to account more effectively by parliament. In a more centralised system, there is simply too much national government going on for MPs to be able to keep up. In this respect, Mali probably scored quite well, and still scores well today, as the country is governed very locally using quite traditional systems in many respects, and the national government has limited means at its disposal with which to interfere. Civil society in Mali is so strong it is almost tangible – one can almost touch the web of interlocking relationships between people, and Mali is rich in social capital.

Identifying with the nation

And so to Hobsbwam’s final criterion: that people should identify themselves as Malians above their sense of their other identities – membership of an ethnic group, for example. I am not sure if most Malians would declare themselves Malians first and foremost, and ethnic identity remains very strong in what is a diverse patchwork of tribes, castes, etc. Nevertheless I always felt in the 1990s, and this is still true today, that mutual tolerance among Malians is one of Mali’s strongest qualities with regards the resilience of democracy. There is a genuine historical sense that Mali exists as a natural nation, rather than simply as a creation of European colonists like so many other African countries. The north, of course, is the part of Mali where this rings less true.


So, looking at these four criteria, one might suggest that Mali today scores one out of three for wealth, and two out of three for tolerance,  decentralisation and national identity. Thus – from Hobsbawm’s structuralist perspective – there is every chance that the apparent coup will be reversed and progress towards democracy resumed.

The difficulty is the north: many people in the north see Mali as another country, with a distant state which consistently fails them, and therefore to which they do not feel allegiance. It is a vicious spiral. Yet the “northern problem” is too seldom viewed in terms of improving the sense of citizenship among people in the north.  Malians from the south, their government and its foreign backers too often see the north in terms only of insecurity, terrorism, international drug smuggling, innate backwardness and as a set of problems which are somehow not “Malian” but “northern”, “Sahelian” or “other”. Thus policy is designed instrumentally to resolve northern issues as though they were not part of the Malian mainstream; and while perhaps providing a temporary solution to the problem as presented today, thus reinforces the separation of northern people from the state and from their fellow Malians in the centre and the south.

I hope that the military mutiny will be reversed, and without bloodshed. I think it will. Mali deserves to continue the progress towards democracy which started with the courageous citizen uprising of 1991 against Moussa Traoré. The mutineers appear to be motivated by the lack of resources provided to the army in its current fight against northern rebels who have recently beaten them back in a series of attacks, and humiliated them by occupying northern towns and barracks. This rebellion is a symptom of underlying stresses which are threatening democracy and testing its resilience. But the deal which will be done with the mutineers to persuade them to back off and hand power back to President “ATT” Touré must not be based simply on giving them the firepower to beat the rebels: it needs to be seen as part of a long-term process of nation building which brings all Malians, including those in the north, into a responsible and responsive relationship with the state and with their fellow Malians further south. Otherwise the “northern problem” will continue to undermine democracy and will continue to reduce the degree to which Mali – taken as a whole – scores highly against Eric Hobsbawm’s four criteria of democratic resilience.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2012 8:09 pm

    An insightful post Phil. I hadn’t gotten past frustration at this news yet, so good to read some more nuanced thoughts. I lived there from 2005-2007, when the problems in the North seemed a distant issue, so also good to get some historical perspective, both in Mali, and from Europe.

  2. Apollo permalink
    March 24, 2012 1:13 pm

    Phil, sorry for the Malian people and I
    hope, the coup will be reversed – a test of “your” hypothesis that I eagerly wait to see the result for.

    As a Ugandan, i can’t help but see this in the Ugandan context – we have, albeit superficially achieved the last three factors over the years, and with the discovery of oil, your first factor “wealth” may be on its way. I’m still not sure that Uganda is anywhere near the democracy I would love to see Uganda enjoy and that the hypothesis espouses.

  3. March 24, 2012 10:31 pm

    Phil I dont feel the ‘Northern problem’ as you describe can be understood without reference to what Hobsbawm would call an analysis of the modes of production in the area. The history of pastoralism – and the state’s policies to it – and interaction between the production systems along the river Niger and nomadic ways of life are also key factors that need to be explored. The interaction between these systems with climate change, as well as public and aid policy provides an important insight into some of the other drivers of this conflict.

    • March 25, 2012 9:31 am

      Absolutely, and the whole question about how a pastoralist political economy fits, or doesn’t fit into the modern nation state is critical. And is relevant to so many other countries in Africa too.

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