04/02/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

The Need to Protect Democracy in Mali

Co-authored with Katherine M. Blair

On March 21, 2012, major international news outlets reported that the West African country of Mali, long considered a stable democracy which had experienced a series of peaceful transfers of power based on free elections and was on the verge of another, was in the grips of a military mutiny. Junior officers took over the state radio and television stations and fired shots at the presidential palace throughout the day, leaving the streets of Bamako deserted and the international community concerned. President Amadou Toumani Touré had recently been under heavy criticism from the armed forces, who complained that they were under-resourced and unsupported in their attempts to quell the renewed nationalist Tuareg Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) uprising in the North. MNLA rebels, hired and armed by Muammar Qaddafi in the final throes of his regime, returned after the Libyan leader's death heavily armed and ready to restart the ethnic conflict that had remained quiet since the most recent peace agreement in 2009. In the last several months Malian soldiers suffered significant losses of Northern territory to the rebels, and had focused their blame on Touré and his government.

On Thursday, March 22, 2012, the Malian people awoke to the news of a military coup and a missing president. Touré's second and final term was scheduled to end next month, and the country had been gearing up for what were largely expected to be peaceful and free elections. A small faction of the armed forces, calling themselves the Comité Nationale de redressement pour la Democratie et la Restauration de l'État (CNRDR) appeared on state television announcing that the military was taking "responsibility" for governing tasks, and that the constitution and all state institutions would be suspended until further notice.

Several civilian officials and politicians, including one of the leading candidates in the upcoming election, as well as another candidate who was not a government official, were taken into military custody at the nearby military base, Soundiata Këita in the village of Kati. The whereabouts of President Touré, however, remained unclear. The CNRDR indicated that he was "doing well and safe," but it did not appear that they had him in their custody. The junta stated, in their televised takeover, that "the objective of the CNRDR does not in any way aim to confiscate power, and we solemnly swear to return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are established." Meanwhile, the MNLA rebels capitalized on the disorder and gained more ground in the North.

The international reaction to the coup d'état was, as it should be, swift and clear. The African Union (AU) and the regional body to which Mali belongs, ECOWAS, quickly released statements unequivocally condemning the coup and calling for the immediate restoration of Touré. The European Union promptly released a statement in support of the AU and ECOWAS and called for the safety of those in custody and a return to democratic order. The Organization of the Islamic Conference joined in the chorus of condemnations, in addition to the UN Security Council and the Secretary General, the West Africa Civil Society Forum (WASCOF, also known by its French acronym, FOSCAO), the US, UK, France, China, Algeria, Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, and Senegal. American officials met the same day to "reconsider" the aid package currently provided to Mali, and evaluate options for cutting non-humanitarian aid until Touré was restored to power. The US indicated that about half of the $130-140 million in US aid to Mali was at stake, including extensive counterterrorism aid. The Millennium Challenge Corporation suspended operations, threatening their compact with Mali which totals over $400 million. France took action immediately, being the first to announce the suspension of all non-humanitarian aid and security cooperation with Mali until Touré's government was returned to power. Shortly after France, Canada also announced that it would suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Mali until democratic order was restored.

On Friday, March 23, the European Commission met in Brussels to discuss the events in Bamako and released a statement indicating that all development aid to Mali, with the exception of humanitarian aid, would be suspended until it deemed that the country had returned to constitutional order. The AU's Peace and Security Council, having just returned from a fact-finding mission in Bamako earlier in the week which resulted in a communiqué on the insurgency in the North, met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss the situation. By midafternoon on March 23, the AU PSC announced the suspension of Mali from the AU until democracy was restored. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund also announced the suspension of all loans and programs in Mali until further notice. Likewise the African Development Bank suspended all aid.

Under such extensive pressure, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo spoke to the press, announcing that those government ministers held in custody were safe, promising that the junta "would not touch a hair on their heads", and that they "would be brought to justice so that the Malian people would know the truth." On Sunday, 14 members of the government who were being held in captivity at Kati, including the prime minister, began a hunger strike to protest the coup.

On Monday, March 26, the 21st anniversary of the coup d'état that overthrew dictator Moussa Traoré and introduced democracy to Mali, the opinions of the public were finally made known as at least a thousand Malians flooded the streets of Bamako to protest the junta. The same day, the U.S. announced the suspension of all non-humanitarian aid until democracy was restored in Mali. The State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, however, stopped short of calling the events a coup, referring to the takeover of power instead as a mutiny. This resistance to using coup language was intended to prevent the automatic triggering of Section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, under which the US would be legally required to suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Mali until certain, very specific, steps were taken to restore democracy. By not calling it a coup, the US retains its flexibility to continue or restore aid, especially counterterrorism assistance.

The Community of Democracies also announced Monday that it had begun the process to suspend Mali from their governing council, making it the first country ever suspended from the organization.

At its extraordinary summit in Abidjan on Tuesday, March 27, ECOWAS summarily suspended Mali, demanded the restoration of Touré to office, and warned of a potential military intervention if the security situation did not stabilize. By Wednesday, in response to the anti-junta protesters, thousands of pro-coup demonstrators took to the streets of Bamako, increasing tensions and raising concerns about a further deterioration of security. These same demonstrators prevented a plane carrying the ECOWAS Heads of State diplomatic mission from landing at Bamako's airport on Thursday, March 29. After being prevented from carrying out their diplomatic mission, ECOWAS issued an ultimatum to the junta: restore constitutional order within 3 days, or face heavy consequences.

The security situation in the North rapidly deteriorated March 30th through April 1st, and Tuareg rebels succeeded in seizing the major Northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu, a feat which they had been unable to accomplish in any of their previous uprisings. Faced with impending sanctions and forced to acknowledge his junta's failure to combat the rebels, Sanogo announced on April 1st that the 1992 constitution would be reinstated and a transitional government selected. The restoration of the constitution has staved off the most severe ECOWAS sanctions, but that the junta has not moved to swear in the president of the National Assembly in accordance with the constitution raises serious doubts about the integrity of their promises. In Sanogo's communications with the media and foreign officials one thing has become very clear: elections, originally scheduled for April 29th, will not be held anytime soon.

Mali has stood as the model of democracy in a region continuously plagued by coup d'états, dictatorships, and unfair elections. For 21 years the country has operated successfully under democratic rule, despite desperate poverty and social divisions. To allow a coup d'état to stand in such an environment would be an affront to democracy in West Africa, and essentially represent a vote of no confidence in the capacity of West African states struggling to emerge from instability to establish legitimate and sustainable democratic governance. Furthermore, Mali is in a precarious security situation, and allowing an incompetent, unelected, and unaccountable government to stand when much of the population faces immediate physical danger would mark a failure on the part of the international community to uphold its responsibility to protect the lives and security of the Malian people, especially given the junta's clear inability to do so.

An unstable and undemocratic Mali, particularly in light of the unrest in North Africa which has played an integral role in this crisis, risks undermining the progress the region has made toward peace and democracy. The international community must do everything in its power to reverse the coup d'état in Mali for the sake of the Malian people, for the future of democracy in West Africa and to strengthen the global norm against recognizing governments arising from military coups against democratic regimes.