That morning, mutinying troops from an army base in Kati, near Bamako, stormed the residence of the president, and arrested both President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, along with other high-ranking government and army officials. Throngs of mostly young Malians excitedly joined the clamor. Many of these young people welcomed the coup as scores of young people are completely disillusioned with the corrupt regime, unemployed as a result of our country’s economic collapse or restless due to covid-19.
The office of the recently nominated justice minister, Kassoum Tapo, was looted and set on fire. He recently promised to jail protesters who have been on the streets as part of the so-called June 5 movement rallying against entrenched poverty, rising insecurity and corruption. The international community has been trying to negotiate a resolution to that crisis and quickly moved to condemn the coup. But talking to people on the street this week, we sense much more joy than consternation.
Since independence, Mali has had a history of military coups. In 2012, mutinying soldiers from the same military camp where this week’s coup originated — unhappy with the handling of a rebellion in the north of the country — attacked Bamako and overthrew the government. People were optimistic about a different future then too, but the coup led to months of instability, widespread sanctions against Mali and ultimately the deterioration of governance and security.
To build a better future, Mali must learn the lessons of the past.
First, this week’s coup reportedly began over a dispute within the army over management and pay, but the corruption goes deeper than that. For decades, rapacious elites in government have looted public funds, mismanaged taxpayer revenues and enriched themselves at the expense of the Malian people The covid-19 crisis has made it harder for citizens to push for transparency. In 2012, the new government did not take basic steps to improve governance — including strengthening financial systems, bolstering anti-graft bodies and properly monitoring public services. Now, these changes are essential.
Second, rushed elections will not fix the problem. The well-known political formula is for the military to quickly prepare for a vote that will provide democratic legitimacy for a new government. But this can be deeply problematic. This was the plan after the coups in 1991 and 2012 in Mali, but in both cases the elected governments continued to suffer from poor governance and venality. Moreover, the credibility of elections in the country is already in question after the Keïta regime recently overturned the results of a parliamentary election in order to consolidate power, which was a key driver of the current protests.
Covid-19 and the ongoing insurgency will not make this process any easier. Elections will need to be planned carefully to ensure legitimacy and trust in the results. This means taking steps to ensure the independence of the electoral commission and enacting measures to safeguard the probity of vote-counting and significant efforts — with the U.N. peacekeeping mission — to create the conditions for safe balloting for everyone.
Third, there needs to be a focus within the military, in partnership with civilian elites, on quickly articulating a clear plan, projecting credibility and moving forward toward shared goals with citizens. Mali is already dealing with a raging Islamist insurgency. There is widespread concern that the current instability will benefit extremists, as was the case in 2012 when rebels seized ground after the coup. The new military rulers have made a decent start by promising “strong institutions.” The Malian people want to hear how the military intends to strengthen our security to protect lives and bring peace, how they will reopen schools and how they will create jobs for the millions who live in poverty.
Finally, it is time for young people to lead this country. The median age in Mali is just over 16; while the average age of parliamentarians is over 50, and the percentage of women in power is tiny. Young and female voices are largely ignored, their potential mainly untapped, and their leadership skills mostly unused. Part of the problem has been that the older political elite has been far too detached from the realities of those growing up and trying to make ends meet.
As we say in Bambara, “waati sera,” or “the time has arrived.” We have an engaged, energized citizenry that wants to build a better future. A new path is possible.