Since Wednesday's coup d'état in Bamako, foreign governments and international bodies have stressed the need to respect democratic institutions. France, the United States, Nigeria, South Africa, ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations have all condemned the coup and called for a return to constitutional rule in Mali. From their perspective, even if the regime of President Amadou Toumani Touré was unpopular, it remained fundamentally legitimate because it was democratically elected in 2007 in accordance with Mali's 1992 constitution.
Declarations made by coup leaders in Bamako this week, however, reject such rationales. From the perspective of these soldiers, the institutions of the state were already fundamentally compromised, and had to be bypassed. Coup supporters believe that grave and gathering threats, not limited to the rebellion in northern Mali, are putting Mali's very future at risk. In his interview with Africable Television on Thursday, March 22, army captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, head of the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), said his cause was one of reform - not only of the army, but of the state as well. He cited Mali's broken public education system and corruption in the civil service.
Yet such complaints, widely shared by ordinary Malians, are hardly the coup leaders' only grievances. Sanogo, who says he has received training from US Marines and who wears a Marine Corps pin on his fatigues, listed a number of demands for improving soldiers' welfare:
"We came first to require good living conditions and treatment, salary, all the things needed for the operation of a noble, professional and efficient army," he said. "We will struggle for that. And once every soldier at every level knows that he is fed, housed, maintained, cared for, his needs looked after, that pushes us to give them a quality training.... Without that it won't work, that is our first mission."
This statement won applause from the troops gathered around the coup leader, all fellow junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers.
The CNRDR leaders' wide-ranging justification for their coup suggests that it was not planned in advance, but came about by accident. It also reveals a fundamentally improvisational logic, which sees upholding the institutional framework of government as secondary to pursuing the ends government is meant to address: public welfare, conflict prevention and resolution, and respect for basic rights. As a common expression in African political discourse puts it, "Laws are meant to serve men, not the other way around". By this logic, Malians could not afford to wait another ten weeks until the end of President Touré's term of office.
When asked how he could convince Malians that he would deliver on his promise to turn over power after organising democratic elections, Sanogo emphasised his strength of character. "There are words I should use to describe myself," he said. "Honest. Sincere. And I know what I want." This declaration also garnered applause from his men.
The inconvenient truth such assurances overlook is that a government's functioning can only depend on the integrity of individuals for a short period. Over time, human beings prove to be fallible, and power corrupts. Too many improvising military officers have come to power in West African countries promising democratic reforms only to turn into autocrats themselves (recent examples include General Robert Guei in the Ivory Coast and Captain Moussa Dadis Camara in Guinea).
Sanogo has refused to give a firm timetable for elections, which were scheduled for late April this year. "Three months, six months, nine months, it depends on the structures we want to put in place," he told his Africable interviewer. "Let's be careful and not talk about the duration, but the mission."
Malians are hoping and praying that he will keep his word.
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