The Mali Blowback: More to Come?

The French-led military offensive in its former colony of Mali has pushed back radical Islamists and allied militias from some of the country’s northern cities, freeing the local population from repressive Taliban-style totalitarian rule. The United States has backed the French military effort by transporting French troops and equipment and providing reconnaissance through its satellites and drones. However, despite these initial victories, it raises concerns as to what unforeseen consequences may lay down the road.

Indeed, it was such Western intervention—also ostensibly on humanitarian grounds—that was largely responsible for the Malian crisis in the first place.

The 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya effort went well beyond the UN Security Council mandate to protect civilian lives, as the French, British and U.S. air forces—along with ground support by the Saudi and Qatari dictatorships—essentially allied themselves with the rebel armies. The African Union—while highly-critical of Qaddafi’s repression—condemned the intervention, fearing that the resulting chaos would result in the Libya’s vast storehouse of arms might fueling local and regional conflicts elsewhere in Africa and destabilize the region.

This is exactly what happened.

Whereas the nonviolent revolution against the neighboring Tunisian dictatorship resulted in a positive contagion of unarmed pro-democracy civil insurrections, the violent intervention in Libya resulted in a negative contagion of armed rebellions.

This is particularly tragic since Mali was seen, until recently, as one of the more hopeful political stories in Africa.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others created a mass pro-democracy movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Though—like most states in the region—the country struggled with corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a “no-confidence” vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively made the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neoliberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

History has shown that dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed rebels from the Tuareg minority in the north of the country, in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in the capital of Bamako.

By 2012, the Malian government, led by President Amadou Toumani Touré, was becoming increasingly unpopular, failing to address and even exacerbating structural inequalities reinforced by neoliberal edicts from international financial institutions and increasingly corrupt and self-serving political leaders, local business elites, and the civil service. However, the aging president was scheduled to retire immediately following elections later in the year and it was hoped that a growing civil society movement and new leadership could more adequately address these problems.

These concerns, however, were quickly overshadowed by a renewed rebellion in the north. When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups—including Tuareg tribesmen— ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, dramatically escalated their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Elements of the Malian army believed that Touré’s government—in part because of its concern that responding too harshly might create a backlash among the Tuaregs and in part because of its corruption and ineptitude—was not adequately supporting their resistance to the rebels. On March 22, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of growing U.S. military involvement with allied armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

With supporters of the ousted democratic government protesting in the capital and the army divided by the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos in the south and quickly consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country, declaring an independent state.

Then, with the Malian army routed and Tuareg forces stretched thin, radical Islamist groups—also flushed with new arms resulting from the Libya war—seized most of the towns and cities in the north. These extremists also overran additional U.S.-supplied Malian army posts, seizing 87 Land Cruisers, satellite phones, navigation aids, and other equipment provided by the American taxpayer.

Already, the Western intervention in Mali has prompted a retaliatory attack on a BP natural gas facility in neighboring Algeria, resulting in the deaths of 38 foreign hostages. The blowback could just be beginning.

The savage repression perpetrated by Mali’s Islamists, along with the potential threat from an Al Qaeda-affiliated regime, loss of access to the region’s resource wealth, and indications that the Islamists were moving south prompted direct French military intervention in January. Under such dire circumstances, even many people normally critical of Western neocolonialism argue that such military intervention may have been the least bad option. However, given that it was Western intervention and militarization of the region that largely created this mess in the first place, it inevitably raises the question as to whether it will actually end up making matters worse.

Mali’s Struggle: Not Simply of Their Own Making

In examining the political crises which have gripped Mali in recent months, it is important not to fall into simplistic analyses of dysfunctional or “failed” African states. Indeed, the Malian people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to mobilize civil society and build stable democratic governance despite a history of enormous poverty, ethnic divisions, and foreign intervention.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others — supported by griots (traditional singing storytellers) who would sing allegorical songs regarding historical freedom struggles — created a mass movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Despite corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most stable and democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a no confidence vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively make the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neo-liberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

A number of studies have demonstrated how dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed Tuareg rebels in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in Bamako.

So, what led to the coup d’état and secessionist crisis?

Unlike the positive contagion from Tunisia’s nonviolent insurrection, neighboring Libya’s armed insurrection appears to have launched a far more negative trend. Indeed, a major reason for the African Union’s opposition to the NATO-led war in Libya was out of concern for the risk of spreading instability to neighboring Africa countries.

When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups — including Tuareg tribesmen — ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Charging that the civilian government was not being tough enough against the rebels, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup on March 22 and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

Rather than responding violently to the coup, thousands of Malians in Bamako and elsewhere took to the streets demanding a return to democracy, members of the deposed civilian cabinet went on a hunger strike, and many civil servants and others refused to cooperate with the military regime. Meanwhile, both western and African countries imposed sanctions against the illegitimate government.

Most problematically, however, Tuareg rebels, taking advantage of the political divisions in the capital, consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country by capturing its remaining towns and declaring an independent state. The MNLA’s victories also led various Islamist militias, including extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, to seize a number of towns and impose their rigid ideological agenda.

The combination of internal and external pressures led Sanago to agree to step down and allow for the restoration of a civilian government in early April. The deposed president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who had become increasingly unpopular and whose term was set to expire in a few months, had agreed to step aside in favor of National Assembly president Dioncounda Traoré. Despite formally handing over power on April 12, however, the junta continued to arrest opponents and still wields considerable influence. Scattered fighting between rival armed forces erupted in the capital last week. Meanwhile, extremist Islamic militias in the north, taking advantage of the country’s chaos, have reportedly been destroying historic shrines and other cultural landmarks they consider idolatrous in Timbuktu and other northern cities.

The question now is whether the Malians can build upon their rich history of democratic governance and nonviolent resistance to regain their country’s once admired stability and freedom or whether the recent tragic events, fomented in part by misguided western policies, will be too serious from which to easily recover. In any case, Mali serves as yet another reminder of both the power of strategic nonviolent action and the consequences of foreign powers seeking to impose military solutions to complex political problems.

Mauritania’s coup is a setback for democracy

By Stephen Zunes and Hardy Merriman

The overthrow in August of what arguably constituted the most democratic government in the Arab world marks a serious setback in Africa as well as the Middle East.

There had been great expectations for Mauritania when the country had its first free elections in 2006. As one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world and, as with many other African countries, its boundaries and nationhood largely an artificial creation of European colonial powers, Mauritania fanned hopes that if democracy could take hold there, it could triumph anywhere.

Mauritania’s elected government under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi proved a disappointment in many ways, with widespread corruption and factional disputes with parliament. What brought down the government, however, was the all-too-familiar scourge faced by many nascent democracies: the coup d’état.

Whatever the failures of President Abdallahi’s administration, history has shown that military coups against an unpopular leader, even when the generals claim the best of intentions, tend to create more problems than they solve. Furthermore, there are far more democratic means of holding leaders accountable.

Coups tend to concentrate power among a small number of individuals and therefore make it more difficult for the people to hold their government or military accountable. When military officers have taken the risk to launch a coup, they often feel entitled to exercise state power themselves. For example, in Mauritania, a puppet civilian State Council announced by the putschists never materialized, leaving no formal checks and balances available to hold the new military leadership accountable.

Furthermore, in violating international norms by taking over a government by force, coup plotters usually require the support of a foreign power, thereby compromising their country’s sovereignty. In the case of Mauritania, its powerful neighbor Morocco,­ where coup leader Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz received his training, ­appears to be backing the military takeover. Such support can hardly be reassuring for Mauritanians, since the U.S.-backed Moroccan monarchy for many years claimed Mauritania as Moroccan territory and has invaded and occupied the neighboring country of Western Sahara, on which it had made similar territorial claims.

Finally, coups set a terrible precedent for future transitions of power. As we have seen in Haiti, Thailand and a number of African countries, once coups are established as the de facto method of power transfer, they are far more likely to continue in the future. In Mauritania, the military takeover of Aug. 6 has shattered the dreams of Mauritanians who wanted political change in their country to take place through free elections, not just the force of arms.

There are better ways to hold corrupt and inept leaders accountable. If circumstances make it impossible for a population to exercise their will through free and fair elections, there is the option of massive civil resistance. In such countries as the Philippines in 1986, Bolivia in 1981, Serbia in 2000, Mali in 1991, Chile in 1988, Czechoslovakia in 1989 and Ukraine in 2004, corrupt and autocratic regimes have been brought down nonviolently without leadership from the military or external forces. In these and other cases, ordinary people, using such nonviolent methods as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, mass demonstrations and the establishment of parallel institutions, expanded the political space available to them, fought for their rights and emerged victorious.

Such nonviolent civil resistance movements avoid not only the pitfalls of coups and foreign intervention but also provide a surer basis for sustainable democracy. Nonviolent civil resistance movements help correct the imbalance of power in a society by stimulating wide and diverse civilian participation, thereby decentralizing power away from a ruling elite and toward the people themselves.

The exercise of such “people power” can do much to break the cycle of coups and other non-democratic transfers of power that have afflicted Mauritania and other countries, and holds far greater promise for bringing about democratic and responsible government. We may even see it in Mauritania.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. Hardy Merriman is a senior adviser to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

http://ncronline.org/node/2011