What is happening in Mali is a coup. We must call it that


Mali is in the middle of a coup d’état. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (also known as IBK) has been forced out of power following military intervention. He did not resign willingly, but only when he — and his country — were staring down the barrel of a gun. But the coup plotters were clever and followed the “Zimbabwe strategy”: pushing the president to resign rather than executing him or forcing him into exile, in a deliberate attempt to deflect criticism. 

Unfortunately, many prominent media outlets, including the BBC, the Washington Post and al-Jazeera have played into the hands of the military by avoiding the word “coup”. Instead, their headlines have said that the president has “resigned” after some form of military unrest. They have taken this approach because they want to be careful, and journalists and editors naturally wish to cover their backs as the story unfolds.

But these decisions — reasonable as they appear on their own — sanitise authoritarian power grabs and so make it harder to defend democracy. Worse still, by persuading foreign governments to avoid the term “coup” and instead speak only of “military-assisted transitions”, coup plotters can avoid international sanctions and legitimise their regimes.

If this trend continues, Africa’s fragile anti-coup norm will be fatally undermined.

Learning from Zimbabwe

The blueprint for events in Mali was set in Zimbabwe in 2018. In that case, a faction within the ruling party joined forces with senior military figures to remove President Robert Mugabe from power. But it wasn’t quite that simple because the coup leaders — then-Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Force Constantino Chiwenga — wanted to retain control of the ruling party. 

They also understood that rebuilding the country — and so consolidating their hold on power — would require international assistance. This meant that it was imperative to sidestep the kind of sanctions that are enforced on countries that have undergone an unconstitutional transfer of power.

So the Chiwenga and Mnangagwa deliberately avoided the traditional coup path. That would have involved arresting all prominent politicians, establishing control over the airport and key roads, and taking over the radio station to broadcast a message stating that the military was now in control. Instead, the coup plotters put together a very different — and a far more clever — plan. Rather than take over all institutions through force, they placed Mugabe under house arrest and, over a number of days, applied sufficient pressure to force him to resign

When he did so, Mnangagwa was promptly ushered into the presidency in what was designed to look like an internal ruling party process — and hence a constitutional one — when in reality there was no choice in the matter.

To keep up the charade that this was a democratic transfer of power, reporters were allowed into the house to watch Mugabe taking tea, and the president was even permitted to keep up some of his scheduled appearances.

Along with Mnangagwa’s promise to hold free and fair elections and respect human rights, this persuaded many media outlets and foreign governments to avoid the term “coup”, which facilitated the country’s re-integration into the international community. But today, just two years later, it is clear that there is a growing militarisation of politics — and that this has contributed to a brutal crackdown on government critics.

Why Mali is a coup

The basic definition of a “coup” is a sudden and unconstitutional takeover of power by a small group within the state. A “military coup” occurs when this takeover is led by military figures. It is important to realise that a military coup does not need to result in the military itself taking power. It may choose to select civilian leaders to be the face of the new government, setting them up as puppets to try and gain a veneer of democratic legitimacy for what would otherwise look like a straightforward military junta. But it is still a military coup because the military led the intervention and remains the power behind the throne.

This is what is what happened in Zimbabwe, and what is now happening in Mali. As in Zimbabwe, Mali’s coup plotters have forced President IBK to resign so that power appears to be changing hands constitutionally. But it is clear that his resignation was not made of IBK’s own free will. We don’t need to do any detective work to uncover this. The president said it himself in his resignation speech: “Today, certain parts of the military have decided that intervention was necessary. Do I really have a choice? Because I do not wish blood to be shed.” 

Given that both IBK and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé had been detained by soldiers following a mutiny in the capital, Bamako, there should be no doubt about whether Mali has had a coup. The fact that IBK was increasingly unpopular, that he had failed to provide either security or economic improvements, and that his government(s) had largely squandered its early goodwill does not change this fact.

Neither does the presence of large numbers of people on the streets in “anti-IBK” protests in the days leading up to the transition. Popular dissatisfaction often encourages and legitimates military coup d’états — but it does not stop them from being coups. Moreover, we have no way of knowing whether those on the streets of the capital are representative of the views of the whole country.

In the coming days we will no doubt hear about plans to replace IBK with a civilian figure. But, as in Zimbabwe, the political role of the military will have grown and the potential for political stability further undermined. Although it is tempting to think that the military will be well organised and so able to deliver development and security, the evidence from across Africa shows that this is a false hope.

Why words matter

The great lengths that coup plotters in Mali and Zimbabwe have gone to in order to make their coups look legitimate tells how much words matter. As soon as a transition of power is designated as a coup, and hence an unconstitutional transfer of power, a country is suspended from the African Union and only able to secure restricted financial assistance from a number of foreign governments and bodies such as the United States. Governments that took power through a coup may also — in time — come to be seen as less legitimate at home.

Persuading the world that they have just witnessed a “military assisted transition” rather than a coup is therefore critical to the ambitions of coup plotters. This should be reason enough for the word “coup” to appear in every media story and government communiqué about the situation in Mali. But the risk of sanitising coups is even greater. As early as 2017, Oisín Tansey argued that the anti-coup norm, which appeared to have grown much stronger from the 1990s onwards, was already weakening. It gets weaker still with every coup that is called by another name.

If the unconstitutional transfer of power in Mali is sanitised and so tacitly accepted, aspiring coup plotters will be emboldened to try out the “Zimbabwe and Mali strategy” in their own countries. And that would be a crushing blow to democracy in Africa.

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits, www.democracyinafrica.org.

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