Strongmen should wake up to reality of people’s power

Mali’s former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The removal of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Tuesday raises fresh questions on the role of the military in Africa today. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is disturbed. The African Union (AU) has suspended Mali. 

Ecowas leaders have asked Mali’s soldiers to reinstate Keita and return to the barracks. The UN Security Council agrees. At the time of this writing, the soldiers had said they would shortly name a transitional government, of the military and civilians. They expect that this government will manage a full return to civilian rule, through a democratic election.  

Mali is not a stranger to military takeovers. In 1967, President Modibo Keita (1960-1967) was overthrown. He died in jail 10 years later. Moussa Traore, who overthrew Keita, ruled until 1991. The military removed him, following a popular uprising. Traore had reinvented and repackaged himself as a civilian leader, through a sham 1979 poll. He ruled badly, as did all his contemporaries in the Third World. His fall, in the early post-Cold War days, did not come as a surprise. 

The third military takeover in Mali was in March 2012, a few days to election. For the rest of the time, before and after, Mali has been the perfect hotchpotch of political, ethnic and religious chaos. Her unending crises have only been interrupted by short spurts of experiments with democracy. At all other times, the people reel in hopelessness, until the next uprising. In spite of their own hidden and selfish agenda, it cannot be denied that military interventions have restored some level of stability. There is no sense of leadership, or order in civilian uprisings that have preceded military action in diverse places in Africa, in recent times. We have witnessed such unrest in Egypt, Libya and Sudan, where they climaxed in military takeovers. 

While the AU and UN have been quick to condemn the soldiers, is it also true that, left alone, the uprisings would possibly sink into pure anarchy? Since France in 1789–1792, history has shown that mass uprisings will become septic and anarchic, for want of leadership and direction. Yes, the people may uproariously turn up in town squares. They may lay siege of capital cities and other towns. The political leadership may cave in and fall, as desired. But what happens next? It is difficult to think of an orderly mass-uprising-driven transition that does not involve the military.

“Orderly mass uprising” is indeed an oxymoron. Yes, power should return to civilians as quickly as possible. Yet to call for restoration of a failed dictator such as Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, is to take the people for granted. The irony of it is that the international community always just looks on as countries rot and totter towards total collapse. It is only after the dictator has fallen that the international community will usually be heard. And when this happens, it sounds like a broken old record. “We condemn the military takeover. We are suspending Country this from the AU. Reinstate the democratically elected president.”  

Soundbites of this kind make organisations like the AU irrelevant to Africa’s people. There has always been the misconception that democracy is about elections. For a start, elections in Africa are rarely democratic. But beyond that, democracy is about what leaders do once they are in power. How do they rule? A dictator who claims to do what he does “because he was democratically elected” is yoke around the citizens’ collective neck. He needs to be removed at the next election. But how do you remove him, when he does not believe in democratic elections? 

Such a country is trapped in a merry-go-round of dictatorship and flawed elections that claim to demonstrate that the country and its leadership are democratic. In this scenario, organisations like the AU become private membership clubs for dictators. Their concern is not about democratically elected civilian regimes. Rather, they only betray anxiety that a member of their dictators’ club has been removed. It is easy to appreciate the human factors behind their anxiety. If one dictator falls, another one can fall, too. Hence, they must stem the tide. Mary Kaldor has written about the rise of what she calls new wars, after the Cold War.

She says strife and conflict has shifted from wars between countries to internal conflicts. Other scholars have underscored the need to go beyond the “newness” of the wars, to address the social, economic and political factors that bedrock these wars. They boil down to one word, misrule. The great dilemma for democracy is whether a regime that blatantly misrules should be left alone, to continue misruling, basically because “it was elected.” Or, should it be removed through popular uprising? 

If popular uprising is a legitimate expression of the people’s will, where should it end? Where the regime collapses because of popular pressure, what should follow? Who should organise the transition to the next civilian government? And is it possible for a rotten regime to fall without the military first abandoning its rotten leaders? Such are the questions that the AU and the UN Security Council should reflect on carefully as the Malian situation continues to unfold. 

Meanwhile, African strongmen may need to wake up to the emerging reality of People Power, from Belarus to Lebanon and Mali; and from Egypt to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan. Popular unrest is driving the processes that lead to new military takeovers. The people can neither be ignored nor repressed. The AU should address this reality, or become irrelevant.

The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.