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Africa: Triumph of Democracy?

The Tuareg mercenaries of West Africa may have failed to save Qaddafi’s crumbling government last year, but they have had one success—toppling the democratic government of Mali, described by the FT as “one of west Africa’s most stable countries.” According to an FT report, this Tuareg revolt, carried out with weapons brought back from their stint in Libya, surprised many in the international community. Apparently the stable democratic institutions in Mali weren’t strong enough to weather the fallout from an unrelated civil war in a nearby country.

This casts serious doubt on the mainstream press, NGO and foreign policy establishment line on Africa. For years, liberal media outlets have defined the Africa narrative as “the triumph of democracy”— the spread of democracy would resolve the continent’s many tribal, religious, development, and governance issues by promoting good governance through electoral institutions. This reflects the standard do-gooder line of our time: secular pluralist democracy is a panacea that can overcome African backwardness.

Maybe. But recent history implies that democracy may be more effective at reforming a state that is already strong and effective than at building a state amidst chaos and tribal and ethnic war.

The Mali coup further exposes the fragility of democracy, as well as the enduring and even growing power of ethnic divides. The Tuareg insurgency was given new life by the campaign for democracy in Libya, a consequence of which was giving experienced Tuareg fighters much better weapons. The quick collapse of the Malian government shows the besetting weakness of Africa’s artificial post-colonial states, while the links with al Qaeda among some of these rebel groups show the growing strength of religious and cultural loyalties—the global trend we’ve called hot religion.

Despite the earnest wishes of Western do-gooders, democracies are still very weak in Africa, while “backwards” ethnic and religious loyalties remain as strong. Many things will happen in Africa in the 21st century: the triumph of democracy and development under the tutelage of western do-gooders in an Africa which maintains its present boundaries is unlikely to be one of them.

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  • Anthony

    “Many things will happen in Africa in the 21st century…” WRM, an AI colleague intimates countries/institutions are what they are because actors in any given society have an in interest in keeping them that way – clientelism, patrimonialism, history, ethnic conflict, etc.

  • Brett

    It’s too soon to tell with Mali, since the replacement regime is both unpopular and looking very frail.

  • John Burke

    WRM makes a good point, but I think he is buying into a framework for looking at this and other African issues that is the wrong one. The Tuareg mercenaries have staged a coup against the democratic government of a nation-state, Mali.

    But the Tuareg are a Berber people, traditionally nomadic, about six million strong who 100 years ago wandered about much of the Sahara. They resisted French colonial overlordship, pretty effectively until they were finally suppressed and pacified. In the post-1960 decolonialization period, France and the more populous groups within French West Africa created a cluster of new nations which divided the Tuareg among six such states, with the largest numbers in Mali and Niger. The Malian Tuareg never much cared to be ruled by a government run by the major Black sub-Saharan populations and staged several revolts — before this one.

    I think this should be seen as a continuation of Tuareg resistance, this time with better weapons, not as a coup.

    Of course, this problem of incompatible populations stuffed into the same polity is at the heart of virtually every violent conflict in Africa for the past 40 years. But the Western state system — now validated by the UN and a host of other international structures — isn’t flexible enough to enable change. The recent emergence of South Sudan may offer a new precedent. Let’s hope so.

  • Kris

    I don’t need to be spoon-fed, but perhaps this post elides too much. One could easily reach John@3’s mistaken conclusion: that this was a Tuareg coup. (As opposed to a military coup under the reason/pretext that the civilian leadership was mishandling the Tuareg insurrection.)

    Irony alert: Mali’s last democratic order was established after a military coup (and popular protests). The leader of that coup, which did indeed bring about relative democracy, was Amadou Toumani Toure, Mali’s current/deposed president.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Cultures evolve at Glacial Speeds” Jacksonian Libertarian

    The backward cultures of Africa have a long way to go before they will begin to resemble the advanced Western Cultures, let alone the Bleeding Edge American Culture.

    Calling Mali a stable Democracy when the country had never seen a democratic change in leadership, is a very loose definition of Democracy.

    We have all seen nascent Democracy’s backslide into Authoritarianism. So a better definition of a Democracy isn’t “one vote one time”, but a change in a nation’s leadership, from one party to another unrelated party. The key word here is “Change” as in a Democratic Change in leadership, from one elected leadership, to another elected leadership. Only when a Democracy can change its leadership, can it truly be called a Democracy. By this definition Mali was not a Democracy, as it had never Changed its leadership.

  • Albert

    Jacksonian Libertarian:

    A democratic change in leadership, from one elected leadership, to another elected leadership did occur in Mali. Alpha Oumar Konare served the maximum two terms in office (1992-1997 & 1997-2002) permitted under the country’s constitution. The democratic transfer of power occurred in 2002, when Amadou Toumani Toure was elected president. He was re-elected in 2007 and the country was only a month away from holding new elections. Unlike the trend in other African countries where leaders try to cling to power by removing term limits or altering the constitutional laws, there were no indications of this taking place in Mali prior to the coup.

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