It has been extremely gratifying to watch the swift reaction to the coup perpetrated last month against President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, a democratically elected figure who had planned to step down after an upcoming election. After barely more than a week, Ecowas, the West African regional organization, closed all borders with Mali, froze the flow of currency, and imposed travel bans on the junior officers who had led the coup. The United States, France, and other Western nations issued sanctions of their own. Angry crowds protested the coup in the streets of Bamako, Mali's capital. And after less than three weeks in power, the junta agreed to disband in favor of an interim civilian government. Hooray for democracy!
I have a soft spot for Mali. When I spent time there in 2007, I was struck by the peaceable atmosphere of Bamako, at least compared to other African capitals I knew. People spoke of cousinage, a sense of consanguinity which promoted an easy familiarity across ethnic lines. Malians seemed disinclined to fight one another; the traffic circles featured statues of animals rather than soldiers. And, for what it's worth, Mali makes beautiful music and lovely textiles. At the time, the country was hosting the biannual meeting of the Community of Democracies; poor as it is, Mali had been holding free and more or less fair elections since 1991. Mali was then, and suddenly has become once again, a reassuring symbol of Africa's commitment to democracy.
But then why the coup? Since successful democracies don't usually experience coups, the events of this past month raise the question of just what kind of a democracy Mali actually is. As the Economist noted, "Graft, increased perceptions of corruption and allegations of government involvement in smuggling drugs and arms mean that few are sad to see the back of Mr. Touré, who had already foiled two earlier coup plots in 2010." Despite those free and almost-fair elections, Mali has the kind of government you get in a very bad neighborhood, where states are easy prey for drug lords transiting cocaine from South America and smugglers ferrying cigarettes and pharmaceuticals across the desert. The cousinage just keeps things calm.
And let's not forget the other half of last month's drama. Captain Amadou Sanogo and his fellow putschists insisted that they had taken action because President Touré had failed to stem an insurgency by Touareg tribesmen and al Qaeda forces in the northern half of the country. In the midst of the coup, those forces overran remote military outposts, seized a vast chunk of desert -- including the provincial capital of Timbuktu -- and proclaimed the sovereignty of "Azawad," an area equal in size to France. Mali's military is helpless to respond, and must look once again to Ecowas, which may deploy its standby force to re-take the region. This democratic darling is looking a little bit like a failed state.
What good is a semi-failed state with elections? One answer is: Better than the alternative. According to Morton Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael Weinstein, the authors of The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, in the 1980s under the strongman rule of Moussa Traoré, Mali "experienced negative growth in eight years out of ten, underwent a 20 percent decline in per capita income to $250 and recorded unending fiscal deficits that doubled the national debt to 98 percent of GDP." After Amadou Toumani Traoré and other officers overthrew Touré and stepped aside for civilian rule -- an example, by the way, of a good coup -- a new president, Alpha Konaré, cut back on patronage, raised taxes, reduced government spending, and decentralized power, in turn encouraging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make loans and international donors to increase aid. The authors of The Democracy Advantage use Mali as a prime example of their claim that democracies offer more economic benefits than autocracies. For all its weaknesses, democratic Mali is much to be preferred to autocratic Mali.