Two Cheers for Malian Democracy

The West African country has a lot going for it, but sadly that's not enough.

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.

That's a meaningful answer; but it's all too easy to exaggerate the democratic advantage. The figures which Halperin et al. cite show that from 1960 to 2001, growth rates were about the same in low-income democracies and low-income autocracies, though the democracies do better on "social indicators" such as health and well-being. So that's one cheer for democracy. The high-growth states in Africa tend to have oil, like Nigeria and Angola; governance is beside the point. The few high-growth, low-resource countries include non-democracies like Ethiopia and Rwanda as well as democracies like Ghana. Mali is in the middle of the pack, at about 4.5 percent growth per year, though its population growth rate of around 3 percent has wiped out much of the effect. And now former President Touré -- or ATT, as he is known -- proved a less determined reformer than was Konaré.

Mali is a desperately poor country. The IMF ranks it 156 in the world in GDP per capita, two notches above Haiti. Social indicators, which democratic governments are supposed to boost, are much worse. Most Malians live in small villages without electricity or fresh drinking water or health clinics or schools. As Robert Kaplan recently pointed out, channeling Samuel Huntington, what Africa's weak states lack is not democracy but governance -- a functional state presence extending even into the hinterlands. The modern Malian state, whether elected or not, has never exercised authority in the vast wastelands of the Sahel in which the rebels have proclaimed their new state, any more than, say, the government of Sierra Leone has in the jungle interior. The feebleness of the West African state apparatus creates vacuums which are filled by smugglers, drug lords, or jihadists with global ambitions.

If the regional problem is not so much despotism as frailty, the solution is not so much democracy as capacity. Many Malians might be willing to swap their feckless democracy for, say, Rwanda's version of Prussian bureaucracy. Of course they can't, any more than the Rwandans could trade their murderous ethnic politics for Mali's cousinage. States are shaped by history, geography, and ethnic identity. In West Africa, authoritarianism has typically worn the garb not of the benevolent dictator but of the mutinous officer or the mumbling gerontocrat. Modernization theory, which once purported to explain how democracies develop, posited a phase of authoritarian state-building before nations were "ready" for democracy. There have been very few such cases in Africa. If Mali is ultimately going to build a real state which can provide at least minimal education, health care, and electric power, it will be because democratic leaders succeed in the slow work of forging economic growth and mobilizing citizens around public goals. So really, it's two cheers for democracy.

It is, of course, profoundly in the interest of the West to enhance the capacity of weak states, lest international criminal gangs and terrorists turn their hinterlands into a playground. That's why, for example, the United States agreed in 2006 to spend more than $400 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to help build up Bamako's international airport, and to increase land under irrigation. The MCC is an excellent program -- devised, let us not forget, by the George W. Bush administration -- which requires the recipient to draw up and carry out the development program while the United States retains oversight capacity. But after five years, progress in Mali looks pretty modest: The MCC lists many of the targets as being zero percent fulfilled. "Improving state capacity" is harder than it sounds -- by several orders of magnitude.

Still, it's good news that the people of Mali are still attached to their rickety democracy after 20 years. And it's good news that Ecowas was able to restore that democracy without firing a shot (though re-taking Azawad will prove a much harder job). Mali will probably have an election some time next month. Another free-and-almost-fair one will be nice -- but it won't be enough.


Terms of Engagement

The Wages of 9/11

The war on terror may be over, but it's left behind a terrible human rights legacy -- and Barack Obama has done very little about it.

I felt a surge of shame earlier this week when I read an account of the 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing prison officials to strip-search any of the 13 million people arrested every year. The case was brought by Albert W. Florence, who had been mistakenly arrested for failing to pay a court fine which he had, in fact, paid -- and then was forced to squat naked and cough in front of guards. The infraction could have been even flimsier: Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that one person had been subjected to this humiliating invasion of privacy after "riding a bicycle without an audible bell." Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision, rebutted this objection by noting that "people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals."

Florence was not, of course, a suspected terrorist, but the case was a reminder of how America's crackdown on crime over the last generation has converged with the atmosphere of fear and suspicion produced by 9/11 to make the United States a terribly harsh and forbidding place for anyone who falls afoul of the law. Indeed, the Washington Post noted that the court's decision "continued a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks of giving jailers more leeway in searching those picked up even for the most minor offenses." And Kennedy's reasoning -- better to subject an entire population to degrading treatment than to overlook one dangerous actor -- is precisely the logic that led the Bush administration to detain vast numbers of perfectly innocent people on suspicion of terrorist activity after 9/11, or to subject millions of visitors to the United States to an exhaustive grilling by customs officials lest a terrorist slip through the net.

As a candidate, Barack Obama insisted that the United States was paying a heavy reputational price for violating international standards of human rights. "We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary," he promised in one campaign speech. Obama is not, of course, responsible for the Supreme Court's conservative majority, which carried the day on Florence. But he has not, with a few exceptions, changed the practices, or the underlying logic, that make the United States such an outlier in the West. Obama has not done nearly as much as he expected, and his supporters hoped, to restore the damage incurred by the Bush administration. This has been one of the great failures of his time in office.

I asked Alison Parker, director of U.S. programs for Human Rights Watch, how she graded the Obama administration on reforming abusive human rights practices at home. On criminal justice matters, she said, Obama deserves credit for reducing mandatory sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine, where the defendants are mostly black, which had been far longer than those for powder cocaine, where they are mostly white. On the treatment of immigrants, she said, "It's been mostly a steady state from what we experienced under Bush." And on counterterrorism, it's more mixed: The administration has banned torture; promised to end the practice of transferring prisoners captured on the battlefield to countries that might torture them (but is still relying on dubious official assurances from those allies); and has failed to close Guantánamo, end military tribunals, or prohibit indefinite detention. What's more, the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has refused to grant the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture access to Guantánamo. It would be a middling record, and perhaps defensible -- if Obama hadn't promised such a decisive break.

There is of course no crisp answer, mathematical or metaphysical, to the question of how far the state may deprive an individual of his or her dignity, or even selfhood, in the name of protecting the larger community. But the balance in the United States is very different from what it is elsewhere in the West. The New York Times recently ran an eye-opening article noting that the United States has imposed solitary confinement on at least 25,000 prisoners, and perhaps many more, often for years or even decades at a time. And that doesn't even include Guantánamo, where some detainees are held in solitary for years on end.

In a 2011 report, Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, noted that prolonged solitary confinement has become a favored instrument of the war on terror around the globe. Mendez detailed the psychological devastation wrought by even short spells of solitary, and concluded that any period exceeding 15 days increased the risk of grave harm "that may constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture." Countries like Kazakhstan figured prominently in the report -- as, of course, did the United States. Fine company, indeed. Perhaps this helps explain why the Obama administration has refused to grant Mendez unimpeded access to the prisoners at Guantánamo.

The United States is exceptional not only in the use of solitary confinement, but in the willingness to subject juveniles to this excruciating form of punishment. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the 2,570 youth offenders currently serving life sentences without the chance of parole -- yes, you read that right -- found that many are placed in "segregation" units, sometimes for years. One prison official explained the logic: "When you come in at a young age with life without [parole], there's not a whole lot of light at the end of the tunnel." The initial abuse of life without parole, that is, provokes behavior that in turn leads to the subsequent abuse of segregation. International law prohibits the imposition of life sentences on minors, and Mendez declared that the imposition of solitary confinement of any duration on juveniles constitutes "cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment."

Oh, and one more thing: The United States and Somalia are the only two countries to have failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 1995, when the United States signed the treaty, conservatives argued that it would allow children to sue their parents for mistreatment, and objected to a clause prohibiting capital punishment for minors. President Bill Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification. In a 2008 debate, Obama said, "It's embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia" and promised to "review" the decision. That review is apparently still pending. And it's still embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia.

Mitt Romney, Obama's likely opponent in November, often alleges that the president does not believe in "American exceptionalism." It's a specious claim, but the truth is that America is exceptional -- in some ugly as well as admirable ways. Obama wanted, in effect, to restore the true American exceptionalism by putting an end to its uglier forms. Like so many of his other aspirational goals -- like "changing the culture of Washington" -- this has proved much harder than he thought. It is easier to argue that America under Obama has become a better citizen of the international community than it is to argue that it has become a more rights-regarding nation at home.

Of course, Obama inherited a conservative Supreme Court, Supermax prisons, Gitmo, and a politics infused with what he once called "the color-coded politics of fear." He inherited all that in the same way that he inherited two wars and something close to a depression. If he's made winding down the wars and warding off economic catastrophe rather than signing U.N. conventions his priority -- well, for that we can forgive him. But let's hope that setting an example to the world of treating your own citizens with the dignity they deserve will make it on to his list of things to do in his hypothetical second term. So yes, we can cut the president some slack on this one. But let us not forget how shameful it is to be classed with Kazakhstan, not to mention Somalia.

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