ATT, Mali’s ‘soldier of democracy’, moves on

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Mali has been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with not one “de Gaulle” moment but with three. These moments of state collapse and rejuvenation led Mali through three phases, socialist (1960-68), military (1968-1991) and finally democratic (1991-2020). The architect of the last of these, former President Amadou Toumani Touré (popularly known as ATT), has died.

His death comes at a time of great political upheaval, with the future looking more uncertain than at any time since the transition to democracy in 1991. That transition was shepherded by ATT himself who, perhaps more than anyone, made the most of his opportunity to shape the future of the country and set Mali on the path to democracy.

His dramatic decision to turn against strongman Moussa Traoré after a disastrous military campaign against the Tuareg in the north of the country and the use of live rounds on protesters in the capital by troops secured his place in the history of Mali. His shrewd political decision to move towards democracy, declining to replace Traoré as military strongman and unpicking the single-party state model which had been embedded by his predecessors, won him global stature as the ‘soldier of democracy’.

He of course was not solely responsible for Mali’s democratisation; the history of great nations cannot be written alone. It is unlikely that the fragile republic would have consolidated without the careful decisions of his successor in office, President Alpha Konaré.

A soldier in power

ATT’s early role in the transition to democracy is unlikely to be the most controversial aspect of his legacy. Having refused the opportunity to continue the dictatorial ways of the past as the leader of a military coup, he returned to power as democratically elected President in 2002 and ruled until he was himself toppled during the 2012 rebellion which brought down the Malian state and led to French military intervention. His stewardship of the democratic transition may be beyond reproach but his actions in power are likely to be fought over and picked apart for some time to come.

An uncharitable interpretation would be that he presided over a corrupt and toothless regime that preferred to divert the scarce resources of the state into more pockets rather than to stand up to potentially dangerous rebels. Whilst the facts support this interpretation, more or less, this narrative presumes a choice between standing up to rebels and paying them off, which ATT recognised as illusory.

An overmighty military has caused many problems in Mali.  Briefly, the decision to aggressively pursue rebels and dissidents led to the collapse of the previous Keita (1968) and Traoré (1991) regimes. ATT, as the leader of a successful military coup d’état, recognised that the greatest threat to the Malian government had historically not emanated from rebels but from within the security apparatus of the state itself. From this perspective, ATT’s decision to eschew military contestation and favour building a stake in the state through co-optation looks more like wisdom than weakness.

Failure or bad luck?

It is difficult to say whether this strategy failed in 2012 or whether it was simply unable to cope with the scale of crisis that erupted following the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. This catastrophic event was a brick through the window of the African continent, the consequences of which are still playing out almost a decade later.

For ATT to have failed to predict the consequences of this random act of outside intervention in another country, with which Mali does not share a border, is perhaps forgivable.

His unconventional approach to balancing the fragile domestic situation in Mali led to a period of relative prosperity where Mali was a donor darling best known for jazz in the desert. Any assessment of ATT’s legacy is greatly complicated by the interaction of black swan events such as Libya with long-term structural factors. He did succeed in reducing military spending as a percentage of government expenditure by a half, and if he had not been forced to fight a war he did not choose by the actions of others then this may well have been considered an un-alloyed success. While he weakened the military, his overall success in coup-proofing his administration appears self-evidently to have been poor.

Will future look like the past?

Mali is now in a period of transition, with the future of democracy in the Republic in some doubt. Pressure on the military has eased with a supposed transition to civilian rule but the hegemony of the military over affairs of state remains unbroken. It appears that the window for another leader of the stature of President Amadou Toumani Touré to shepherd the country back onto a democratic path may have already closed. Nevertheless, if any state has demonstrated the capacity to reinvent itself as required by circumstances it is Mali.

As ATT himself said, ‘only a fool predicts the future of this country.’ It would be a foolish analyst indeed who ruled out the possibility of another de Gaulle moment in the near future.

Joe Gazeley is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and a Scouloudi Research Fellow at the IHR.

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