Lessons From Bamako
“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting, and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpeting again.”
—Khalil Gibran, “Pity the Nation,” The Garden of the Prophet, 1933
Whenever there is a storm in the Sahel, the first suspect is always Paris. France lurks around and watches over its former colonies like a possessive mother, and this purported altruism has long been a subject of dedicated scrutiny. This is why reports that Élysée Palace was unaware of the military coup d’état in Mali, last week, were hard to swallow.
The coup seemed too easy, short and tidy. Under arrest, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita—along with Prime Minister Boubou Cisse—was forced to announce his resignation and dissolution of the national assembly and the cabinet. “For seven years I had the happiness and the joy of trying to straighten out this country,” Keita said to a delighted country, to whom he was once the face of change. “I don’t want any blood to be shed to keep me in my position”.
The French, who have about 5,000 soldiers scattered across several bases in the Sub-Saharan scrubland, had previously intervened to prevent Mali from collapse after an ill-advised coup in 2012. That military action was the reason Mali regained control of towns and cities from an insurgent group that took advantage of the anarchy. It also gave Keita a country to run, after winning a landslide election in 2013.
Keita’s transformation is a familiar tragedy. He inherited a country at the mercy of collapsed security and corruption, but its redemption, as would be established by his actions, wasn’t his priority. He was found complicit in Mali’s descent into a personalised enterprise, and paying no heed to public outrage. This peaked after the March 2020 parliamentary election. The President was accused of installing his preferred candidates, and anti-government protests sprang up.
Instead of appeasing the citizens, the government cracked down on the increasingly determined “enemies”: the civil society leaders and politicians mobilising coalitions of like minds to demand the President’s resignation. Amidst the chaos, sometime in July, eleven protesters were killed by overzealous security forces. This further legitimised the case against Keita. Such highhandedness, unfortunately, is the most fluent language dictators in the region adopt in their interactions with citizens.
But Africa must prepare for the shockwave of the coup, as it transmits signals capable of disrupting the continent’s fragile democracy. The portrayals of the coup in the media have been romanticising, its implication overlooked. The last coup almost cost Malians a country, and this too can get out of hand if the plotters’ personal ambition intercedes, as witnessed in Zimbabwe and Egypt. The world is in crisis and only a few foreign powers would be willing to commit vast resources to rescuing Bamako, which is a central station in stabilising the terrorist-infested region.
The coup is an angry letter to dictators in denial, and Nigeria isn’t an exception. Like Muhammadu Buhari, Keita was a popular choice, in fact winning his first and second elections by a wide margin. Like Keita, Buhari was re-elected. Like Keita, Buhari’s handling of terrorist and criminal violence has been dreadful. The scariest similarity, perhaps, is the irrepressibility of the military institution, which is a legacy of the colonial system that’s created such powerful organisation in institutionally frail states. This is probably why Buhari has not yielded to the pressure to sack his service chiefs despite the obvious incompetency.
Nigeria’s transactions with criminals over the years are a strange policy for a government that hounds unarmed protesters that it now seems as though such convergences are illegal. The first warning was the series of crackdowns on protesters, including the longstanding Bring Back Our Girls campaigners, in the first few months of Buhari’s first tenure. There was also the mishandling of the extrajudicial killings of Shiites in Zaria, with agitators subjected to a tremendous hail of bullets for descending upon the streets of Abuja to ask for justice and demand the release of their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. There were the persistent disregards for court decisions on the bails granted citizens under trial, notably Sambo Dasuki, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, Agba Jalingo, and Omoyele Sowore.
These clampdowns on citizens to protect the Buhari government, as coordinated by the Nigerian Police Force and the State Security Service (SSS), are instruction from a Machiavelli book. Only that the Nigerian state isn’t built to enforce obedience through absolute fear–-as prescribed in the Italian military theorist’s The Prince. And this is the origin of the contradiction.
The immediacy with which a succession of Nigerian presidents backed down in their bids to neutralise rebel groups, is proof that Machiavelli is the wrong adviser in the country’s quests for stability. Boko Haram emerged from this misreading of The Prince. If this smells of the naiveté of an uninformed spectator, the recent Op-Ed of former Director-General of SSS, Afakriya Gadzama, published by the Daily Trust on August 13, definitely isn’t. In the said piece he described as “failure” the leadership of Nigeria’s security institutions, and alerted that “public support of the security forces is also dwindling”.
Nigeria’s negotiation with terrorists and criminals isn’t the immediate danger. It’s the crackdowns on protesters, and refusal to appeal to the mass reasons. The pro-government, some of whom identified as activists when Goodluck Jonathan was in power, have cited insecurity as the reason for antagonising protesters. They didn’t realise that Nigeria was too fragile for mass protests when, at a peak of Boko Haram insurgency in 2012, they took to the streets nationwide to #OccupyNigeria. Most of the key campaigners of that era, who wanted Jonathan out, by all means, are the government today.
Ultimately, the cheapest way to avoid the road to Bamako isn’t a Machiavellian idea. The people yearn to be treated with dignity, and governed well. The people must be granted their constitutionally sanctioned right to demonstrate their grievance, to experience a democracy. The government should only consider protesters a threat the day they disappear from the street to protest in the shadow. That only means one thing.