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Repetitive Military Coups in Mali: The Nexus Between Democracy and Development

Mahamadou Bassirou Tangara and Moumouni Diallo, Faculté des Sciences Economique et de Gestion - FSEG, Université des Sciences Sociales et de Gestion de Bamako - USSGB

Mali has benefited from the confidence and support of international development institutions as an example of successful democracy in West Africa (Bergamaschi 2014). For instance, the 2008 Rapport Mission de Réflexion sur la Consolidation de la démocratie au Mali argued that “it is undeniable that for the last fifteen years democracy is a reality in our country, which is worth being cited as an example”. But more than three decades of consolidated democracy was not enough to safeguard the democratic regime. In 2012, facing security issues combined with political crisis, Mali experienced its third coup d’état. Then, after a short “transition” period the “democratization” resumed, but not for long. In 2020 and 2021 a double coup d’état happened. This time, instead of conducting the “transition” to its end, a coup d’état overthrew the President in mid-transition. Why and how after a such good experience of the “democratization process” did Mali fall back into a military regime? First, it is necessary to assess international support for democracy in Mali. For Francophone Africa, institutional electoral democracy in place of single party regimes was in part encouraged from the outside. The 1990 Franco-African Summit in La Baule raised the question of the conditionality of development aid to the experimentation of democratic regimes, through multipartyism and elections. The foundation of democracy as a political regime is the promise of improved living conditions for the population and, above all, the involvement of all in the management and decisionmaking of public affairs.


It is in aspiring to these advantages that Mali, after an experience of nearly three decades of single party and military rule, switched to democracy following a popular uprising in 1991. Several opinion surveys demonstrate the population’s overwhelming preference for democracy in Mali over different types of political regimes. For example, Afro barometer surveys in Mali since 1999 show a preference for democracy of over 60%. Paradoxically, since 1992, there has been a recurrent low citizen participation in elections. Now, in less than ten years Mali has experienced three coups d’état, all of which were massively supported by a large part of the population. This popular support for coups could augur a rejection of democracy in Mali. Thus, in this essay we seek to understand how, after more than three decades of democratization, a country can switch to military rule following a coup. To answer this question, we formulate the hypothesis that the stability of a democratic regime depends on the mass of the population that supports it and is involved in its implementation and proper functioning. It would therefore be possible to predict the probability of popular uprisings and military coups d’état according to the degree of satisfaction of the population with democracy.


Our methodology is based on fuzzy index approach. The fuzzy index is, generally, used in the literature to measure the degree to which an individual or a household belongs to the “poor class”. In this work we adapt this fuzzy set theory to try to estimate population satisfaction degree with the democracy in Mali. The degree of the population’s satisfaction can help to predict the likelihood of a popular demonstration which could be exploited by the military and lead to a coup d’état. This tool seems suitable for the study of a phenomenon whose knowledge of the factors remains imprecise or even uncertain.


1. Political regime in Mali

The political regime in Mali since independence passed from single party rule to military regime and then to a process of democratization. At the independence in 1960, the country was led by US-RDA which was Unique State Party (USP). The regime of the first Republic featured some political elections, such as parliament members being chosen by elections. Then, a military coup on November 19th, 1968, by National Military Committee for Liberation (CMLN), ended this regime and put the country in a long military-led “transition”. For ten years, CMLN led the country by ordinance without any elected political bodies. After this long “transition”, the single party regime came back with Democratic Union of the Malian People (UDPM), led by Moussa Traoré, which then led the country for twenty-three years. In 1991, the country experienced another military coup which overthrew Moussa Traoré. The coup happened in part due to a strong and long popular demonstration for a “multi-party” and “democratic” regime. Unlike the first coup, this time the period of transition was very short. From 1991 to 1992 Amadou Toumani Touré, who carried out the coup, organized legislative and presidential elections in 1992. From there, the “democratization process” started with the support of the international community. The new constitution adopted a multi-party instead of a single state party. It also guaranteed freedom of the press, the right of associations (political and civil), elections, and other features considered as paths of democratization. From this point of view, Mali’s “democratization process” did quite well for thirty years. During this period, Mali was among the most successful examples of democracy and an example to be followed in in West Africa. But then, after more than three decades of democratic experience, Mali returned to military coups to the surprise of all international development institutions.

Electoral democracy in Mali

If the national and international actors agreed on the effectiveness of democracy in the country, there was no doubt that it still needed to be strengthened. Thus, the Mission de Réflexion sur la Consolidation de la démocratie au Mali , concluded in 2008 that:

[…] institutional practice has brought to light many issues of concern. The institutions of the republic regularly give rise to debates within the political class and in national public opinion about their organization, their functioning and the relationship between them. Despite the numerous revisions of the electoral law and the law on the Charter of political parties, the electoral process and the public financing of political parties still have shortcomings and deficiencies, the most obvious manifestation of which is the recurrent low level of citizen participation in elections.


Democracy as a political system is not a problem in itself but the problem could be whether one looks at democracy as a process or as an outcome (Macamo, 2018). This can be seen in the results of the Afrobarometer’s popular opinion surveys on democracy. As shown in Figure 1, since 1999 – 2000 the proportion of the Malian population preferring democracy to another political regime has remained above 60% of respondents. However, this raw rate hides several specificities and over time, this perception has varied between 59.70% and 74.7%.

The trend of popular preference for democracy shows an irregular evolution. The period 1999 – 2009 is marked by a more or less regular upward trend, up to 72% of opinion in favor of democracy. But after 2009, this rate experienced a sharp decline, falling to 61.8% between 2011 and 2013, before rising to 74.7% during the period 2014 - 2015. Since 2015, the trend in popular opinion in favor of democracy has been downward. These different phases in the evolution of popular perception on democracy could be the manifestation of aspiration to better living conditions and the euphoria of the promise of social contract, unmet expectations on the level of economic and social development and security, but also lack of confidence in leaders. However, the overall level of popular support for democracy in Mali suggests that democracy itself is not a problem.

According to the report of the reflection mission on the consolidation of democracy, the main concern in Mali is institutional practice. In other words, the institutions in their organization, functioning and current relationship with each other are less conducive to the effective involvement of all actors in the perpetuation of democracy. The report highlights certain shortcomings and intentional inadequacies, such as the lack of clarity in the competencies of institutions, the imperfections of the electoral system, and the problem of financing political parties. The main manifestation of the shortcomings in the electoral process is the recurrent weakness of citizen participation in elections, as illustrated in figure 2.


The election participation rate remains low and hardly reaches 50% in Mali. Admittedly, an upward trend was noticeable before 2013. But the momentum was broken in 2018, the last presidential election, an election widely contested by the opposition. Later, combined with the results of the legislative elections of 2020, lead to a political crisis. Some analysts argue that this political crisis is a manifestation of the country’s institutional fragility, the persistence of governance deficits, and the frustrations and grievances of communities (Sogodogo, 2020). The reestablishment of social and political stability necessarily requires a renewal of the social contract.

2. Analytical Framework

In our analytical frame is based on two dimensions. First, we take into consideration the theoretical link between democracy and economic development and second the relationship between democracy and coup d’etat. The relation between economic development and political regime is related to modernization theory (Wucherpfennig & Deutsch, 2009). In this perspective there is a relation between socio-economic development and political democracy. In other word, there is theoretical link between the level of development of a given country and its probability of being democratic (Lipset, 1959) So, socio-economic development (industrialization, urbanization, wealth, education, media and access to information) leads to democracy. From there, as stated Wucherpfennig and Deutsch (2009): “for any democratic regime to survive, it must provide sufficient legitimacy as perceived by its citizens”. Thus, we consider the democracy not as a singular state but as a long process, “democratization” (Gisselquist et al., 2021). Also, we take into consideration that democracy may not leads to development, but rather development which eases the way for democracy (Macamo, 2018). The other dimension of our analytical frame is the possible relationship between democracy and coup d’etat.

Two generations of coups d’etat have shown a changing relationship between coups and democracy. On the one hand, it appears that coups d’etat has been the major factor leading to downfall of democratic governments making this the generation of coup d’etat. But on the other hand, the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors (Marinov & Goemans, 2013). Furthermore, as stated by Bell (2016) : “democratic constraints on executive power inhibit a leader’s ability to repress threats from political rivals. Though this decreases motivations for coup attempts, it also makes democracies more vulnerable should a coup attempt occur” (Bell, 2016). Our conceptual analysis is based on the assumption that shortcomings in the electoral process led to recurrently low citizen participation in elections, figure 3.


We think that citizen participation in elections is an important node in the democratization process and a factor that can increase the interest of individuals in public affairs. First, upstream, we have the shortcomings of the electoral process (mode of establishment of the electoral lists, mode of voting, low commitment of political parties and candidates, and fraud) that can explain the recurrent weakness of participation in elections. Secondly, we have, downstream, the possible key consequences of this recurrent weakness of participation such as the protest and contestation of the results of the elections, the disinterest in public affairs, the alternation, etc. Protest and contestation of the results, more often than not, lead to popular uprisings. In this essay we analyze the population’s satisfaction with democracy using the fuzzy index model.

4. Analysis and discussion

4.1 Descriptive Statistic

In our analysis we use the Afrobarometer dataset , which is a series of surveys on popular opinion on democracy. The Afrobarometer surveys are conducted using the random selection method and the probability sampling technique. We use the round 7 dataset, conducted in 2018, including thirty-four countries. From this dataset, we extracted information on Mali to create a dataset specific to Mali. The Mali dataset thus constituted contains 1,200 surveyed individuals, representative of all eight of the country’s former regions. The distribution by region is fairly balanced and varies from 13% for Bamako to 18% for Sikasso. However, it is important to note that Tomouctou, Gao and Kidal are poorly represented, with 5%, 3% and 1% respectively. This could be explained by the low density in these regions compared to the other regions. In terms of gender distribution, a perfect balance can be observed. Also, the age of the respondents varies from 25 to 58. The variables contained in the dataset are qualitative and we have therefore proceeded to recode them. The variables (forty-two in total, see Appendix 2) that contributed to the calculation of the fuzzy index are divided into seven groups each representing a dimension or axis of democracy, namely:

  • Axis 1: Presence of basic services

  • Axis 2: Population’s Living Conditions

  • Axis 3: Management of Public Affairs

  • Axis 4: Confident in Leaders

  • Axis 5: Political Interdiction

  • Axis 6: Access to Information

  • Axis 7: Express Freedom


The modalities of the different variables are recoded according to three levels of appreciation. These rating scales express the feeling that could lead an individual to participate in a popular uprising or support a coup. This scale is defined as follows: i) 0 for the feeling in favor of popular uprisings or supporting a coup; ii) 0.5 for the feeling that is undecided or mixed and iii) the feeling that the individual is in favor of democracy and therefore against a coup.

4.2 Global Fuzzy Index by Axe

Table 1 shows the Global Fuzzy Index by Axis (GFIA). We decompose the population’s assessment of democracy into seven major dimensions. The choice of these dimensions is based on the literature and the dataset we use, Afrobarometer.

We found a global fuzzy index of 0.48. This index, very close to 0.5, expresses a global feeling of dissatisfaction with democracy. However, some of the axes taken individually show strong feelings of dissatisfaction. The population seems to be satisfied with the presence of basic services (axis 1). In addition, with respect to political freedom, the population seems to be satisfied. However, axes 2, 3, and 6 show a clearly expressed dissatisfaction of the population with democracy. On the other hand, axes 3 and 7 represent undecided feelings about democracy. A detailed exploration of the living conditions of the population in relation to the relative index leads us to the results described in the figure 5.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the class of the population that complains about their living conditions (feeling disappointed) registers the highest score of dissatisfaction with democracy. In contrast, those who find their living conditions acceptable are satisfied with democracy. This may suggest that people’s assessment of a political regime may be a function of its response to problems of economic and social development. But the question would be to what extent do people’s living conditions influence their judgments of the political regime that governs them? For the moment, we have little evidence to answer this question. However, participation in elections and the interest of citizens in the management of public affairs seem to be useful barometers for measuring the effectiveness of democracy.

Political Parties

In this configuration, with regard to their attributes, political parties play a preponderant role in political life in a democratic system. Political parties in Mali should not be the exception. The political party in Mali is based on three dimensions: mission of public interest, civic education of citizens and leaders, and public responsibility. From this understanding of the political party, and in view of the state of management of public affairs, a number of questions can be raised. First, the problem of the shift from general interest to private interest: could the meteoric evolution of political parties, more than 250 parties in less than 30 years, really be motivated by general interest rather than personal interest? Then, what relation can be established between this plethora of political parties and the behavior of citizens and leaders when we know that they have a vocation of civic education? Finally, the problem of public responsibility and the animation of political life arises. What is more, how can we understand the five-year existence of political parties that only manifest at election time?


The political party should constitute a social and collective organization rather than a vehicle for individual interests. As such, its financing is primarily the responsibility of its members and not of an individual, to avoid the risk of personalizing the party and diverting it from the general interest to serve personal interests. The structure of the candidates’ campaign budget can provide information on deviation from the public interest. On this issue, the Group “Observation of Spatial, Social Dynamics & Endogenous Expertise” (ODYSSEE) conducted a study in 2019. This study shows that the cost of election campaigns is dominated by private funding, including the personal resources of candidates, contributions from family, friends and acquaintances of candidates, contributions from the party (leaders, elected officials and other members) and others (loans and contributions from economic operators). The study pushes the analysis further by estimating that the candidates’ personal resources account for at least 80% of campaign expenses. To this should be added the contributions of family, friends and acquaintances of candidates. All in all, this could give elected officials the means to escape party control. Therefore, it would be plausible to formulate the hypothesis of a shift from public interest to personal interest.


What is the real situation of political parties on the ground? The number of political parties, offers us a first key answer. To put it simply, there are as many parties as there are specific social projects. Thus, for Mali, the number of political parties suggests more than 250 specific social projects. Consequently, political life should be very lively, leading to extensive civic education. All things being equal, civic education would lead to civil maturity, a high sense of citizenship (fulfillment of duty and obligation and demand of inherent rights), a great involvement in the management of public affairs. However, everything points to the contrary in Mali. Moreover, the recurrent weakness of the elections seems to be the pronounced manifestation of the population’s lack of interest in the management of affairs. One of the possible consequences of this recurrent low turnout in elections would be the lack of credibility given to election results. This may lead to a lack of legitimacy of leaders, with protests and challenges to elections often leading to popular uprisings.


The experience of Mali shows that popular uprisings are generally crowned by the interference of the military through a coup d’état. As an illustration, we can mention the case of 1991 and the recent uprising of 2020 following the contestation of the results of the legislative elections of the same year. The latter coup was accompanied by a euphoria that could reflect a desire for a break with the past, but a belief in democracy as a system that allows the people to decide who should govern them and how this should be done, as stated by Nyenyezi Bisoka & Tangara (2021). But according to these same authors, the experience of Mali shows that this theory is not always possible to apply: “governing means taking into account a multiplicity of political, economic and social logics, etc., which more often than not explain why the ruling class does not always go in the direction of the willing of the population.” Thus, they conclude, analyzing democracy is not just about measuring the index of democracy, but rather about being able to explain how theoretical democratic principles are articulated in pragmatic negotiations within different social arenas.

Regarding the recurrent low participation of citizens in elections, would it not be relevant, in the Malian context, for the validation and legitimacy of a ballot, to think of an irrevocable threshold model (ITM) to guard against challenges and rejections of the system? The idea would be to apply an ITM of elections operationalized by a participation rate required – PRR. For example, it could be, that for an election to be valid it must have a participation rate higher than 75%, or else it is automatically cancelled. The PRR promotes a number of practices necessary for the sustainability of democracy. First, it contributes to the improvement of the commitment of political parties and candidates, knowing from now on that the majority remains a necessary condition, but not sufficient to win an election. Second, the application of the PRR would help citizens appreciate the usefulness of their vote and therefore encourage them to take part in the electoral process. Finally, all of this could have a positive impact on citizens’ interest in public affairs. Indeed, citizens who have taken an interest in the electoral process and participated in the votes will feel more concerned by the management and performance of the leaders.


Democracy as a political regime does not in itself pose problems of governance, but rather the use to which it is put. A large part of the Malian people has difficulty recognizing themselves as living in a democracy. This is a corollary to the failure of the political elite in power to satisfy the essential needs of the population (education, health, food, etc.). This deleterious social and political situation often leads to a rush to challenge the legitimacy of the leaders, to contest the existing system and, in turn, to a military coup. It would be defensible for democracy to be plural rather than universal in its application. Thus, the conjecture that we defend in this essay is the re-debate of the concept of democracy in view of a better assumption of responsibility for the local practices that are supposed to animate social and political life. The lessons drawn from the state of political life and the level of citizen involvement militate in favor of a remodeling of the electoral system, in its entirety, to guarantee a strong citizen participation in the elections, a guarantee of a high public interest in public affairs.



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