Yesterday saw the third mass protest against the government of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), organized by the June 5 Movement (named for the date of its first protest). I have gone into the background of these protests here, here, and here, and since it’s a Saturday I will not yet do a full update on the recent protest. I just want to highlight one talking point from my own government regarding the protests, a talking point that seems to be unfounded or even misleading.
Several top U.S. diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Mali Dennis Hankins and Special Envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham, have implied that the protesters’ core demand – that IBK resign – is “extra-constitutional.”
On 23 June, Hankins told Malian journalists that “one cannot force the departure of an elected president.”
And yesterday, 10 July, Pham stated that “any extra-constitutional change of government is out of the question.”
Ok, why? What is “extra-constitutional” about demanding that IBK resign? Here is the English translation of the Malian Constitution – I challenge Hankins, Pham, or any other U.S. government official to find me where it says the president cannot resign. Article 36 contains provisions for what happens if there is a vacancy in the presidency, but nowhere do I see a constitutional restriction against a president resigning. Now, what if he resigns under massive pressure from the street? I still don’t see why that’s “extra-constitutional.” Any basic understanding of democracy would grant citizens the right to protest against their rulers, even to the point of demanding that they resign. If a segment of the citizenry turns up the pressure to the point where the president steps down, that still doesn’t appear to violate the Constitution – or, again, any conventional understanding of democracy. Or would that kind of street politics be “extra-constitutional” because Mahmoud Dicko, the imam who is the most prominent leader of the protests, makes Western diplomats uncomfortable? Even violent protests that provoked a resignation (and these protests have been mostly non-violent) would not make such a resignation “extra-constitutional” – the constitutionality of the resignation and any violence associated with the protests should, to my mind, be considered distinct legal issues.
Ironically, as I’ve pointed out before, the June 5 Movement is probably on shakier ground, constitutionally, with some of the compromises they’ve proposed (and withdrawn); the idea that IBK could turn over all meaningful powers to the prime minister is not supported, at least in my reading, by the Constitution. Their most maximalist demand, namely that IBK resign, appears to actually be the most plausible in Constitutional terms.
I think U.S. diplomats (and Western diplomats in general) have tipped their hands with statements like these, revealing a fundamentally pro-incumbent bias and a distaste for street politics and anyone outside the mold of the conventional Malian politician. I think those biases are problematic and I also think the strategy behind the statements is flawed – what message is being sent to Malians when American diplomats try to dictate the rules of the game? What if IBK does resign – how would/will these talking points read to Malians in a post-IBK scenario?
Unless by “extra-constitutional,” these diplomats are trying to convey that they’re worried about a military coup. That would be a different ballgame altogether…