University of Memphis

Prolonged State of Emergency Status May Lead to Democratic Backsliding in Mali by Molly Winders @ University of Memphis

Terrorism. This nine-letter word has become common in news stories and political discussions in recent years.  For many, the word alone surfaces mental images of the Twin Towers, the Paris attacks, or any one of hundreds of other attacks that have occurred across the world.

Each country that experiences terrorism has a different approach to dealing with it.  The US, for example, declared war on states who were supposedly involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Mali chose to declare a state of emergency, which provided a loophole through which democratic values could be violated.  While states of emergency are often necessary in certain circumstances, one might begin to question the validity and intention of such a status should it extend beyond the point of necessity.  I argue here that the prolonged state of emergency in Mali has negative implications for its democratic stability.

Spurts of terrorism have plagued Mali in recent years.  During times of attack or siege, the Malian constitution allows for the declaration of a state of emergency, in which the country operates under emergency protocols, which limit the freedoms normally practiced in a democracy for the purpose of national protection.

Following a terror attack in November 2015, the Malian government declared a state of emergency.  In July 2016, the government extended this state of emergency by 10 days in order to further deal with terrorism in the country.

By declaring a state of emergency, the government of Mali gave itself more power to supposedly take on the threat from terrorism.  Under the guise of a state of emergency, the government could conduct behaviors that would be viewed as undemocratic on a normal day, such as limiting freedoms and targeting certain groups for terror suspicion.  However, after months of emergency status and continued terror attacks, many may question the necessity and validity of the state of emergency.

Mali had been in a state of emergency for roughly eight months when it declared in July 2016 that it was necessary to continue operating under emergency protocols.  While terrorism is indeed a large and difficult issue to take on, eight months in a state of emergency seems a bit excessive.  The declaration of state of emergency and increased government powers for supposedly dealing with terrorism are obviously not getting the job done, so it is likely time to move on to other tactics.

It may be that the Malian government enjoys the increased freedoms and semi-authoritarian leadership that it has achieved under the state of emergency and does not want to revert back to the restrictions set by democratic processes.  Surely after a long enough period of emergency protocols, such protocols would become the new standard and the country would simply adopt these laws and regulations as normal.  Once the state of emergency has ended, citizens may be so used to the way things have operated that they would not push for a return to more democratic practices.  Or, they may simply believe that democracy is unsuitable for dealing with terrorism, leading them to push for continued authoritarian practices.

This could be the intention of the Malian government since it has largely failed to quell its terrorism issue despite months of being in a declared state of emergency.  Instead of rapidly reverting to authoritarianism, the Malian government may seek to gradually change the social and constitutional norms in order to avoid the coups and turmoil that it has seen throughout its history.

This sort of sneaky tactic to return democratic institutions to authoritarianism is more prominent today than the coups and sudden political ousting of leaders of decades past.  Governments and leaders today slowly, but surely, implement policies and questionable tactics using democratic processes.  Citizens may question these policies, but since they came about through established democratic institutions, many may believe that they are legitimate and do not worry about the stability of their current regime.

While it is unclear what the underlying motivations are for Mali’s prolonged state of emergency status, they do seem to point toward the gradual erosion of democracy into authoritarianism given the excessive length of time and the recurrent terror attacks plaguing the country.  Despite the motivations, the prolonged state of emergency may lead many citizens to support other forms of government besides democracy due to the political norms established during such periods, as well as an unwillingness to reimplement democratic values into society.  Following a prolonged period in which democratic freedoms are suspended, it may be difficult to reimplement those freedoms into society and government.

Thus, the prolonged state of emergency status in Mali has negative implications for the stability of the democratic regime.  In order to preserve the democracy, the Malian government should implement other counterterror tactics that do not limit democratic values for an excessive period of time.


  1. Emily Masse

    December 11, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    I agree that this prolonged state of emergency in Mali is having a negative effect on the stability of its democracy. As Linz describes in “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes,” democracies are more susceptible to erosion in times of crisis, such as terror attacks. The government cannot seem to gain control over the situation, and thus the people lose faith that democracy is a strong enough regime to solve the problem. When people lose faith in democracy, they become significantly more lenient with their rulers, allowing them to stretch the boundaries of their power without consequence. As a result, vertical accountability becomes diminished.
    We have seen a similar case in Turkey, where a state of emergency has been active since a failed coup attempt in 2016. Under this state of emergency, President Erdogan has shut down over 160 media outlets, jailed over 120 journalists along with 47,000 other people, and suspended over 100,000 civil servants. What is even more concerning about the situation in Turkey is that a recently passed referendum allows Erdogan to declare a state of emergency without permission from Parliament. Now, Erdogan could continue his attack on the media and the opposition, and make his actions seem necessary and justifiable, by declaring a state of emergency. Not only does this referendum show a weakness in vertical accountability, as the referendum passed even though it dramatically extends Erdogan’s powers in a number of ways, but the referendum also constitutionally limits horizontal accountability by removing one check Parliament had over the Executive.
    Of course, we can not fully know the intentions of these rulers. Perhaps they do believe the state of emergency will bring an end to their struggles with terrorism and extremism and intend to restore democratic norms as they had been (Though that does not appear to be the case in Turkey). However, any state of emergency does have a lasting effect on the strength of a democracy because it calls into question the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the democratic process.

  2. Julia Banas

    December 11, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    As someone with limited knowledge of the situation in Mali, I found this very interesting and informative. The ever-present state of emergency is certainly worrying for democracy and citizens’ rights. As you mentioned, while there is a valid cause for this state of emergency, legally using democratic institutions to erode democracy has become increasingly common for leaders seeking to seize power. This seems particularly troubling for minority groups, since, as you said, under this state of emergency, certain groups can be targeted. This could potentially lead to polarization among social groups, which is problematic for democracy. As Kinder and Kam discuss in their piece about ethnocentrism, division of social groups violates political equality, which makes it inherently undemocratic. The state of emergency could be creating this type of polarization, further spreading antidemocratic values. By keeping this state of emergency in place despite lack of progress in fighting the issue, democracy is threatened in multiple ways. A gradual change in norms not only directly threatens democracy, but also affects citizens’ perceptions of each other. These perceptions could be an alternate way for the government to create divisions and use the state of emergency to increase power. Possible resistance could occur, such as resistance from opposition parties, the branches of government, international intervention, and citizen reactions. It will be interesting to see what happens with the state of emergency, its effects, and the future of Mali.

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