On the Apparent Coup in Mali

Some days, blogging just isn’t fast enough, as a medium, to keep up with breaking news. For writing about Mali, yesterday was one of those days. Today will be one too. After much uncertainty yesterday regarding a coup attempt, news outlets this morning are taking one of two slightly different lines. The first says, cautiously, that renegade soldiers say they’ve taken power, and the second says that they definitively have taken power.

Although the ultimate success of the coup is in some doubt, what is not in doubt is that soldiers took control of state television and announced their takeover, and that there was serious fighting yesterday in Bamako, the capital. The BBC’s Martin Plaut wrote this morning that four ministers have been arrested. President Amadou Toumani Toure’s whereabouts are unknown. The momentum seems to be with the coup leaders.

The causes of the coup/attempted coup include the rebellion in northern Mali, the discontent it has sparked within the Malian military, issues concerning military pay and supplies, the social backlash the war has generated in southern Mali, and overall dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the situation.

The rebellion began on January 17. Protests began about two weeks later. In the interval, the Malian military has suffered a number of setbacks in the north. Tension has built up for over two months.

News24 provides one account of the immediate trigger for the coup:

The series of events that culminated in the coup began on Wednesday morning at a military camp in the capital, during a visit by Defence Minister General Sadio Gassama. In his speech to the troops, the minister failed to address the grievances of the rank-and-file soldiers, who are angry over what they say is the government’s mismanagement of a rebellion in the north by Tuareg separatists. The rebellion has claimed the lives of numerous soldiers, and those sent to fight are not given sufficient supplies, including arms or food. Their widows have not received compensation.

Recruits started firing into the air on Wednesday, and they stoned the general’s car as it raced away. By afternoon, soldiers had surrounded the state television station in central Bamako, yanking both the television and radio signals off the air for more than seven hours. By Wednesday evening, troops had started rioting at a military garrison located in the northern town of Gao, about 2 000 miles away.

For an eyewitness account from Bamako – one that emphasizes how ordinary people are largely remaining calm during these events – see Bruce Whitehouse.

There has already been a lot of rumination about what this coup means for Mali. Some see a major irony in the fact that presidential elections were scheduled for a little more than one month from now. I don’t. That fact clearly didn’t matter to the coup leaders and their supporters – a reminder that politics goes beyond elections and the actions of civilian politicians. Indeed coups, almost by definition (unless one reads them as a straight power grab), convey the message that the coup leaders believe that not only the current civilian leader, but also the civilian system itself, cannot handle the present crisis. If that is one’s belief, one will not necessarily wait to see what an election brings.

Mali and Niger are different countries with different histories and politics, but it is tempting to compare the 2010 coup in Niger with this coup in Mali. Their causes were different. Soldiers in Niger intervened to “reset” the civilian democracy after President Mamadou Tandja manipulated the constitution to stay in power. There was no war in Niger at the time. But in light of the coup in Niger, it is not surprising that the coup leaders in Mali have taken on the rhetoric of democracy, naming themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and saying, “We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened.”

They may well make good on this promise. If the coup succeeds, there will be massive pressure – in a sense there already is - for Mali to hold elections. In Niger, although again, the situation was different, soldiers were in power for slightly longer than a year before organizing new elections. Finally, military involvement in democracy in Mali is not necessarily new; Toure himself is a former general, and leader of the 1991 coup that paved the way for the present democratic system. After 1991, Mali also transitioned to electoral democracy within about a year.

There are a lot of questions now, even beyond the immediate details of the coup. Looking forward, the fate of the elections and the fate of the war in the north will be paramount concerns. How will the new leaders (or Toure, if he stays) shift the government’s political strategy in the north? Looking backward, what connections do we draw between this coup and the fall of Qadhafi? If the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is in some sense part of the aftermath of the Libyan civil war, then this coup is too. A lot of dominoes have been falling recently. Those asking what impact the Arab uprisings will have on sub-Saharan Africa have one kind of answer in these events.

For faster analysis – since what I say here may be quickly outpaced by events – I recommend turning to Twitter, especially to the feeds of Martin Vogl, Martin Plaut, Peter Dorrie, Hannah Armstrong, Tommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich.

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18 thoughts on “On the Apparent Coup in Mali

  1. Pingback: Military Coup in Mali « Forti's Musings

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  3. Interestingly this didn’t manage to even make the front page of the BBC website. Apparently De Niro joking about Obama and clues to what causes male baldness were considered more important.

    As for the coup itself, I haven’t had time to check the Malian military structure but the apparent leader of the coup appears to be a Captain Amadou Sanogo. This could very well be a subaltern coup with bad implications for the military both prior to the coup and in the future. Also interesting is that this reportedly doesn’t have the full backing of the military, though if the generals weren’t involved then the loyalty of elite soldiers would be expected.

    • Coups are not necessarily led by the generals or colonels. Look at Samuel Doe or Lt. Rawlings and many others.

      Every time a coup took place since 2003, the media called it Africa’s LAST One:
       
      Sao Tome and Principe-July 2003
      Mauritania-August 2008
      Guinea-December 2008
      Madagascar-March 2009
      Niger- February 2010
      Mali- March 2012
      The term extension by many long-term African leaders ( constitutional coup).

      The trend is worrying. Somalia is to graduate come August, 2012 from transitional governance. How should we protect ourselves from the actions of few rogue armed men one day taking over the ” national” radio, the ” national” airport, the residence of the President and some  major intersections in the Capital city and announce to the whole world that they’re the new sheriff in town. 

      THAT is why we insist of  devolution of power so that one day when we wake up and see those rogue soldiers taking over ” notional” places, the rest of the country simply soldiers on. Life goes on. Otherwise, our whole destiny will be up to those few rogue elements. We can stop that starting NOW!

      • For quite a while coups were carried out by generals, often the entire central command. While all coups are troubling, the lower class coups are even worse. They marginalize the higher officers, encourage the low level soldiery to ignore orders and put people who probably have no education or training for government work in power. Of course it’s also suggestive of a poorly supplied military that might constantly go underpaid (or just plain unpaid) and one that feels betrayed by higher officers and civilian leaders who aren’t on the front lines. I wonder if they feared that the government was soft on the rebels and giving up ground that they bled for.

        As someone who doesn’t have an immediate stake in this the best outcome to me would be the civilian government and generals crushing the coup, firmly reinstating itself, carrying out promised elections and trying to correct the problems that led to this.

        On extending terms and doing away with term limits, I wouldn’t call those coups really. They’re power grabs, but of a different type. A coup is where a group or groups (usually the military but some have civilian backing as well) overthrow the recognized government or part of the recognized government* through force or the threat of force.

        As for Somalia, I’m more worried about getting the transition from TFG to something else to go smoothly. However I do have to admit that it could happen, though I’m worried about de facto warlords. Considering U.N reports suggesting allied groups have more effective than the official army just how organized is it?

        *Such as Marcos in the Philippines.

      • For quite a while coups were carried out by generals, often the entire central command. While all coups are troubling, the lower class coups are even worse. They marginalize the higher officers, encourage the low level soldiery to ignore orders and put people who probably have no education or training for government work in power. Of course it’s also suggestive of a poorly supplied military that might constantly go underpaid (or just plain unpaid) and one that feels betrayed by higher officers and civilian leaders who aren’t on the front lines. I wonder if they feared that the government was soft on the rebels and giving up ground that they bled for.

        Well said.

      • I agree with you that the media coverage of coups often misses the point. Each coup is taken as some larger statement about the trajectory/pattern of all coups in the world. Each coup is an individual data point in some sense, and they do make some kind of pattern, but each case has its own dynamics. I think you are also right that this is not the last coup.

    • Many worries – impact on the Taureg insurgency, counter-terrorism etc. Were these men trained by AFRICOM?

      Will this coup give junior officers in Nigeria any ideas? (anyway, Junior officer coups in Nigeria have never succeeded).

      • I would guess the chances are very high at least some of them had AFRICOM training, which seems to be a pretty common experience in Mali.

      • Sanogo might have had training in the U.S, though I don’t know of any concrete evidence yet. So far we have a statement in the Associated Press by someone who apparently is a diplomat requesting anonymity. Unless it was a top secret project it should be possible to check through records in America.
        However, even if he was trained in the U.S all that means is that the U.S doesn’t try to train African officers in the values of democracy*. The U.S government is (at the time of this writing) wavering on military aid to Mali, especially with its own concerns about the region but it should (if intelligent) suspend aid.

        As for Nigeria, coups seem to be of two types. The political ones that often involve the higher command that thinks the civilian government either is allowing part of their nation to break away or they’re fundamentally opposed to the political changes being made. The more economic ones (though they often have a political component) involve more mid-level officers who see the riches of their superiors and civilian leaders and are not getting enough pay of their own.

        You’d be better placed to know if corruption in the Nigerian military is a serious problem, especially for majors and colonels. Politics might play a role, especially if they don’t think that Jonathan is doing enough to keep Nigeria together, but that’s very dependent on history.

        Foreign Policy has a short article on mid-level coups from two years ago though it doesn’t really look at why the shift from high-ranking to middle-ranking coups happened, just the impetus among middle-ranking officers.

        http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/02/22/a_theory_of_coups_leadership

        *And I suspect the African governments would not be very happy if we did try any kind of political training.

  4. Thanks for this post – the comparison with Niger is an interesting take, & I hope that the Nigerien example will increase the pressure on other countries (also looking at Senegal) to opt for more democratic processes.

    But as ever, the differences may be more instructive. A big one here seems to be this: Niger’s military took power in order to restore democracy; while the quote from the CNRDR says, we took power in order to maintain the unity of Mali, and once we do that we’ll restore democracy. (Also, Mali’s democracy was, in theory, still working. Niger’s had already broken down.)

    That statement may be just a rookie mistake from the captain. Let’s hope that whatever government wins out will feel the pressure

  5. Amidst the recent events in Bamako, I hope sincerely that media outlets would focus more attention (if it were possible) on events outside the capitol, particularly the effect that this coup will have on the general population in the small towns and villages. Malian democracy wasn’t just something that happened in the presidential palace and the National Assembly.

    If you are interested in reading an RPCV’s perspective, please check out my blog post:
    “A Requiem for Malian Democracy (2008-2010)”

    http://zacstravaganza.blogspot.com/2012/03/malian-democracy.html

    ~ Zachary Mason, known to the people of one small corner of Mali as “Madu Sogoba”
    RPCV Mali 2008-2010

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  7. Pingback: Senegal & Mali: A Tale of Two Democracies | Foreign Policy Blogs

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