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.