Many questions still surround the ongoing attempted military takeover in Mali: What motivated it? Will there be a counter-coup? What does it mean? What are its implications for the rebellion in the north and the future of Malian democracy? What are its implications for other countries? Answers to these questions will take shape over time, and Mali will follow its own path. In the meantime it is useful to think about other recent military coups in West Africa and how they played out.
The coups in question took place in Mauritania (2008), Guinea (2008), and Niger (2010), all of which border Mali. One commonality is that all three countries experienced coups at moments of perceived crisis. Another commonality is that they all eventually held elections. However, each took a different path towards its coup and towards the resolution of the coup. One key takeaway, indeed, is that coups can follow very different trajectories.
The order is chronological. This post fleshes out – and adds to – arguments I made here.
Mauritania‘s history, following the end of one-party rule in 1978, includes four successful coups: 1978, 1984, 2005, and 2008. While the coups of 1978 and 1984 installed military regimes, the 2005 coup was motivated by increasing domestic tension under the rule of Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. This tension stemmed partly from Ould Taya’s limited toleration for democratization. The coup leaders organized open elections, and a civilian president was in 2007. Feelings within parts of the military leadership that the civilian regime was politically fecklessness and weak, especially in the face of a perceived Islamist and jihadist threat, prompted a coup in August 2008. The leader of that coup, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, had been a key participant in the 2005 coup. In 2009, the junta oversaw presidential elections. Abdel Aziz ran as a civilian and won. He remains in power today.
Guinea has had two successful coups: one in 1984, at the death of independence-era leader President Sekou Toure, and one in December 2008, at the death of President Lansana Conte, who came to power in the coup of 1984. The junta installed in 2008 was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. Camara promised that elections would take place and that he would not stand, but tensions rose as his promises came to appear hollow and his behavior became erratic. In September 2009, soldiers brutally cracked down on an opposition rally in the capital. Then, in December 2009, one of Camara’s guards shot him in the head. The junta leader lived, but was flown to Morocco, later to Burkina Faso, and was not permitted to re-enter Guinea. Power passed to General Sekouba Konate, who oversaw a two-round election in June/November 2010. The elections were marred by violence and allegations of fraud. The winner, long-time opposition leader Alpha Conde, is still president.
In Niger, four successful coups have occurred: the 1974 coup that overthrew independence-era President Hamani Diori; a 1996 coup that installed Colonel Ibrahim Mainassara after several attempted civilian governments; the 1999 assassination of Mainassara by his bodyguards, who then organized civilian elections which were won by President Mamadou Tandja; and the February 2010 coup that ousted Tandja after he amended the constitution and remained in power beyond his original two-term limit. The 2010 coup, led by Colonel Salou Djibo, shows continuities with the 1999 coup: Djibo’s junta, appearing to consider itself the referee of Nigerien democracy, relatively quickly organized civilian elections. This two-round contest, held in January/March 2011, was won by opposition leader and current President Mahamadou Issoufou.
What lessons do these examples offer? I can think of four:
- These coups came out of (perceived) crisis. In addition to the big triggers I mention above – a sense of civilian incompetence in the face of threats, the death of a long-time leader, or the refusal of a leader to leave office – other problems were at work in each case, ones that civilian leaders struggled to deal with. Mauritania was juggling domestic unrest, non-violent Islamist political activism, and jihadist violence. Guinea saw military mutinies in 2008. Niger had experienced drought and famine. Military leaders seized power, it seems, in part because they feared further such situations would deteriorate further. This seems to have been the case in Mali as well.
- Coup leaders quickly adopted the rhetoric of democracy. Within months if not days of taking power, these military juntas were promising elections and, in Mauritania and Niger, working to organize them. This, too, holds for Mali, at least at the rhetorical level; vague promises to restore democracy have already surfaced.
- (Promises of) elections served different purposes for each junta. In Guinea, many came to see Camara’s promises as a tactic he exploited to delay having to clarify his status and his intentions. In Mauritania, elections brought a large measure of continuity. Some protesters in Mauritania believe the elections did not really end military rule; in this view, elections were an exercise Abdel Aziz went through to legitimate his rule. In Niger, finally, the junta lived up to its promises, and its leaders did not compete in the election. With Mali, how this junta will use/abuse the promise of democracy will be a key question.
- Coup leaders who cause chaos are overthrown in coups. I take this observation from the case of Camara (who only survived by luck) in Guinea and that of Mainassara in Niger. It arguably also applies to Ould Taya in Mauritania and even to General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, who rumor says was poisoned by treachery in 1998. In each case, the new military leaders exemplified a more sober style of leadership and transitioned fairly quickly to civilian democracy. The implication for Mali’s new junta, then, is that if they are seen to be dragging the country further into chaos and dragging their feet on democracy, there could be yet another coup in the coming years.
What implications for Mali do you see in these other cases?