Mali’s coup—first thoughts

Gregory Mann, associate professor of history at Columbia University in New York City,* writes a guest post for Africa is a Country on the coup in Mali:

They say no press is bad press. False. When Mali makes the papers, it’s usually for the best reasons — Oumou Sangaré, Tinariwen, or Amadou and Miriam are coming to town. Lately, it’s for the worst — rebel attacks in the North, a mutiny, and now a coup.

The dust hasn’t settled yet, and no one knows which way the wind is really blowing, but a few things are worth saying about the mutiny and the coup that rocked Bamako over the last few days. Even in a hazy moment, a few things can be clear.

First, don’t believe the hype. The junta says they want to restore democracy. Bogus. Democracy in Mali is in pretty good shape, all things considered (i.e., bearing in mind that the central government has effectively no control over the northern half of the country). Presidential elections were planned for next month, and everyone expected them to go forward.

The coup was not intended to secure democracy, but to prevent it. If the people were to go to the polls in April and elect a new president, whoever won would be seen as legitimate, both at home and abroad. If there was going to be a coup, it had to be now. Better (and easier) to topple an increasingly unpopular incumbent than a newly elected president. They were running out of time. That’s why in addition to members of the current government, the junta locked up some of the candidates.

There is a rumor that ATT (Amadou Toumani Touré) — the popularly elected incumbent — was going to stage a ‘coup from above’ and hang on to office in spite of the fact that his constitutionally mandated second term was up. That rumor has been around since before “Barack Obama” became a household name. It’s categorically false. ATT has been ready to go for some time now — both his critics and his partisans recognize that he’s tired, and he has already given up power once, in 1992, before being elected in 2002.

Second, don’t believe the other hype. The Foreign Minister of France, the former colonial power, came out early to condemn the coup and to call for rapid elections. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Except the elections were already scheduled and the campaign underway. The coup on the other hand, was not yet settled — so why treat it as a fait accompli? France — which will take the lead in the European response — is no neutral actor here, even if it’s hard to know what game it is playing. The more cautious African Union and American responses — condemning violence, seeking consultation — are deliberately tepid, but justified, and they don’t impose a conclusion where one doesn’t exist.

All that said, there are questions, too.

First, where is ATT? The word on the street in Mali — what I hear when I call people there — is that he’s in the American embassy. False, say the Americans. He’s at the paratroopers’ base, someone in his entourage apparently told RFI. That’s possible, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the embassy and the base are practically next door to each other. And the Americans generally like ATT, even if they wish he were more willing to take the fight to those in the North who claim al Qaeda links or Salafist inclinations.

Second, what’s the link with the rebellion in the North? Some have already said that the Tuareg nationalist rebels in the North — the MNLA — wanted to forestall national elections, or at least to preclude the possibility of elections being held in the Sahara, in order to bolster their argument that they are excluded from national political life. Like the fractured and venerable Tuareg nationalist movement from which it emerged, the MNLA is more attentive to its image than a prom queen. France is said to be a suitor, with the idea that courting Tuareg nationalists will draw them away from the Salafist splinter group (Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine) that emerged alongside them in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall. ATT’s northern strategy of avoiding a fight even when it was brought to him would seem to partake of the same logic — better to split the movement by negotiating than to unite it by fighting it. If that was indeed his strategy, it relied on the slow expenditure of two resources he didn’t really have: time (either to let events unfold or to hand over power in May) and other people’s patience.

The undeniable link with the Northern rebellion is that the army was fed up with being told not to fight. To the shock of the soldiers, several garrisons in the North were lost to MNLA attacks, and some were given up without a fight. To their horror, in Anguelhoc defeated soldiers were massacred, their throats slit after being taken prisoner. This atrocity is disputed — some deny it occurred, others argue over who committed it. But the army believes it, and the soldiers’ wives and widows who marched in protest last month surely played a major role in pushing their husbands — or their late husbands’ comrades — to take the fight to the government if the government wouldn’t let them take it to the Tuareg. This is not new, only more dramatic. In 2009, in an earlier episode, Bamako was abuzz with rumors that the soldiers wanted ATT to be more aggressive in the North. Some were clearly holding him responsible for the deaths of the comrades in the North — thus the popular ring tone, recorded from a radio call-in show “ATT ye faforoden,” which translates loosely as “ATT is his father’s balls.”

Third, who’s playing whom? Some researchers claim that at least one of the major political parties is backing the junta (one of the minor gadfly parties has already announced its support). Hard to know, and harder to parse. But the soldiers will need civilians willing to work with them, in whatever form they hope to run the country. Khaki is out of fashion, and the soldiers will need civilian faces to present to the world. So, who is whose beard? The answer to this question will play out in the weeks and months to come.

A couple of final comments.

Mali’s a poor country, and its internal inequalities are becoming ever more profound. The coup is not going to help, not only because the usual suspects (France, EU, World Bank…) have announced a suspension of aid. Mali in the last ten years has begun to be able to fill the role of a regional economic hub that its geography and history would suggest is a natural one. I don’t only mean the investments from South Africa, Canada, and Asia. I mean the money from Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal and the steady investments from Mali’s diaspora in Europe, the U.S., Congo, and so many other places. That’s the money you don’t want to scare away. Anyone on the Left who thinks that the coup will clean up political life or re-orient Mali’s neoliberal path needs to step back a bit. Every junta speaks a populist language — it’s the only one available to them. But in circumstances like these, soldiers don’t take orders from civilians.

Last, watch out for Monday. There has been a lot of talk of “democracy” in relation to this coup, but precious little time or place for the people. A moment is coming. On March 26, 1991, as a young lieutenant colonel, ATT arrested Mali’s president, General Moussa Traore, and put an end to days of terror in which soldiers had shot hundreds of protestors in the streets. ATT was Mali’s hero then, and when he organized elections and handed over power, he became a hero across the continent and beyond. Twenty-one years is a long time, but the anniversary of ATT’s coup is a national holiday. Who will march this year?

* Mann is a historian of francophone West Africa. He is currently working on a book project entitled ‘The End of the Road: Nongovernmentality in the West African Sahel’. His award-winning book ‘Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the 20th century’ was published by Duke University Press in 2006.

14 thoughts on “Mali’s coup—first thoughts

  1. Thanks. Excellent summation and analysis. But What about arms from Libya since Mali and Libya don’t share a border? What about big oil? What about drug smuggling? Complicated. And very sad.

  2. So much of the reporting on recent events focuses solely on the NCRDRS and Capt. Sanogo v. ATT, so I think that it is really imperative for there to be some ample attention on the real world ramifications for the actual Malian people extending out to the towns and villages. Democracy wasn’t just a relation between the President and the National Assembly – it is an element which has been woven into the fabric of Malian society.

    “A Requiem for Malian Democracy (1993-2012)”

    Zachary Mason, known to peope in one small corner of Mali as “Madu Sogoba.”
    RPCV Mali 2008-2010

    • Great points, Zachary! I think it’s really important to look at what the real ramifications will be for the Malian people throughout the country. The thought of aid being pulled could have really dire effects considering the country’s limited resources and ongoing issues with food. Thanks for the comments,

      Jessica Marcy, aka “Lobbo Diarra”
      RPCV Mali 2003-2005

    • Hi–That’s a nice piece of writing.
      As I suggested above and in a more recent piece, I think it’s soon to write a requiem for Malian democracy. This is the moment when it is most clearly at work–as the resistance of political parties, leaders, activists in civil society, and citizens mounts. It ain’t over yet.

  3. The responses of Mali’s neighbours matter more to me and I haven’t heard any tepid responses from them. Goodluck Jonathan and Alassane Ouattara (obviously) have given full-throated denunciations and much needed spine-stiffening to Ecowas and the AU – something that most Malians would appreciate.

    This should not stand. We can’t be returning to days of Sergent Doe, Flight Lieutenant Rawlings or Junior Officer Valentine Strasser. I can only hope that the Malian body politic reacts as to an emetic to this display.

    • I agree that the responses of neighbors matter a lot. But they are not unanimous–take for example the shameful statement of Guinean President Alpha Condé’s spokesperson, Kiridi Bangoura. Happily, the CEDEAO and the African Union, as well as the UN Security Council have been vocal in their condemnations.

  4. Just happened to read one of Aesop’s fables:

    A WOLF, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf’s right to eat him. He thus addressed him: “Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.” “Indeed,” bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, “I was not then born.” Then said the Wolf, “You feed in my pasture.” “No, good sir,” replied the Lamb, “I have not yet tasted grass.” Again said the Wolf, “You drink of my well.” “No,” exclaimed the Lamb, “I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother’s milk is both food and drink to me.” Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, “Well! I won’t remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations.” 

    (Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop’s Fables (p. 15). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

  5. Thanks for filling in many of the gaps that conventional news reports aren’t supplying. I grew up in Mali, in fact I was born in Bamako just a couple weeks before the March 26 coup, and a often I feel like Malian democracy “grew up” right along with me. That is, when I was young a lot of Malians didn’t quite know what to make of democracy, but they took it and ran with it and shaped for themselves a form of government that is uniquely Malian–not without its problems, to be sure, but now for the first time in Mali we have a generation coming to adulthood that has grown up completely under this democratic government. As they spread their wings, may they preserve the wisdom of their elders.

  6. Good article! It’s worrying to hear Capt Sanogo speak. He sounds like Dadis Camara (if you haven’t seen the Dadis show, jump to youtube). It’s sad to see ATT (one of the few coup leaders to admire) end like this.
    However, I’m not convinced the coup was planned. Listening to Lt Konare and Capt Sanogo and seeing their boddy language shows you that they do not control the soldiers aroun them. They were overwhelmed by the soldiers disatisfaction and they happened to be officers.
    What is true is that ATT mishenadled the touareg situation and that the leaders of the army are corrupt and not ready to go to war (In Gao, the soldiers detained the Commander) and there is a genuine divide between the superior officers and normal troops (soldata, sous officiers and officiers subalternes).
    This is a worrying event and the docnsequence is that MNLA is strengthened. They saluted the coup and they are ready to control more towns (Kidal is under attack for example).
    Another worry is that we don’t know where ATT is and maybe he is regrouping and will have to crush the coup. And there will be more blood

  7. Hi and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I would like to add some observations.
    1. About this blog: Africa is a country. A country? Huh? North America is a country too?
    2. Of course a coup is an ilegal, even unconstitutional way of seizing power and “ATT” had been elected as a president. But alas, aparently, the perception amongst at least part of the Malians was that he had lost his legitimacy indulging in weak and corrupt government and nepotism. I have no definitive opinion on the facts, I just refer to the perception of part of the Malians. The absence of significant resistance against the coup seems to confirm this.
    3. Regarding other country’s interests, especially the interests of France, the USA and – why not? – China, some of them are very clear but all of them need a lot more scrutiny.
    4. France is perhaps trying to take the lead in the European response, but I am happy to confirm that president Sarlozy is not the president of Europe and that Mr. Rouyer is not the embassador of Europe in Mali. Other countries still maintain their own line of analyses and decision making. (By the way, I don’t understand your allusion to Barack Obama, could you explain?).
    5. As Mr. Bruce Whitehouse argued on his blog, it may well be that the coup arrived by accident, and that there was no clearcut plan for what will be next. Obviously, many people may try to take a free ride now. I hope the ride will take Mali to its own road to democracy and development, leaving corruption, nepotism and dependence behind.

    • Thanks for reading, Kalao. I’d just like to respond to a couple of points. As I tried to argue in another post, it’s a mistake to think of the coup or reaction to it as a referendum on ATT and his government. That’s asking the wrong question. Also, it’s hard to measure resistance against a junta–first, because only one side has guns, and second because it’s early days yet.
      On Barack Obama–I just mean people in Mali have been saying that ATT would try to hang on to power ever since he was re-elected in 2007.
      On #5, Bruce and I basically agree in our interpretation. The junta seized an opportunity that opened up before them, but there’s obviously no plan on where to go from here.

      On your last sentence–amina yarabi!

  8. Excellent piece Mr Mann (no pun intended), this is my first time here on your blog/site and I find it interesting that it is titled “Africa is a Country”. Is that name a result of the popular misconception in some parts of the West especially amongst americans that Africa is a country? or do you feel that colonialism split African tribes and perhaps distorted the natural grouping of African peoples, misplacing them and dividing them along colonial and territorial lines? It’s fascinating, that title of yours and controversial I must say. The Tuaregs for example are a case in point, yes, they are a normadic people but they might have had a terrritory of theirs stretching across the sahel had it not been for colonialism. The dis-membering of Africa is one that would remain for a long time and makes the potential development of the continent ify.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s