Although the day started out on a note of calm routine, the climate in Bamako has been tense since late morning, for reasons that remain unclear. As with previous days of unrest, our first warning sign came from our son’s daycare staff: around 11:40 this morning, they phoned to tell us they’d be closing early due to “troubles in town.” (At least we got him out of the house for 3 hours today.)
When the call came I was in a taxi near the Ecole Normale Superieure (in Quartier du Fleuve), where a normally two-way street had suddenly and quite spontaneously become one-way east-bound, with both lanes moving in the same direction, albeit slowly due to heavy congestion. I heard a few shots fired near the Central Bank tower but couldn’t see where they’d come from or what caused them.
In the neighborhoods my taxi traversed, offices and many businesses (especially banks and gas stations) closed early, and a steady stream of traffic moved away from downtown. I took the precaution of phoning ahead to the various people I had to visit — in Cité du Niger, the central artisanat (artisans’ market) in Bagadadji, and the Dibida market. In each case the situation was calm. The west side of the artisanat, one of my favorite people-watching spots in town, was thick with Bamakois coming and going; there was no sign of panic or tension, despite the artisanat‘s proximity to the National Assembly, a perennial hot spot for demonstrations. When I asked what had happened downtown and why so many businesses had closed, nobody could tell me. But everyone had heard that some shapeless trouble was brewing.
By the time I got to Dibida around 2 p.m., many of the businesses in Dibida were also closed or about to close up early. My friend there told me that the shooting I’d heard in Quartier du Fleuve before noon was related to a foreign mercenary who had been killed.
For the last two days, the foreign mercenary has become a bogeyman in Bamako. It was late Monday night that Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of Mali’s CNRDRE military junta, blamed the unrest that had started several hours earlier on foreign mercenaries who had infiltrated the city in the service of ill-intentioned, unidentified Malians. The junta’s statement on ORTM television Tuesday morning repeated these allegations, adding that some foreigners had been captured alongside the Malian paratroopers who had attacked junta strongholds Monday evening.
Suddenly Bamakois began seeing foreign mercenaries lurking in every corner. These mercenaries most commonly are said to be from Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.
Do these mercenaries really exist, though? I have yet to see any proof that they do. It’s certainly in Captain Sanogo’s interest to frame the current conflict as pitting Malians against outsiders, rather than pitting pro-putsch Malians against anti-putsch Malians. He knows it’s easy to manipulate fears of foreigners in a context of instability.
Although Mali is regarded as welcoming toward outsiders — rightly so, in my view — Malians are not immune to the temptation to demonize foreigners, especially foreign Africans, for the flimsiest of reasons. Bamako has seen periodic waves of hysteria around alleged “penis shrinkers” (when they touch you, your penis disappears!); as Jean-Jacques Mandel observed a few years ago, those accused are usually Hausa men from Niger. English-speaking Africans (Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians) are frequently suspected of being con artists and thieves. In 2009 and 2010 it was men from Guinea who were most often suspected of criminal activity in Bamako.
Last week the West African regional body ECOWAS took a firm stance (and an unproductive one, I argue) against Mali’s junta, and vowed to send troops to secure Mali’s civilian transitional authorities. The tough ECOWAS position gave Captain Sanogo a convenient hook on which to hang his accusations of outside meddling in Malian affairs. The current ECOWAS chairman, Ivoirian President Alassane Dramane Ouattara, has been leading the anti-junta push, while Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré has been overseeing ECOWAS negotiations with Malian civilian and military representatives. On Monday there were rumors that ECOWAS troops had crossed into Mali’s Sikasso region — which borders on Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire — and were heading to Bamako. These rumors were false. Is it a coincidence that now the “mercenaries” in Bamako are alleged to be from Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, whose governments have suddenly become unpopular here?
Shortly before 18:00 GMT this evening, Mali’s transitional prime minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra addressed the nation on ORTM, his first such address since the fighting began Monday. He talked first in Bamanan, then in French; his spoken Bamanan is eloquent, which is one thing you could never say about ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré. Diarra spoke of an “attempt to destabilize” the country, and said that Mali’s security forces had achieved an “incomplete victory” against these destabilizing forces. He never mentioned foreigners or mercenaries, and he went out of his way to quell certain rumors: no, he said, the AEEM secretary general, wounded Monday, is not dead; no, the CNRDRE is not distributing guns to civilians; no, troops have not occupied the bridges; no, the Bamako airport is not closed. (That last came as a surprise to me, as I’ve heard from several sources that the airport was closed until May 7. Apparently it’s reopened.) Diarra called on people to remain calm, to get back to work, and not to listen to rumors.
To my mind, the foreign mercenary story is just another of these unfounded rumors until we have evidence to the contrary.
Update, 7:00 a.m. GMT, Thursday May 3: Revised estimates I’ve seen of the death toll from this week’s fighting now range between 22 and 150, with some indications that it may yet go higher. Junta spokesmen are using the foreign mercenary angle to describe the battle that ended Tuesday as well as the ongoing “mopping up” operations both in and around the city. Eliminating mercenaries sounds better to Malian ears than eliminating red-beret paracommandos, since the latter had been held in high esteem here; just a week ago, they were considered the heroes of the republic, the elite shock troops who would defeat the Tuareg rebels and restore dignity to the nation. Now they’re being hunted down like vermin.
Anything that happens can become fodder for mercenary hysteria. The crash of a small plane flying from Nouakchott to Bamako, piloted by a Frenchman, has been interpreted by some as evidence that foreign mercenaries are being brought into Mali.
Meanwhile, in Côte d’Ivoire, a newspaper allied with former president Laurent Gbagbo is also supporting the hypothesis of “mercenaries” sent to Bamako by President Ouattara. Using the mercenary angle allows Ouattara’s opponents at home to undermine his credentials as a peacemaker and statesman, and fits into a longstanding narrative among Gbagbo supporters arguing that Ouattara only succeeded in ousting Gbagbo from power last year with the help of foreign mercenaries. The Ouattara/mercenary hypothesis is now being picked up in the Malian press along with other manifestations of mercenary hysteria. In terms of its credibility, you can file this narrative with the penis-shrinker stories.
On the positive side, however, I can point to two promising signs on the political scene. One, interim President Dioncounda has stated that he won’t exceed the constitutionally mandated 40-day period in office, and has thereby removed one of the major sticking points in the transition process. Two, the junta is still engaging in dialogue with ECOWAS via the government of Burkina Faso, with whom a five-member CNRDRE delegation had talks Wednesday in Ouagadougou, and junta representatives continue to insist that the recent disturbances will not derail Mali’s transitional institutions.
Update, 14:00 GMT, Thursday May 3: Today has been another enforced day off for me since the daycare center is closed until Monday, May 7. The U.S. Embassy here also remains closed and an appointment I had scheduled there for the 7th has already been canceled due to the security situation.
ORTM television has broadcast a statement by Mali’s new minister of internal security, General Tiéfing Konaté. He stutters so badly, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the man; he clearly needs to find a spokesperson, at least for TV appearances. According to Konaté, yesterday’s panic in Bamako was the result of a false alarm. He says investigations have been launched into the origins of the recent incidents between military personnel as well as the deadly police assault on the university campus that occurred Monday afternoon.
Mali’s state-run newspaper L’Essor has published a fairly thorough account of those inter-military confrontations, including a few new details (e.g., no attempt to arrest airborne regiment commander Abidine Guindo preceded Monday’s actions, but a visiting delegation of junta officials was roughed up at the regiment’s Djicoroni base on Monday afternoon). A report on the Ivoirian news website koaci.com alleges that Malian PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra is frustrated by his powerlessness and apparent marginalization at the hands of the CNRDRE junta.