90 days of disaster

Several weeks ago I had an e-mail exchange with an acquaintance about events in Mali. I was uneasy about the way the military had suspended the country’s existing political institutions. I wrote, “the junta’s repeated attempts to ‘push the reset button’ and start the whole state apparatus over from scratch seems to me inherently dangerous.”

“Everything in life is dangerous,” responded my interlocutor, an American who was in favor of the coup. “That’s why we’ve supported thugs like Mubarak up to the last minute. It’s getting us a bad rep around the world. Sometimes, you have to see that change is needed, support what’s possible, hope (and work) for the best.”

It’s been exactly three months since the coup d’état that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), Mali’s democratically elected president, just a few weeks from the end of his second and final term of office. Now seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the coup’s impact on Mali.

Let’s begin with the security situation. Captain Sanogo and the CNRDRE justified their putsch by saying that ATT’s government was mismanaging the war against northern separatist rebels, and that the army needed more support to wage its war properly. He had a point: attempts to root out the rebellion had been largely ineffective. Within days after the coup, however, the rebels drove out Malian government forces from the three large administrative regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal) as well as a portion of the Mopti region. In short, the separatists got everything they’d been looking for. Three months later they’re still ruling the north and it’s unclear whether or when they will be driven out. Despite recent bluster about an imminent offensive to retake the rebel-held zone, the Malian military does not have the capacity to reunify the country on its own.

On the political front, Captain Sanogo claimed that the elections (scheduled for late April) would have led the country to “civil war.” He had a point: given the insecurity in the north, it’s not clear how elections could have been held in those regions. But Mali has now entered an unprecedented period of political turmoil characterized by institutional voids across the board; if it was unclear in March whether elections could occur, it’s even less clear three months later whether or when they might be able to take place. After a few weeks of direct military rule, the junta nominally handed over power to an interim civilian government, but it seems to continue holding sway over key areas (notably the media and the justice system), and the civilian authorities have proven either unable or unwilling to confront the junta. Many observers both inside and outside Mali now believe that the government of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra is beholden to the coup plotters.

Economically speaking? Don’t get me started. Captain Sanogo said that ATT’s corrupt government was robbing the country blind. Maybe he had a point, but the aftermath of the coup has cost Malians far more. Mali has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral aid on which this poor, landlocked, arid country is utterly reliant. Then there’s a billion dollars worth of World Bank assistance, now suspended; the total damage to the Malian economy may amount to one and a half trillion CFA francs (about US$3 billion). The Millennium Challenge Corporation has terminated its contract with Mali, and private investors (like the multimillion-dollar Illovo sugar project that had been slated for Markala) have been swarming for the exits. Government revenues are down across the board, to the point that there’s a real danger of the state failing to pay salaries on time. The tourist sector, which had been on life support since late 2011, is now dead, and Bamako’s flagship Grand Hotel just announced it’s closing its doors. Once a fixture of international festivals and events, Mali is no longer fréquentable.

Looking back, it’s hard to see how the situation in Mali could possibly have gotten any worse than it is now if the coup had never taken place. An ATT-led government, left to its own devices, might eventually have lost the north; elections might never have happened; the economic hardships might have come about anyway. But all these things definitely did happen since Captain Sanogo and his colleagues came to power. Not to mention the added insult of the attack on Dioncounda Traoré, the country’s transitional president, who a month later is still recuperating in Paris, and undoubtedly afraid for his security should he return to Mali.

Yes, Mali was badly governed before the current crisis. Yes, its leaders were corrupt. Yes, there was a lack of political will to confront the problem in the north. As I said, maybe Captain Sanogo had a point about all these grievances. Yet the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them. “Sanogo’s only merit is getting two-thirds of his country occupied,” Niger’s foreign minister recently told VOA.

There was a time in Africa when a coup could be salutary. (ATT originally came to power in 1991 through one such coup: after ousting the dictator, he stayed in power just long enough to organize elections, then stepped down and stayed out of power for a decade.) But times have changed, and nowadays overthrowing a democratically elected regime, however incompetent or irresponsible it may be, cannot happen without generating serious, lasting negative consequences.

I was not a fan of ATT’s government, and like most people in Mali, I was looking forward to its end. I don’t believe the rumors, widespread here, that ATT wanted to cling to power. I never met the man, but everything I heard about him in the last year suggests he was exhausted, sick of politics, and ready for retirement. I also don’t believe the stories that the election results would have been determined in advance, that ATT had already designated his successor. Malians love a conspiracy theory, but these theories are almost always baseless.

Don’t let the relative calm of the last 30 days fool you: not only is this country still in the hole, it’s digging in deeper. I don’t know how Mali will move forward from its present impasse. And how we got to where we are today illustrates why a coup d’état is almost always a bad idea. I have to disagree with anyone who thinks this dangerous leap into the unknown was necessary, even laudable. The best way to address pressing problems is through  incremental changes, reforming existing institutions rather than overturning them. When people like Captain Sanogo lead us to bypass those institutions, most often the “remedy” they offer turns out to be worse than the disease it was supposed to cure. Mali’s last three months offer ample proof.

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18 Responses to 90 days of disaster

  1. Very good analysis, Bruce. I too, find that there are many Malians who were in support of the coup for various reasons, namely the fact that they did not like ATT, but also because they were uninformed. Now, many folks are just waiting to see what happens next. It does not seem like there is any direction or really anything that the average person can do to get the country on the right track again. The longer the governments wait, the stronger the rebels sink in their roots into the sands. Do you feel that Bamakois people feel helpless to change the country’s direction?

    It is such a shame to see all the allotted aid monies going to different projects in other countries; the tourism sector at a dead stand-still and the hotels closing their doors. If only Sanogo and his followers had thought through all these scenarios before they acted, many of the current problems may not have happened at all.

  2. Mim Heisey says:

    thanks for the thoughtful analysis Bruce. We read and weep !

  3. Émilie Roy says:

    Thank you for this post, it very accurately reflects my own pessimism regarding the situation in Mali but put in a much nicer language.
    (Do you ever write in French? I would definitely like to spread this among my Malian friends — some of whom supported the coup — but they do not read English. I’d also be quite happy to translate it myself but would not do so without asking first…)

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Go ahead and translate it, Emilie. I normally try to avoid writing in French; even after learning the language for nearly 30 years, I make too many mistakes! I make occasional exceptions for journal submissions when I can be sure my prose will be carefully edited and the mistakes corrected before going to print.

  4. Kalao says:

    Hello Bruce and thank you for a recapitulation on your analysis and opinion on the coup in Mali.

    I agree with most of your analysis but not on the part that coups could be salutary in the past but not anymore. Of course, every coup is illegal, but every coup has its own motives, reasons and (partially hidden) forces and every coup has to be judged on its own evidence. Some dictators, even if they are “democratically” elected, need to be put out of power for a nation to be able to go on. The movie “The Caine Mutiny” gives a fine illustration of the precariousness of judging such a kind of drastic act on its face-value.

    Regarding the situation in Mali, I think it is still very early to draw up the balance of the coup. I agree with what you write about the negative effects. Some of these appear to be linked to the haphazard character of the coup: nothing seemed to have been organized in advance to take things in hand. Since the interim government was invested, it has been struggling to take a grip and to do something about the grievances that made many Malians approve of the coup. There are some indications that it is really trying to break with corruption and nepotism (see the article “Affaire des faux diplômes de la fonction publique”, http://www.maliweb.net/news/politique/corruption/2012/06/22/article,74832.html). It is also trying to broaden its political base (see this information on xinhuanet: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2012-06/21/c_131668641.htm). You are right: the north hasn’t been retaken, neither have elections been planned yet, nor has most international aid been resumed, but these are some important steps forward.

    So I think we will have to let this courageous governement do its work, give it our support where it appears appropriate, and draw up a new balance of the coup in another three months, half a year or a year.

    Cheers,
    Kalao

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  6. Perri says:

    Bruce, thanks so much for being a reliable source of info and thoughtful analysis as Mali’s situation drags on, worsens, and loses the media attention it deserves. I am in touch with friends near Koro in Pays Dogon, and they are living in fear with no police or army protection as rebels attack within 10-15 km of their homes. I doubt that those expressing support for the coup have a real sense for the horror and devastation striking their fellow Malians in the North.

    Thinking of you – take good care.
    Perri

  7. Kalao says:

    For the rest I wish you a safe journey home and “Bonne Arrivée”! Good luck in the US for you and your family and come back soon to Mali!

  8. Madou Traoré says:

    Thanks for the remarkable summary. I agree by and large, esp. with your view that a poorly organized coup is not a convenient solution to the problems at hand. I’d have a bit more pros to add in favour of the motivation for the coup, though. The majority of the poor seem to have seen it as an act of holding the pol. establishment responsible for their doings, or rather for what they failed to do. On the con side of the junta, there seems to be a total lack of clear vision for the country, for how to manage things better. Finally, there is another imminent danger, as shown by the attack on D. Traoré: the time may come where the masses will no more tolerate their exclusion from any perspective to survive.
    Best wishes, M.T.

  9. Jake Wobig says:

    A very interesting blog that I’ve been perusing lately. Do you mind if I ask how you came up with that number of $3 billion in harm to the Malian economy? Thanks.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      That figure comes from the same Xinhua article on the World Bank’s aid to Mali (http://french.cri.cn/621/2012/06/12/302s284280.htm), which cites 1.5 trillion CFA francs in harm, roughly US$3bn.

      • Jake Wobig says:

        I’m reading it as 600 billion francs, but I’m using Google Translate so I could well be off. Regardless that’s a LOT of money for an economy the size of Mali’s. Do you think that number is credible? And what’s the reason? Disruption of the economy or the sanctions? I.e. if ECOWAS, the World Bank, ADB etc. had not imposed sanctions do you think it would still have been that bad?

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        My mistake! I cited the wrong source. The 1.5 trillion FCFA figure comes from an article published in the Bamako newspaper L’Aurore (http://www.maliweb.net/news/economie/2012/06/19/article,73959.html). They arrived at this figure by adding together “costs to the north of Mali” (1000 billion FCFA in harm to the public and private sector), “costs to Bamako” (56 billion francs), 280 billion in lost growth for 2012 and 168 billion in lost growth for 2013. Are any of these numbers credible, or did L’Aurore‘s editors just pull them out of the ether? The latter is entirely possible, but I suspect their numbers are at least in the right neighborhood. To address your question about causes, the ECOWAS embargo back in late March/early April certainly took a bite but it was short-lived and I doubt its impact was so significant. Otherwise I’m unaware of trade sanctions in place, so we’re really just talking about the disruption caused by the coup and the rebellion, plus the impact of suspended/curtailed foreign aid and investment flows.

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  12. Todd says:

    Hi Bruce, I agree and i wish i could find some hope in this situation. i think that my unfortunate conclusion is that this country, that I knew and loved (and lived in) for so many years, did not pay sufficient attention as its democracy was eroded from within over the last decade. It is a lesson that we as Americans should also take to heart. Democracy necessitates vigilance and freedom is lost incrementally. The fall of Mali has been spectacular, but we must remind ourselves that it was a gradual process as the foundations were weakend gradually over the past 10 years and people failed to address it decisively. Malians tolerated corruption and mismanagement and, it must be said, Malians are collectively responsible for their current plight. Now I fear these people that I love will either pay a much dearer price to regain their nation or they will learn to live with much less. It is such a shame as Mali has so much that is good to teach the world. At least you have been able to bring the worlds attention to some of those things during your time blogging in Bamako. See you soon, Todd

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