Mali’s coup, one year on

It was a year ago this morning that we woke up in Bamako to a changed reality. Soldiers at a barracks outside the city had mutinied against their commanders, taken over state broadcasting and the presidential palace, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré.

Yesterday a journalist with France24 asked me whether, at the time of the coup, I had anticipated the depth of the crisis that would follow. My answer was no. I remember what it felt like, listening to gunfire breaking out across the Niger River, a few hours later watching those first images of soldiers in the ORTM studio announcing the suspension of Mali’s 1992 constitution. At the time many of us hoped this episode would prove a short-lived “hiccup” in Mali’s democratic transition, followed by a speedy return to normalcy. I don’t believe I would have predicted that Malians would largely acquiesce to the junta; that 60 percent of Mali’s territory would soon fall to a coalition of separatist MNLA and Islamist rebels; that the Islamists would later overpower their secular allies and make northern Mali synonymous with barbarity; that the Malian state and its leaders would prove utterly impotent to protect their citizens or reunify the country; or ultimately that France would dispatch thousands of troops to Mali’s soil.

ORTM, March 22, 2012

None of this is to say, however, that Mali’s coup arrived out of the blue. The political crisis that has shaken the Malian state to its foundations began long before those soldiers mutinied and, in hindsight, warning signs suggesting the failing health of Mali’s democratic experiment were visible all along.

Consider voter turnout. If Mali’s democracy was so vibrant, why did more than 60 percent of eligible voters consistently stay away from the process? It’s true that a large part of Mali’s population is rural and illiterate, but this doesn’t explain why voter turnout in Mali’s elections since 1992 was consistently the lowest in West Africa. At a fundamental level, most Malians didn’t feel represented by their elected officials, and the problem was growing worse. According to the Afrobarometer survey, public satisfaction with Mali’s democracy had been falling for a decade by the time the coup took place.

Another warning sign was the spike in deadly vigilante violence in Bamako, from mid-2011, as a growing number of urban residents lost faith in the ability or willingness of some of the state’s most fundamental institutions — the police and the justice system — to protect them from criminals. I mentioned this phenomenon in a post a couple of months before the coup, and returned to the subject in greater detail last April.

As for the rebellion, insecurity is nothing new in northern Mali. The latest insurgency (officially dubbed “the renewal of armed struggle” by the MNLA) was launched in mid-January 2012, but had been brewing long beforehand, even prior to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya the previous October and the subsequent return of heavily armed Tuareg fighters to Mali.

Mali’s coup and the chaos that followed were by no means inevitable. President Touré’s government was weak in early 2012 — as events have proved — but it just might have been able to limp through scheduled elections and hand power to a successor. That successor might have been able to contain the rebellion and reverse the Malian state’s decline. Of course, there’s little use speculating over how things might have played out differently. My point is that the political crisis of the last 12 months should not have come as a surprise, and might possibly have been averted if Mali-watchers (myself included) had been more attuned to the signs of trouble. For 20 years we viewed Mali as a success story, and became so heavily invested in that optimistic narrative that we failed to make an accurate assessment of the disappointments and risks.

An interesting poll conducted in Bamako last month by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation points to further evidence of popular alienation from the political process. An overwhelming majority of respondents feel that the country’s political parties pursue only selfish interests (table 4), and more than three-quarters cannot name their parliamentarian (the figure for female respondents is 85 percent; see table 2). When asked why more Malians don’t vote, the most common response is a lack of trustworthy candidates (table 9; see chart below). Maybe the only surprising finding here is that around sixty percent of respondents actually trust their interim president and prime minister (figures 1 and 2).

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013)

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013; n=384)

The same poll examines Bamako residents’ attitudes toward events in northern Mali. 98 percent of respondents approve of France’s ongoing military intervention (figure 10). They largely distrust the MNLA, and view the exclusion of Malian troops from Kidal as “unacceptable” (tables 11 and 12); moreover, 68 percent are completely opposed to negotiating with rebels for peace (table 18), though they do appear to support some kind of talks with other representatives of northern populations (tables 19 and 21). They maintain strong support for the Malian army (figure 13) and tend to be skeptical of accusations that Malian troops have committed human rights abuses (table 13). More than three-quarters favor a permanent French military presence in Mali (figure 17), and about two-thirds express favorable views toward a “permanent American presence” in Mali (figure 16). By contrast, opposition toward a UN peacekeeping operation runs fairly high (tables 15 and 16).

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo in REUTERS/Joe Penney

The man who led last year’s putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is still in the news. Just yesterday Radio Deutsche Welle published a recent interview with the captain, in which he gives a favorable assessment of the coup’s motivations and consequences. “The current political system is working well,” he claims. “And what is more, the Malian people are beginning to understand what went wrong and to realize that this is the chance to start over.” The most noteworthy part of the interview is Sanogo’s affirmation that he will not be a candidate in upcoming election. He also told an interviewer from Der Spiegel, “I have no political ambitions, and I won’t run. But if I did, I would stand a good chance of winning, because I’m very popular with the people.” Something tells me we will be seeing a great deal more of this man, who indeed maintains a public following in Bamako and who always seems to know how to reach his audience.

On the eve of my departure from Mali last year, three months after the coup, I posted a grim assessment of its impact, writing that “the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them.” Nine months later, my view has not changed. But I have a little more hope now than I did then for the country’s future. If Mali’s leaders can use this crisis to confront the problems that brought down the previous democratic experiment, if they can include more of their fellow citizens in the process of rebuilding the Malian state, they might just be able to put their country back together and keep it together. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable, but it’s possible.

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10 Responses to Mali’s coup, one year on

  1. jeanerz says:

    I ni baara, Bruce. Merci.

  2. Sharon Z says:

    Good evening,

    I did not respond to your ‘Anti-Tuareg’ Blog holding with A Morgan, Faki, Timbuktuer, BA Worley, Z Walet, etc., (my point of view seems clear I hope).

    I did not respond to your glorious 6 steps “to fix a broken Mali” and I won’t write much here.

    Just briefly:

    1. Please, take a look at the open group ‘Journal Fou Fou’ to get a pretty good insight in the thinking of ‘South Malian’ people, which shows violence, hate, and insults with calls to genocide regarding the Tuareg. You also might find some people you know (a.o. the ‘infamous’ Gloria).
    2. Presenting a table with n = 384 as shown in Table 9 (the other tables are missing) reminds me to tests shown for anti-wrinkle creams, which were successfully tested in 49 or so women …
    Such tables say nothing. Even more so nothing since this number is selected within the group of literate Bamako citizens.

    Anyway, this is your private blog and you can say/tell whatever you want. However, you and people like e.g. P Tinti or A Lebovich, who like to spread your blog, have a responsibility. The subject here is not pots or vases, but people. Human beings, many of them in despair. I cannot help the feeling that this is missing.

    Finishing with GROSJEAN Martine:
    “Vous ne faites que jeter de l’huile sur le feu !!!”

    Regards Sharon Z

  3. brucewhitehouse says:

    Of course racism toward Tuareg people exists among southern Malians (to say nothing of other northerners), just as the reverse can be found. Does that mean they can’t live together? As for the Ebert poll, it’s not intended to be representative of anything other than opinions in Bamako. If you’re aware of other recent country-wide survey data out there, please bring them to our attention. I’m sure you can understand that the purpose of describing the opinions expressed in that poll (some of which may be intolerant, misinformed or outright racist) is not to justify them, any more than describing the reasons people supported the coup is to justify the coup. As for the responsibility which you mention, my first responsibility as a scholar is to provide factual information and analysis of that information. I can’t see how doing so in this case would jeopardize anyone.

  4. Andy Morgan says:

    Thanks for another informative post Bruce. In my honest opinion, taken together, all your posts since mid 2011 provide one of the best running commentaries on what’s going on in southern Mali available anywhere.
    However, to state a truism by which I do not in any way mean to belittle your knowledge or intelligence, the south is not the north. That, in fact, is the crux of the whole problem. Mali wishes itself “Un et indivisible” but the reality is that popular opinion in the south regarding the north in general and the Touareg in particular is ill-informed (we can in part thank the ‘red top’ newspapers and radio stations in the south for that) and, more worryingly, racist and violent. I also concede that racism is regrettably alive in certain sections of the Touareg community. If Malian government policy towards the north attempts to please the average Joe on the streets of Bamako it will never succeed in bringing about peace, unity or any kind of permanent solution. It will simply be the recipe for everlasting war and conflict. This is the moment for Malian politicians to proceed with clear wisdom and foresight and with the courage to contradict the more rabid opinions of their voters.
    A distant analogy can be made with the situation in the UK in regards to Northern Ireland in the mid 1990s. It was only the courage and foresight of politicians such as John Major and Mo Mowlam, whose actions often contradicted popular opinion in the streets of England, that allowed a painful process of reconciliation and constitutional restructuring to take place. The result is that, notwithstanding the occasional act of madness by Continuity IRA hardliners or symbolic reforms, such as the flying of the Union Jack only on official occasions, that the Unionist community find hard to swallow, Northern Ireland is enjoying a greater sense of peace and stability than it has done for a least five decades. Furthermore, the ‘Irish Question’ which trounces the ‘Touareg Question’ in terms of durability of and intractability, seems at last, after centuries of pain and suffering, to be finding an answer.
    And no thanks to demagoguery or pleasing the average voter.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Andy – especially for offering a hopeful comparison with Northern Ireland. I wholeheartedly agree that opinions on “the Bamako street” are frequently misinformed and may have little or no bearing on objective truths even in southern Mali, never mind the north. While those opinions may not be accurate, they are still relevant, which is why I choose to keep writing about them–even though I often disagree with them myself. My hope is that leaders in Bamako (and Paris, Brussels and Washington) will be able to follow the Major/Mowland example, and to succeed they must be aware of the degree of popular mistrust toward the MNLA, whether it is deserved or not.

  5. I am always a great fan of Bruce’s blog and most of the time his indepth analyses are really to the point and spot on! However, claiming in a way, that Mali’s coup was more or less ‘predicted’ that the signs were all there and that it didn’t come out of the blue is not true in my opinion. Yes, afterwards you can always (with the knowledge of the prresent) “attribute” signs to a certain event and say, “you see the signs were already there”. In this case however, the coup d’état in Mali came more or less ‘out of the blue’, in a way that the soldiers were indeed not satisfied with the way the ATT government was dealing with the crisis in the North and the ‘backup’ the soldiers were getting. Fact is that at that moment ATT already had constipulated a very thourough well prepared plan called PSPSDN (I have seen it myself and worked on it) based on the latest COIN doctrines and a 3D comprhensive approach to tackle the problems in the north. Funding of the plan was partially done, and there you have the problem. The bulk of the money was promised by the EU and they just waited to long with transfering the needed funds. So events took a hold of this ‘promising’ initiative led by the right men (a highly respected Tuareg Ag Erlaf) in the right place, and PSPSDN never came into action. Sanogo and his “friends” (I knew them personally) “demanded” an explanation of the government on how to continue with the ‘fight’ in the north. ATT sent his defence minister to the barracks in Kati who kind of tried ‘to put them in their place’ telling them not to “nag” and just do their jobs as soldiers and tells them some other stupid things. So the soldiers who were listening to this bull shit defence’s minister “explanation”, were obviously not “satisfied” and he had to get out of that place, chased by very angry soldiers. So they decided to go to the Presidential Palace (which is not that far from the Kati barracks) to get a “better more satisfying” explanation from ATT himself. On this “stampede” for justice towards the Presidential Palace things were getting out of control untill they reached a Point of no return. It was then agreed upon the mutining group to continue since stopping would implicate that they probably would be charged with the Death penalty for attempting a Coup, so they might as well continue where there was nothing to lose for them. This initially unwanted coup came as such a surprise that the elite 33 Regiment Commando Parachutists (ATT presidential guard) was caught by complete surprise. And that is how this Coup suceeded. It is that “ordinary” and simple. Despite all the nice Polls you later relate to these events! History is made out of very stupid, simple and often unwanted or not foreseen events. The “Coup” in Mali was a plain example of that.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Yes, the mutiny/coup was the spark, but it would never have ignited the fire if the tinder had not already been in place. While I agree that history often consists of accidents and unintended consequences, I don’t think the collapse of the Malian state can be reduced to the coup and its plotters. Why didn’t Malians rise up after March 22 to demand the restitution of their democratic institutions? That, to me, is the most interesting part of the whole puzzle. I doubt Sanogo et al. would have been able to launch their coup, let alone succeed, had ATT’s legitimacy not already been so depleted.

  6. Pingback: Africa Blog Roundup: CAR, Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, and More | Sahel Blog

  7. Jeremy Davis says:

    Thanks…interesting assessment. In spite of your concerns about elections being held too soon, it looks like they are on track for this July. Do you have any thoughts about who the leading candidates are? I’m particularly curious about the relative status of the candidate, Yeah Sameke and whether you still feel that his chances are remote, as you noted prior to the planned elections in 2012.

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