Weeks away from what would have been the West African nation’s fifth consecutive democratic elections, the people of Mali woke up to military rule on the morning of Thursday, 22 March 2012. The incumbent President, Amadou Toumani Touré (known as ATT) was not even standing for election. Much of the media commentary on the coup has focused on two points: that this coup is part of the inevitable fall-out from the revolution in Libya and, ironically, that it has toppled one of the few bastions of democracy in Africa. Meanwhile, on Sunday, neighbouring Senegal celebrated a successful democratic transfer of power from Abdoulaye Wade to former prime minister, Macky Sall. So what exactly has happened to democracy in Mali?
There are signs that this was not exactly a planned take-over of power. The seemingly “accidental coup” began as a mutiny by low and middle ranking soldiers at the Kati military training base on Wednesday, following a visit by the Minister of Defence. Young soldiers have been protesting the lack of supplies of arms and food, and inadequate training, which have contributed to humiliating defeats by rebel groups in the North of Mali recently. At the outset there was no clear intention to stage a coup. It looks as though young men got carried away in a testosterone-fuelled riot, quickly over-stepping the point at which they were capable of backing down: a sign, perhaps, of the poor quality of their military training.
The rapid move to take control of state television and radio was, however, suggestive of a coup attempt and perhaps certain officers were poised to take advantage of the momentum created by the mutiny. This analysis doesn’t quite fit, however, with the amateurish performance thus far of the leader of the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE), Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who was an instructor and English teacher at the Kati military training base.
One thing is clear: the young mutineering soldiers are angry, and beneath that anger, is fear. Their fear is justified. Under-resourced troops have been facing a formidable and poorly-understood enemy in the North: an enemy who, in the trademark gesture of Al Qaeda, slit the throats of an as-yet-unconfirmed number of Malian soldiers after they ran out of ammunition in the Saharan village of Aguelhoc last month. The coup leaders stated that they would hand over power “as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened.” That may take some time.
The end of the Libyan conflict and the dispersal of Gaddafi’s weapons have indeed re-fuelled separatist Touareg groups, which have rebelled repeatedly since the 1960s and have now formed an alliance, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). However the political scene in the North is highly complex and merits a separate blog entry. The immediate problem is that the coup has divided the military, and each faction must battle on two fronts. The mutiny spread to the Northern town of Gao and, according to unconfirmed reports, to Timbuktu. The MNLA has taken advantage of the lack of opposition and seized control of a number of towns in the North.
There is still the possibility of a counter-coup, but parachute regiments and high ranking officers loyal to ATT are deployed on the frontline. Thus far the mutineers have been unchallenged in Bamako. The main problem on the streets has been the loss of law and order. The coup leaders have broadcast messages calling on police to return to their posts and civilians to be ready to return to work on Tuesday, after the bank holiday weekend, ironically commemorating the country’s last coup d’état, on 26 March 1991.
The 1991 coup was led by ATT himself, who seized power from incumbent dictator Moussa Traoré at a time of rebellion in the North. But that is where the parallels end. General ATT, as he was at the time, toppled Traoré after the latter brutally quashed pro-democracy demonstrations. The General immediately handed power to a civilian transitional government. For this, ATT has been dubbed the ‘Soldier of Democracy’. It was not until 2002 that he re-entered politics, this time as a civilian. He was set to step down this Spring, having completed the constitutional maximum of two terms in office. All of these democratic credentials raise the question of why he should become the victim of a coup attempt.
Returning to the query as to whether this coup d’état was intentional or not, one possibility is that the coup leaders are in cahoots with or have been manipulated by members of the political class. The only opposition leader to have come out in favour of the coup is Dr Oumar Mariko, leader of the left-wing party SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) and veteran leader of the 1991 student revolt. On the Tuesday before the coup, SADI hosted a public meeting in Kati for soldiers to air their grievances about the sitation in the North. The possibility of being swept to power by a popular uprising may be too tempting for this old-school Socialist, who has always been an outsider in the presidential race.
As for the coup leader, he has claimed that he is not partisan. When asked in an Africable interview if his putsch was supported by elements of the political class, Captain Sanogo replied that he is not a political man and proudly offered as proof of this the fact that he has never in his life voted in an election. The interviewer struggled to keep a serious tone, making an aside about him clearly being an exemplary citizen. Sanogo’s naïve response is nonetheless instructive.
After twenty-one years of democracy, it has been possible for a coup d’état to forestall democratic elections in Mali because enough Malians do not see elections as particularly relevant. Although ATT has shrewdly sold an image of democracy as one of the country’s most valuable exports abroad, within Mali liberal democratic values have not taken deep root. ATT’s brand of ‘consensus politics’ – consensus without dialogue, as Susanna D. Wing has astutely observed – has narrowed the field of genuine opposition. Indeed Mariko’s SADI is the only one of the main parties which has remained an independent voice in national and local politics. There are multiple cultures of civic participation in Mali, but representative democracy is a poor fit. There is an argument for a more direct form of democracy, as was attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, by ATT”s predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré.
It remains to be seen whether the coup leaders can master the nyama – the potent life-force of destruction/construction – which they have unleashed by overturning the established order. An estimated 200,000 people had already been displaced a result of the conflict in Northern Mali before the coup took place. Now, at the start of what is known locally as ‘the hungry season’ – the hottest, dryest time of year, when shortages of food and water are normal occurrences – Mali’s coup d’état of March 2012 will undoubtedly worsen the humanitarian disaster unfolding across the Sahel region.
Clare Coughlan, CAS PhD student