For the past decade, Mali has been incrementally portrayed as the poster-child of good democratic transition in West Africa and its president, Amadou Toumani Touré, respected as a leader of some substance. That was until Wednesday this week, when the army ousted Touré less than one month before the next presidential election.
The fall-out of the Arab Spring has been the dominant security issue in the Maghreb for past months, while Boko Haram has held the media’s eye in Nigeria and the western Sahel region. Meanwhile, conflict in Mali involving the Tuareg minority in the North, the latest round of which has been simmering since the start of the year, had been proving unexpectedly difficult for government forces to quash. This week it triggered a cabal of soldiers, led by junior officers, to express their disaffection by seizing, at least temporarily, the most visible reins of Malian state power – the Presidential palace and State TV station.
Seizure of the Palace can be seen as the latest event in a string of protests over the way the Malian government has failed to handle the Tuareg rebellion. The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is fighting for a separate state (its population is spread across the borders into neighbouring Algeria and Niger), and the army have felt increasingly on the back-foot, accusing the Toure government of failing to provide them with sufficient arms and support to defeat the insurgency. The mutiny-turned-coup ignited as the Defence Minister, General Sadio Gassama, visited a military base in the town of Kati, approximately 13 miles from the capital, on Wednesday morning. As the General departed, protestors began stoning his car and by the afternoon had seized control of the television station in the Bamako, before taking the Palace in the evening.
The Army’s disquiet is also reflected by military families and the wider populace, particularly in the south of the country, who are unhappy at reports of heavy losses the army is suffering. February saw thousands of citizens take to the streets in protest over the way in which the government had been handling the uprising.
Yet, that a coup should have occurred so close to the April 29th elections, when Touré was due to step down, is highly significant. It has been suggested that the seizure of power in this way is indicative of a sentiment among sections of the military, and their supporters in civilian society, who believe that politicians are unable to competently resolve the rebellion in the North. If true, then there is more reason to be concerned for Mali in the long-term.
Touré was himself a General who came to power in a coup, if those who have grasped power do not have faith in politicians – or military commanders turned politicians – what do they envisage the future of Mali’s executive branch to look like? Indeed, the interruption of Mali’s democracy in this way may jeopardise its status as a bedrock of democracy in West Africa – and compromise the funding from international donors that comes with this. Aside from the widespread condemnation from other international actors, the World Bank and African Development Bank have already suspended some support.
Not having the right weapons to kill their fellow countrymen may be one, catalytic, cause for this weeks mutiny; just as likely, however, is the proximate explanation which has seen Touré divide and exploit internal relationships within Tuareg society, protracting violence to the point where the Army feel incapable of winning. Meanwhile, programmes for peace and reconciliation, promised by the president following previous rebellions, have failed to get off of the ground – although many Tuareg were previously integrated into the Malian Army, some do not see the Tuareg as Malian citizens.
It is also evident that, for too long, governments in the Sahel have ignored the security concerns relating to Tuareg communities. Although France and the United States have recently become engaged in deploying military aid and training, the fruits of processes require time. This is compounded by speculation that a key factor behind the recent Tuareg success has been down to their battle-hardened fighters bringing back weapons in Libya, following the overthrow of Colonel Gaddaffi.
Over-stating the case for contrasting events in other countries risks a misdiagnosis, but it is worth touching briefly on the coup that took place in neighbouring Niger two years ago. In 2010, the military in Niger sought to remove President Tandja, after he attempted to extend his term beyond constitutionally agreed limits. Although the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State or CNRDR in Mali have adopted a narrative of reinstating democracy, the status of democratic elections in Mali was never really in doubt.
The military in Niger retained control of the state for almost twelve months, before transitioning to democratic elections and there is some similarity with the coup that brought Touré to power in 1991/92. The question in Mali now is how long will the elections be delayed this time? It is difficult to see the logic with the CNRDRs chosen course of action. While they have invited the government back to work on 27th March, the MNLA are likely to take advantage of the situation and seek to capture more towns in the north. In undermining democracy in Mali, the coup plotters have not only attracted international consternation, but also made the job at the core of their protest a good deal more difficult.
William Townsend is a writer and editorial assistant at African Arguments.