From a failed uprising in Mali: My diary from a coup d’état | by David Fig

by Jul 11, 2012Magazine

uprising-in-maliIn recent months, The landlocked West African state of Mali has been in an uproar. First there was the renewal of an uprising in the north by Tuareg ex-mercenaries returning from battle in Libya. As this conflict (the northern Mali uprising) unfolded, there were public demonstrations against the military leadership and government for not providing ordinary soldiers with the means to fight the rebels in the north. This turned into a full-scale mutiny of the lower ranks, and then into a coup d’état on the night of 21/22 March 2012. The coup leaders were so focused on taking state power that they could not stop the rebels from taking over the northern half of the country. Pressurised by surrounding countries, which frowned on the coup, the new leaders eventually relented and handed formal power back to civilians. However, the slowness of the politicians to address the needs of the military resulted in a further attempted counter-coup in Bamako, which was quickly defeated. 
Mali is one of the few West African countries which had enjoyed a reputation for democracy and stability in recent years. However, the events of the past couple of months have demonstrated how fragile that stability had become.
The mutiny that had been brewing in Mali turned into an overnight coup on 21 March. I was part of a group travelling back to Bamako from a village near the Guinean border on that day. Just before reaching the capital, we had to pass through Kati, a garrison town, where all the military barracks are located. We were caught in roadblocks and our drivers feared that the military would confiscate their 4×4 vehicles. They refused to go on and decided to sleep in their vehicles in Kati that night. We were bundled into rickety public transport destined for Bamako. We had to avoid tanks and the roadblocks and try a circuitous route back to the capital, where the coup had resulted in airport closures and impeded our departure for ten days.
Kati had seen a number of demonstrations during the previous weeks, as families of soldiers demonstrated their objections to the way in which the war in the north was being conducted. They claimed that the army was not supplying soldiers with sufficient bullets to challenge the rebels. Food was also short, and the soldiers were expected to fight on empty stomachs. The protests of mothers and wives had been ignored. On 21 March the Minister of Defence appeared in Kati. It was said that the soldiers were antagonised by his intransigence, and attacked his entourage, forcing him to flee. Later in the day soldiers discharged their weapons in the air, marched on Bamako, and shut down the state radio and television station. They initially surrounded the presidential palace, on a hill overlooking the city, but said that they were not going to replace the incumbent.
President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) had himself come to power through a coup in 1990. However, he had gone back to the barracks, and later stood in and won formal presidential elections. He was hailed for ensuring Mali’s democratic future, and he turned out to be very a popular president. On 21 March, he was only five weeks away from the end of his second and final term of office. He was due to relinquish power in the presidential elections scheduled for 29 April.
In the small hours of the following day, the soldiers took state power. They invaded the palace and ousted ATT, who went into hiding. Later they appeared briefly on state TV, announcing that there would be a curfew, a closure of state offices until the following Tuesday, and that the new Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State under Captain Amadou Senogo was in charge of the state. But the soldiers had no strategy and no military plan. The rebels in the north took advantage of the army’s preoccupation and increased their drive on the cities of the north. Within a few days the rebels had conquered the northern regional centres of Kidal, Gao and finally the legendary town of Timbuktu. Government soldiers were routed. The rebels declared the independence of the new state of Azawad based in the northern part of Mali.
Who are the rebels?
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali has seen the dissatisfaction of the once-nomadic Tuareg minority in the north. The Tuareg inhabit parts of Mali, Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso. Their first uprising in 1962-4 was defeated and many Tuareg fled to other countries. A second rebellion occurred between 1990 and 1995 and, despite the central government granting more autonomy to the northern regions, this did not satisfy Tuareg calls for independence. The third rebellion broke out in 2007 in Mali’s Kidal region. After intensive fighting, the Tuareg rebels laid down their weapons and were invited to join the Malian army as part of a peace process.
The latest rebellion that started in January 2012 was fuelled by the return of mercenary fighters from Libya, where many Tuaregs had supported the forces of Gaddafi. The fallout of the war created impetus for a new rebellion. Well-armed returning fighters placed themselves under the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), whilst local warlords formed other organisations such as Ansar Dine (dedicated to the implementation of Sharia law); other groups claim affiliation to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) is said by some observers to have been set up with the help of the Algerian secret service, in order to justify US support for the `war against terror’ in the Sahara-Sahel area.
The US has established Africom, an army dedicated to intervention in Africa, which is now based in Stuttgart, Germany, until the US can persuade an African country to host its forces. A further element of the destabilisation of northern Mali is the contraband drug trade which has expanded in recent years. These factors obscure the purity of the national (independence) demands of the Tuareg.
What do they want?
In the days following the coup, the rebel armies captured power in the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, and declared the independent state of Azawad. This without support of the African Union, or Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, of which Mali is a member. While the MNLA is secular and dedicated to Tuareg nationalism (in a multi-ethnic north where Tuaregs are a minority), the Ansar Dine is more interested in the imposition of a strict version of Islam. For the present, the central government has lost control of the north.
Who supported the coup?
Given that an election was supposed to be held on 29 April, most political parties opposed the coup and demanded the return to constitutionality. These parties organised strong public demonstrations in the wake of the coup. The one exception was the left-leaning SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) which had seats in the Malian national assembly and was highly critical of the coalition led by the president. In siding with the coup, SADI was hoping for a clean sweep in Malian politics, and a review of the elections of 29 April, which it assumed would endorse the continuity in power of the coalition forces. However, SADI misjudged the soldiers, who instead of having a radical programme, seemed to have little inspiration for reforming the Malian state. SADI was left isolated.
Why the coup failed
Mali is an inland country. It’s neighbours are all members of Ecowas, the subregional equivalent of SADC in West Africa. Ecowas, along with the African Union, opposes unconstitutional power grabs in principle. Its members condemned the coup, tried unsuccessfully to intervene, and eventually closed their borders to Mali. Nothing could go in or come out, and soon there were huge price hikes for fuel and food. Part of a joint currency bloc, Mali shares the West African CFA franc with some of its neighbours. The central bank is based in Dakar, Senegal, so Mali does not even print its own currency. Sanctions led to immediate problems in the banking sector, with banks unable to provide companies with currency to pay wages. This led to a number of bottlenecks in the economy and great hardship for wage earners.
Within weeks of the coup, the soldiers were forced to relent. They came to a reluctant compromise whereby they would hand over power, not to the elected president but to the next politician in line, the chair of the national assembly, Dioncounda Toure. The acting president promised elections within forty days. The military would be included in the cabinet.
However, within a few weeks of being appointed, Toure had to rely on the military to put down a counter-coup, led by soldiers (“red berets”) from an elite unit loyal to the previous president. This time there were hundreds of casualties in the streets of Bamako.
Future prospects for Mali
IT is not clear that the new arrangements will follow the constitution and lead to free and fair elections. Obviously the elections will not include the opinions of communities in the north, over which the central government has lost control. While Ecowas has offered the government support to put down the rebellion, the leaders of the coup are not happy with this compromise of national sovereignty. But can a weak state in the south do without help? Will Mali be obliged to talk peace with the rebels or will it pursue a strategy of civil war? Will external intervention further destabilise the region, and will it draw in France and the United States, who trained Mali’s coup leaders? Can Mali fully return to constitutional government? These questions are difficult to answer, and point to the increasing fragility of the country and the Sahel region in the wake of political change in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa. Meanwhile, the instability and the possibility of a next round of civil war are holding Malians in a vice.
South African investments in Mali
A number of South African companies have investments in Mali. These include: AnglogoldAshanti, which has interests in 3 gold mines at Sadiola and Yatela (in cooperation with Canadian Iamgold) and Morila (with Channel Islands’ Randgold Resources, which has two other gold mines in Mali). The Malian government controls up to 20% of the shareholdings. Goldfields is exploring for gold at Yanfolila, but suspended drilling during the coup. IllovoSugar intends to launch a 14 500 hectare sugar plantation, but is awaiting approval from the Malian government. It hopes to market sugar and distil some of it into ethanol for agrofuel.
David Figis a South African environmental sociologist, political economist and activist.
Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla 92