What the Coup d’État in Mali Teaches Us

On March 22, 2012 a military coup, led by the US trained Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew the democratically elected president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, affectionately called ATT. This came as a surprise to most, since the presidential elections in Mali were scheduled to be held on April 29th, 2012 and ATT was not running as a candidate, because it was the end of his second term. The main reason given so far by the coup leaders is that ATT mismanaged the most recent Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country. Allegedly, he was too soft on the rebellion and always favored a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Malian troops in the north reportedly did not have enough weapons to face the rebellion and consequently endured resounding defeats at several posts.

Over the past two decades, Mali has been perceived and even admired as one of the leading countries on implementing democratic principles of governance. ATT will always be known as the military leader who took power away from a dictator and organized elections (in which he was not a candidate) to transparently transfer power to civilian Alpha Omar Konaré.  At the end of Konaré’s two terms, ATT, who had left the military, was elected President of Mali as a civilian. He had been contemplating a peaceful retirement and more time with his family after the presidential elections.

Most people are asking why a military coup at this time. However, our goal here is not necessarily to answer the question of the real motivations of coup leaders. We want to make an analysis of why such a coup was even made possible, because as much as this may be a surprise to most, it can happen in any African country in the same situation as Mali, where we think that democratic governance is taking hold. Several factors contributed to the occurrence of this military coup.

The military’s expectations
The coup leaders in Mali have officially declared why they led the coup, even though we still wonder if their reasons justify their senseless act. African militaries have been trained to serve their government leaders and not to protect their people. ATT might have been in accord with his generals, but lower ranking personnel expected more. The military’s expectation that ATT was going to send troops to the north to crush the rebellion was not met. He was not only at odds with their expectations, but they had the impression that they were abandoned to themselves, as troops fighting without proper equipment in the north.  ATT was a different kind of leader in this regard; he wanted to give a peaceful and negotiated resolution of the crisis a chance. Had he taken the same route as Modibo Keita and Moussa Traoré during their time as Malian Presidents, the coup might have never happened. Unfortunately the coup itself has given an opportunity for Tuareg rebels to seize and put even more territory under their control. Malians do not need much time to realize that a military regime does not serve their interests.

The recurring Tuareg rebellion
The Tuareg rebellion represents a constant and recurring issue that surfaced with French colonization.  The conflict between state power and nation building in the African context appears to be well illustrated by the constant rejection by Tuareg of any state government over their traditional structure. They resisted colonization, but they have remained powerless in regards to how their Saharan and Sahelian lands were divided between Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. During the independences of the early sixties, their dreams of having their own territory faded as each one of those countries became independent, in spite of France’s attempt to recoup Tuareg domains from established countries to form one territory that would remain under French control.  A colonial law, introduced by late Houphouet Boigny (while he was working for the colonial power France) in 1956 and passed into law on January 10 1957, briefly created a common organization for Saharan regions (OCRS), including territories from Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mali. The OCRS was liquidated a few years later, in 1963, after Algeria gained its independence in 1962. Even though France created the region for economic, military and geopolitical strategic reasons, the Tuareg people saw the law as a legal basis for the creation of their own territory.  It is worth mentioning that the north of Mali is also populated by other tribes with different cultures, including the Peuls and Arabs, and they are not enthusiastic about secession from Mali, even though they are disappointed by broken promises of development coming from Bamako.

The issue of Tuareg marginalization and their institutional infrastructure
The Tuareg’s main issue revolves around marginalization, and the uneasiness of losing their cultural identity and their way of life. Not only did the Tuareg fight colonization, they rejected the colonial educational model left behind at independence and refused to send their children to school. Such a position was understood and justified by the fact that Tuaregs are a group of people constantly moving around, but within their traditional territory. In so doing, they did not have within their ranks, people with the kind of training needed to take over along other tribes the management of their country affairs after colonization. The struggle to keep their cultural identity and their traditional institutional structure continues to this day and is manifested by the many rebellions seen over the past decades in Mali and Niger.

One question that should be asked is, aren’t Tuaregs themselves as responsible for their own marginalization as the governments they blame? With the signature of the 1992 pact in Mali, some Tuareg leaders joined the government and allegedly participated in embezzling funds destined to reconstruction of their area at the expense of their own people. It is important to say that Tuaregs are not necessarily unified in mounting the current assault on Malian institutions, including some of the leaders that participated in previous rebellions. Some Tuaregs are even more disappointed in their own leadership and their leadership’s quest to secure their own interests at the expense of the community.

Because of wars and lack of opportunities in their country, they had emigrated in large numbers to Libya in order to find better prospects. The removal of President Kaddafi from power has left some unintended consequences and victims in the process. Tuareg leaders who had worked in Libya for a long time saw in the Libyan war an opportunity to replenish their weapons during the chaos. Without Kaddafi to continue supporting them, some returned to Mali and those weapons and equipment they brought back from Libya are now serving them well.

The concept of democracy in the African context
The concept of democracy in the African context has been narrowed down to electoral contests. This coup has been largely condemned by both the international community and people in Mali. However, there is a good part of the population in Mali that supports it; they even demonstrated to prevent the planes of ECOWAS Heads of States from landing in Bamako on Thursday, March 29, 2012. Some have long been disenfranchised by the whole democratic process. Too many expectations have not been met and too many reforms not accomplished, be it for government institutions, or other aspects of Malian life. Have Malian governing institutions failed to be transparent and accountable enough to the people or have people not been empowered enough to see that even a democratic government cannot do all for them?

Democracy and Malians disillusionment
The mere fact that some Malians are taking to the streets to support the coup is not in itself a support to an undemocratic transfer of power. They are not necessarily expressing their support for the military, which they know all too well, is not a democratic institution. For those old enough to remember the regime ruthless of Moussa Traoré, the scars may still be fresh. This is an expression of disillusionment with the electoral process that has made Mali the emerging democracy most have come to admire in Africa.  The advent of “democracy” has been a disappointment for most of the Malian population that has not seen a significant improvement in their living standards during the past 20 years. Instead, there has been the creation of an emerging class of elites that competes in sharing political power and reaps most of the economic benefits.

Furthermore, government policies have been at odds with people’s expectations and interests. While blindly implementing policy recommendations from the World Bank and the IMF, ATT has not helped, but portrayed the image of someone working for foreign interests at the expense of his own people. We understand that Mali is a country with limited means, but people do not feel empowered enough to take part in the management of their country’s affairs. They complain of increasing corruption and a justice system that does not address the needs of the most vulnerable in society. In spite of all progress made to master the organization of fair and transparent elections, Malian leaders have not yet succeeded in giving their people control over government affairs and responsibility for their own destiny. That leads people to question the concept of democracy as currently applied, which to them begins to sound like a Western and foreign concept, even though they continue to embrace its basic principles.

The need to build institutions needed to support and strengthen democratic governance
The right of the people to be informed about how their government works and how to assume their own responsibilities should be cultivated and preserved. As much as the government has failed to spread the wealth and share the benefits of democratic institutions, what matters to the general population is how those transformations affect their livelihood. The people of Mali should soon realize that political alternance does not guarantee food on the table, but that it is their responsibility to continue demanding a better performance from their government and also continue to work even harder to build institutions that support democratic governance. The work and efforts do not stop once a dictator is gone; rather it is the beginning of a long and arduous process to rebuild not only political institutions at the image of people expectations, but the country’s economy.

Can Amadou Toumani Touré and Malians pull another magic trick?
The demonstrations by Malians preventing the head of states from landing in Bamako demonstrates the distrust and unease of Malians, and most Africans, with the way the “international community” intervenes when it comes to African problems. We only hope that Malians will be able to uphold their own responsibility to themselves as they chanted “let us resolve our own problems.” If Captain Sanogo had been infected with the ATT virus of 1991, we have no doubt to believe that Mali will soon return to a democratic process.

The neighboring countries should be careful not to rush in making decisions that could only worsen the situation. ATT should not let other African leaders make decisions about his country’s destiny, since some of them have not proven to be good examples to follow as far as leadership and peace are concerned in Africa.

As ATT declared two days after the coup, what matters is not him, but his country. For that, he was considered a hero for most Africans when he led Mali to democracy in the early nineties and that picture may remain so for a long time, only if during the current crisis, he succeeds in applying the same wisdom that helped him manage the sunrise of democracy in Mali. 

As of today, the situation is quickly evolving. The coup leaders have agreed to step down. ATT is doing the right thing by officially resigning ahead of the end of his term to pave way for a return to democracy.  Let’s hope the Malian magic works again this time.

Who benefits?
We would like to make a puzzling remark; the most important question that no one is asking, who would benefit from instability in Mali or its partition anyway? For that matter, whose interests are at stake in the Saharan and Sahelian regions of Africa? Let’s observe!

Looking ahead
For whoever succeeds Amadou Toumani Touré, the magnitude of the tasks at hand demands a special set of skills. First, the Tuareg issue needs to be put to rest once and for all. Second, the leadership should develop and implement socio-economic policies that match Malians’ aspirations and involve their contributions, and the assistance of its dedicated Diaspora population. Third, and most importantly, the government needs to build institutions that support and strengthen democratic governance while empowering the general population to maintain a strong control over the management of the country’s resources, and assume its own destiny as a willing participant. Then and only then, Mali will be able to unlock its full economic potential.