Mali à l’aise

The Economist

Mali’s coup leaders tighten their hold but inspire little confidence

IF ANYONE knows what is happening in Mali, it should be Captain Amadou Sanogo. Sliding forward on the shiny beige sofa into which he has sunk, he insists that things are moving “as I want. Moving as I prepared…allowing me to engage, to start with my processes.” Yet the 40-year-old officer with a sandpaper rasp seems to be putting a brave face on what looks, in fact, like an accidental coup that was almost invited by the government it toppled.

Captain Sanogo is the leader of the putsch that deposed Amadou Toumani Touré, a two-term president, on March 22nd. In the cantonment town of Kati, in the hills north of Bamako, new furniture is going into freshly whitewashed buildings, and visitors jostle to meet members of the ponderously named National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and Restoration of the State.

The junta appears to be making up policy as it goes. It speaks of building a stronger army capable of serving the wider Sahel region, and has issued a 69-article constitution that empowers a council of 26 soldiers and 15 civilians to rule for a transition period of undefined length. Although protesters took to Bamako’s streets demanding a return to democracy, and various public figures connected to the upturned political system have denounced the coup, counter-demonstrations have voiced enthusiastic support. There seems to be enough disillusionment with Mr Touré’s government for many Malians to withhold judgment on the junta. Graft, increased perceptions of corruption and allegations of government involvement in smuggling drugs and arms mean that few are sad to see the back of Mr Touré, who had already foiled two earlier coup plots in 2010.

The political malaise extended to the army. Top officers paid little heed to the grumblings of the lower ranks, who were dispatched from the country’s populous south to alien northern deserts. There, a mismatched battle pitted ill-equipped conscripts against well-armed al-Qaeda terrorists or Tuareg rebels. It was a string of military defeats inflicted by Tuareg rebels that helped provoke the mutiny.

These defeats, as well as the hollowing out of Mali’s political life, explain why Captain Sanogo says he is willing to negotiate, but “the only thing which will not be done is to divide this country.” The rebel response has been to besiege the strategically important town of Kidal. With disarray in Bamako, the Tuareg see little reason to come to the table just yet.

Their leaders have studied the liberation struggles that successfully prised Eritrea from Ethiopia, and South Sudan from the rest of the country. Facebook statements denounce jihadist militants who also fight Mali’s government as “criminals” with no place in Tuareg society. They know Mali’s government would love to tar them with the brush of extremism, despite scant evidence of links between the Tuareg movement and the regional al-Qaeda franchise. The vision they propose for Azawad, as they call northern Mali, is essentially secular.

The rebels, freshly supplied via Libya’s El Dorado of uncontrolled weapons, have guns aplenty. But they lack both international backing and popular support for a successful divorce from Bamako. They hope the displacement of some 200,000 people from northern Mali, many to refugee camps in Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, will advertise their plight.

Yet the greater the human toll, the harder it is to win over the people the rebels claim to champion. Most northerners, whether Tuareg, Arab, Songhoi or Peul, bemoan Bamako’s broken promises of development, but show little appetite for war. “It’s been a disaster, a disaster,” says Abou Bakri Ag Mohammad, a Tuareg hotel owner from the fabled city of Timbuctou. “I don’t think the rebels fight for the people, they’re fighting for their own personal interest. And the victim is the population.”


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