A Look at the Coup in Mali

A Berber group, known as the Tuaregs, have recently been instrumental in the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali. Some of these Tuaregs are returning veterans, that had fought for Gaddafi in the Libyan military theater. Much like the Kurds of the Levant, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria the Tuaregs/Berbers have had long-held, and enduring nationalist aspirations for an independent, autonomous and self-determining country, although some are indeed purported to be Islamist-linked, and indeed card-carrying members of the AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The Tuaregs/Berbers are associated with a number of names/classifications, and may also be called by the appellations of the Amazighs, the Kabyle or the Riffs.

The Taureg fighters — fresh from Libya — formed a powerful rebel group known as the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). They have long believed that they are a marginalized and repressed group by the centralized Malian government/authority. And, in fact, in joining with young recruits, and former rebels who had been enlisted in the Malian national military, in only two short months the Tuaregs took over several key northern Malian municipalities. Not only this, but perhaps more astonishingly, their capture of a large swathe of mountainous desert territory, proved as a catalyst for a mutiny — which turned into a coup d’etat, that befell the capital of Bamako on March 21st.1

The coup fabricators (non-Tuareg) are currently being led by a thirty-something junior officer named Amadou Sanogo. He has seized power even though the president was due to step down at the holding of elections only at the end of this month. Many Malians have felt, however, that Toure was insufficiently dealing with problems of Tuareg nationalism, calls for the imposition of Sharia law, and even a burgeoning drug smuggling trade under the authority of his administration (in the turbulent, disorderly, and exacting Malian north).  So much so that a February protest in Bamako involved hundreds of people setting up barricades, and burning tires in the streets over the government’s perceived ineffectuality on the problem.

Moreover, Malian military soldiers — seeking to pacify the north — felt humiliated that whilst the government claimed to be in resolute and stable control of that portion of the country, they were being supplied with insufficient military armaments, resources, food provisions and overall support/backing. An anonymous government official, who spoke to the British Broadcasting Corporation said that, “Many within the government felt something could happen, we just didn’t know when and how.” And Abdul Aziz Kebe, a specialist in Arab-African relations at the University of Dakar, Senegal has opined that, “[The] Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

Mali had been a rare democratic government in the region, and one that had been that way for over twenty years. Sanogo appears to be equivocating already though, and is now saying that he plans to reinstitute the Constitution of 1992 (and hold free and fair elections).  Mali’s neighbors are giving the country 72 hours to restore their previous form of government, or be punished with crippling sanctions. The inauspicious portent of a new rebel-controlled anarchic quasi-state entity that specializes in kidnapping and drug-trafficking, and serves as a locus for Islamist extremism — is now all, of course, too real.

The association between the Tuareg rebels, and the forces of extremist Islam is uncertain — at this point — and the details of their conceivable interconnectedness is insufficiently known. It has been reported, however, that hairdressers and shopkeepers were ordered to take down pictures of unveiled women when the town of Kidal was seized upon and overwhelmed by the MNLA.

Toure had warned about post-Gaddafi aided Mali in an interview with L’Express, “[that] concerning the local Arabo-Tuareg rebellions, Gaddafi engaged in mediation, the disarmament and reintegration. His overthrow has left a vacuum….very early, we alerted NATO and others about the collateral effects of the Libyan crisis. To no avail.” Toure had very good relations with Gaddafi, of which he has said that he has no regrets. In the same interview with the periodical L’Express, Toure stated, “Libya made substantial investments with us in tourism, hotels, agriculture and banking, contributing to our development.”  Gaddafi made similar investments in Burkina Faso, and a number of other African nation-states also.

Former Canadian Diplomat Robert Fowler says that NATO has unleashed a “contagion” across the African Sahel region. Additionally, Mr. Fowler has elaborated that Mali had been considered by “everybody”, to be a “kind of a paragon of democracy”. And that Mali was held up as “the great example of an effective working democracy in West Africa.” There is certainly something to be said for the holding of elections; instead of presidents for life, or autocrats — or anything of that such.

In the West’s idea of democracy in the developing world; however, issues of economic democracy, are sparingly — if ever — taken seriously and robustly enough into account. Mali, in addition to having been a democracy, had long held a fixed position as one the 25 poorest countries in the world. Numerous countries in the world regularly and routinely hold elections, and profess someone to be the duly supported winner, but the spoils of that nation are held in the hands of the 1% (or in many cases an even smaller group).

A prophetic Toure illuminates us — on this score — again, “[P]overty and a precarious existence offer a fertile ground to terrorism and the Islamists. The Jihadists advance laden with charitable works. They intelligently target the poorest families or the unemployed youth. An oppressed youth steals a four-wheel drive vehicle or acts as a guide for them not out of ideological commitment, but for money. Our enemies infiltrate us using humanitarianism; we have to answer with economic development.”

  1. Thomas Fessy,  Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup,  22 March 2012 []

Sean Fenley is an independent progressive who would like to see the end of the dictatorial duopoly of the so-called two party adversarial system. He would also like to see some sanity brought to the creation and implementation of current and future U.S. military, economic, foreign and domestic policies. Read other articles by Sean.