What’s behind the coup in Mali?

On March 22, soldiers of the Republic of Mali in West Africa, led by junior officers, carried out a coup d’état against the elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, seizing the presidential palace and radio and TV transmitters, declaring a curfew and closing the country’s borders. Though several cabinet ministers and other government leaders have been arrested, the latest information is that President Touré may be holding out along with loyal members of his presidential guard. There was some looting by soldiers, but no reports of casualties.

Captain Amadou Sanogo appeared to the press and nation as leader of the coup. He stated that the reason for the uprising was the “incompetence” of the government and the military command in dealing with Tuareg and Islamist rebellions in the Northeast of the country. He said that he and his men had no intention of staying in power, but wanted “new elections”. But an election was scheduled for April 29, and President Touré, near the end of his constitutionally final second term, had made no move to stay in power.

Sanogo also stated that he had undergone several military training programs in the United States, which was confirmed by the U.S. government. The United States has an increasingly large military presence in Mali and its neighbors, which is explained as necessary to fight Islamist forces sometimes called AQIM, or “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”. (The Maghreb is the Mediterranean coastal region of North Africa).

The main immediate factor that brought on the coup was the return to Mali of thousands of Malian Tuaregs who had been working in Libya or serving in the army of the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gadaffi. When Gadaffi fell, many Africans from South of the Sahara, as well as darker skinned Libyans, found themselves unemployed and targeted for reprisals by the Libyan rebels, and cleared out, flooding neighboring and other countries with returnees and refugees.

The Libya war has had an impact in a number of African countries, not the least because these countries lost revenue from the remittances that their citizens working in oil-rich Libya had been sending home, and, in some cases, Libyan development aid. But in the case of the Tuaregs who returned all the way to Mali, they brought with them the weapons that they had got access to in the Libyan armed forces.

The Tuaregs, originally nomadic dwellers in the vast Saharan area, are Muslims and speakers of a Berber language. About a million live in Mali. They have complained that past Malian governments have neglected the northern areas in which they dwell. There have been periodic rebellions in Mali’s vast northern triangle that is part of the original Tuareg homeland.

Now the largest rebel group, the MLNA (Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), is aiming at an independent Tuareg state, though there are other groups focused more on imposing Sharia law while remaining within Mali. Reinforced by the people from Libya and armed to the teeth with Libyan advanced weaponry, the rebellion that began this January was something the Malian armed forces found they could not handle. The small Malian army found itself outgunned, and took serious casualties, with stories circulating about massacred prisoners and civilians. Rebels seized a number of towns and displaced almost 100,000 people in this country of 15 million.

The soldiers who overthrew President Touré stated their main complaint to be that the government had failed to arm and supply them properly to deal with this new revolt, leading to unnecessary deaths and the potential loss of more than half of the national territory.

Mali is a poor and mostly agricultural and pastoral country, but it does have significant gold mining (in the Southwest, the opposite end of the country from where the Tuareg rebellion is happening). There is also current exploration for oil reserves to the North of the Tuareg area, but no substantial proven reserves yet.

The site of ancient African kingdoms and empires, Mali was taken over by France in the late 19th Century “Scramble for Africa”  as part of that country’s rivalry with the British over control of the navigable upper reaches of the immense Niger River.

The French, trying to make their colony pay, promoted the cultivation of cotton. This was initially a great commercial success, though it displaced and pauperized many African growers of food crops. But by the 1990s, West African cotton prices were declining sharply, undercut in the world market by government subsidized exports from other countries, especially the United States. After years of wrangling, the subsidies are now supposed to be in the process of phase-out. However, control of the purchasing and marketing of the West African cotton crops by consortia of multinational corporations, working in collusion with local governments, is now keeping down the prices received by farmers.

In addition, the whole Sahel region, including Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, the Sudan and Niger, has been suffering from drought, which has killed many livestock and displaced many thousands of people.

President Touré himself carried out a military coup in 1991 against the former dictator Moussa Traoré. Touré was first elected president in 2002 and re-elected in 2007. Although some have extolled him as a paragon of democracy, there have also been accusations of corruption in his administration, including collusion with the trans-Saharan narcotics trade.

Several Malian political factions denounced the recent coup, and were joined in this by the African Union (which has suspended Mali’s membership), the UN Secretariat, the European Union, the ECOWAS group of West African States and the U.S. State Department, which announced a cutoff of non-humanitarian aid.

But the main Marxist left-wing political party in Mali, SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence)  hailed the coup as necessary to stop a military collapse which could leave Mali permanently broken in half. SADI and others on the left denounced President Touré for having sent Malian soldiers to their deaths without providing them with sufficient equipment and supplies to withstand the onslaught of Tuareg and Islamist rebels, and for possible collusion with Islamists and drug dealers.

As for the elections, SADI and others say that Touré’s government had not updated electoral registries and that the fact that nearly half the country, geographically, is under the control of the Tuareg and Islamist rebels indicates that fair elections could not be held in such circumstances.

The Malian left also blames French imperialism for the situation in which the NATO attack on Libya unleashed a torrent of powerful armaments, and people who know how to use them, into the whole Sahel area.

Captain Sanogo held out an offer to talk to the Tuareg rebels. But they immediately took advantage of the confusion caused by the coup to advance briskly against army garrisons in the North .

Image: Map of the Tuareg rebellion in Azawad, Northern Mali showing rebel attacks as of March 15.  By Orionist, CC 3.0. 



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.