Gaborone, Botswana – The coup d’etat that took place in the West African nation of Mali on Thursday, March 22, must be denounced by the international community in the strongest possible terms. This was no act of heroism to save a country from a despotic dictator, but rather an emotional outbreak by a disgruntled group of military officers that thoughtlessly ended 20 years of democratic rule. The real tragedy is that elections were scheduled to be held in little over a month (on April 29), a time when legitimate differences could have been debated, with voters (rather than guns) deciding the future of the country.
This is not to suggest that the deposed government, led by President Amadou Toumani Toure (also known as ATT), was without problems. It was accused of mismanaging an insurrection in the northern part of the country, while engaging in excesses at home.
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The real trouble began when heavily armed Tuareg militants, formerly employed by Muammar Gaddafi as fighters in Libya, returned to Mali last year. These fighters rekindled an insurgency in the northern part of the country, a conflict that had been peacefully settled in the late 1990s following a series of negotiations. While the Tuareg population could once have claimed to be unfairly marginalised by a government controlled by southern peoples, they now held ministerial posts and even had a new province created to give them greater representation in government.
Sadly, it was Gaddafi’s guns, more than anything else, that rekindled a movement aimed at creating an independent Tuareg state known as Azawad. A pivotal moment occurred on January 24 when Tuareg rebels completely overran a Malian military base at Aguelhok, in which it was widely reported in the Malian media that all of the remaining soldiers were slaughtered after they ran out of ammunition to defend themselves. This led to a huge public outcry and, sadly, reprisals against innocent Tuareg civilians. The army also began to publically grumble that they did not have the funds they needed to fight the war in the north.
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It is not for me to say whether ATT’s government had been mismanaging the insurgency in the north. It’s possible that more support (in the form of guns and ammunition) may have resolved the problem. It is also likely that the Malian army, stinging from a series of defeats in the north (including at Aguelhok), would have embarked on a rampage of carnage, forever ending any chance of peace. Despite the public outcry for revenge, it is possible that ATT had his reasons for a more subdued defence of the country’s sparsely populated, arid north (a region that is also on the brink of acute food insecurity after two years of drought and unfolding turmoil).
Having worked and undertaken research in Mali on and off since 1987, ATT is not a new figure to me. My first years in Mali were spent under the waning regime of Moussa Traore, a dictator who deposed Mali’s first democratically elected president (Modibo Keita) in a coup d’etat in 1968. Traore squandered the country’s resources and ruled undemocratically until 1991. Although Malians are known for their patience, they could no longer tolerate his rule after he ordered his soldiers to fire on peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were students. It was ATT, leading a group of soldiers, who refused to fire on their own people, who arrested Moussa Traore and ended his regime.
ATT did two things at the time which deeply impressed me. First, he led a one-year transition government and then stepped aside to allow for the democratic election of Alpha Konare (who served two elected five-year terms between 1992-2002). He also made sure that the former dictator, Moussa Traore, received a fair trial. Traore served a partial life sentence and then was released from prison.
ATT did successfully run for president in 2002 and was re-elected again in 2007. He was at the tail end of his second term when Thursday’s coup d’etat occurred. Given Mali’s two term limit, ATT had every intention to step down from office at the end of April and had said so in public.
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The fragility of democracy
It baffles me why some members of the Malian military and their backers could not wait one more month for an election. While it is certainly possible that ATT was mismanaging the war in the north, and may have been guilty of extravagant expenditures at the presidential palace, these are legitimate grievances that could have been aired in an election campaign. Rather, a group of military officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, ironically calling themselves the “National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State”, has thoughtlessly destroyed a 20-year beacon of democracy in West Africa. This group did not topple a dictator who had ordered soldiers to fire on his own people, as had been the case 21 years ago, but a democratically elected president in the last month of his term.
Having once lived in a small, rural Malian community for two and a half years in the late 1980s, I was taught by the elders of that community that age was not the real signifier of maturity, but the ability to control one’s emotions and make level-headed decisions when others acted irrationally. Restraint and clear, calm thinking were virtues. Despite their frustrations, I believe the vast majority of Malian people had the patience and composure to air and debate their concerns, and wait until April 29 for the peaceful transition of government. Captain Sanogo, on the other hand, did not display such maturity – and therefore should not be trusted.
While this is a Malian problem that must be resolved by the Malian people, the international community (including the Arab League, African Union and UN) must condemn the recent coup in no uncertain terms. This is not the Arab Spring moving south, but a serious backwards step for democracy in the region. Captain Sanogo and his band of thugs must be made to step aside, ATT (if he is still alive) allowed to serve out his remaining month in office, and democratic elections kept on schedule to occur in late April.
Although I am strongly opposed to any outside use of military force to resolve this problem, the international community does hold other forms of leverage. Until certain conditions are met, donors should consider limiting funds (other than humanitarian assistance) to this heavily aid-dependent country. First to go should be the vast sums of money, training and equipment supplied to the Malian army.
William G Moseley is a human-environment and development geographer. He is a professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA and is currently a visiting scholar in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Botswana.