Mali's Unfortunate Military Coup an Unnecessary Setback for Democracy


Many Africans were shocked as the news of a military coup in Mali spread across the globe in the early hours of Thursday 22 March. It was not the classic scenario of soldiers stepping in to reverse a situation of bad governance in a country, promising people a better life. Nor was it a coup to prevent a stubborn president from clinging to power, despite the hard-fought democratic gains. Mali’s outgoing President Amadou Toumani Tour’ (ATT) is completing his last days in office. He has made clear his intention to hand over power to a democratically elected president in the upcoming elections slated for 29 April 2012. Elsewhere, the Tuareg insurgency in the north - seen as one of the major reasons behind the coup - might have provided the incumbent with a pretext to amend the constitution and consolidate his grip on power. But not here. In fact, the state of the democratisation process in Mali and the general perception of the army as a neutral actor since the return of democracy in the 1990s are some of the mitigating factors as far as the risks of military coup in Mali are concerned. How then can one explain this week’s coup in Bamako? And what impact will this have on peace and stability?

It is important to indicate that the resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country - generally seen as a fall-out from the Libyan conflict - has compromised the end of ATT’s rule and raised tensions among military officers and political actors who criticised his apparent lukewarm stance on the insurgency. Though a former army officer, ATT has profiled himself as a civilian ruler with a peaceful approach to conflict resolution. On many occasions, he has declared his preference for political dialogue rather than war and violence. In a recent interview with Radio France Internationale, ATT argued that if he has to choose between ‘war and Mali’, he would choose Mali - his way of inviting the Tuareg to the negotiation table. The problem is that many in political circles and those who are part of the military establishment do not share his soft approach. But while the political actors were able to publically voice their concerns over the lack of a more vigorous military deployment in the north, criticising the government for its inability to anticipate and prevent the Tuareg rebellion, military officers have to simply contend with the official position of their hierarchy.

In reality, a peaceful solution to the Touareg insurgency had become contentious, as the terms of negotiation were not clearly defined.  The scenario of a power vacuum as the result of Mali’s possible inability to hold the presidential elections was looming large. In addition, the Touareg rebels, the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), seems opposed to any political dialogue that excludes the independence of Azawad - a state they intend to create in northern Mali on the basis that citizens in the area have nothing in common with Malians living in the south. Indications are that the regional grouping Ecowas understood what is at stake when regional leaders offered their military support to the national army to end the rebellion and in that way give a chance for the presidential elections to take place. Ecowas also stepped in to provide close to $3 million in humanitarian assistance, while African Union foreign ministers were in a meeting in Bamako just days before the coup to finalise continental support for Mali.

Yet the morale within the army was seriously affected by consecutive defeats recorded over the past few weeks. Soldiers complained of the lack of adequate means and resources to fight the Tuareg insurgents. They saw in the soft attitude of the government a recipe for disaster and national humiliation. But rather than attributing this to mere circumstantial decisions by the government, the option of choosing political dialogue over military confrontation is rooted in the financial and economic difficulties facing Mali, with repercussions on its security forces. These difficulties explain to a certain extend, the reduction in the national defence budget and investments in socio-economic programme to improve the general living conditions of the citizens including health, education and infrastructure development.

Together with the rebellion in the northern region, the coup has now further exposed Mali’s vulnerability. If the Tuareg insurgents were as well organised and as well armed as is being claimed, the coup could have been an opportunity to strike southward and declare unilaterally their independence, which has not happened. The military coup is both an unfortunate occurrence and an unnecessary setback for the democratisation process in Mali. Taking place only a month before the presidential elections and the exit of the current president, there is no legitimate justification for a military interruption of the constitutional process. And it is not clear whether the junta, the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and the State (Comit’ Nationale pour le Redressement de la Democracy et de l’Etat) would be able to garner enough resources and support to wage war against the MNLA. The Tuareg insurgency, as well as the numerous other security threats in the Sahel, needs a collective response from regional and extra-regional actors. In fact, this coup might lead Mali into a spiral of instability as the junta does not have control over the whole country and unanimity does not exist among all army officers and various units of the security forces.

As the first military coup in 2012 taking place 21 years after the democratisation process in Mali, this is certainly a major test for the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in force since February 2012. There is also sufficient grounds for the regional organization Ecowas to firmly condemn the coup and insists on the return of a constitutional order. The statement by Ecowas, condemning the misguided actions of the mutineers and warning that it will not condone any recourse to violence as a means of seeking redress was a major step in the right direction. The next step was  a decision by the African Union  on the suspension of Mali from continental and regional institutions in line the policy of zero tolerance for any attempt to obtain or maintain power by unconstitutional means. It is about time military coups are eliminated from the political culture of the continent.

David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT