On Monday morning, things were looking up for Mali. By Monday night, the interim president Dioncounde Traore had just been beaten up in his office after a massive and genuine public demonstration in favour of the military junta, leaving the country more confused and unstable than ever before.
“We are all leaving, with the feeling that we have accomplished our mission,” said Adama Bictogo, the cabinet minister from Cote D’Ivoire who led the regional mediation in Mali. He might come to regret saying it.
Speaking in Bamako on Monday morning, he had every reason to be pleased with the progress he and his team made in resolving Mali’s messy political situation. But he spoke too soon.
Ever since Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted in a military coup in March, the country’s future has been uncertain. Elections scheduled for late April were cancelled, while the instability at the heart of government has left Mali hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with a rebellion from the sparsely-inhabited northern areas of the country, where Tuareg-led rebels have seized control of all major towns including Timbuktu.
Huge international and regional pressure from Ecowas forced the military junta, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, to make a few concessions and begin the transition back to civilian rule. This pressure culminated in an agreement this weekend. With the encouragement of Bictogo and his Ecowas mediators, and conscious of the threats of sanctions and military intervention, Sanogo agreed to extend the term of the transitional civilian government by one year, enough time to organise elections and complete the return to full civilian rule. In return, Ecowas agreed to afford Sanogo all the privileges of a former head of state, including a salary, a residence and a state guard.
Then the madness started. In an apparent rejection of civilian rule and a ringing endorsement of the coup, citizens in Bamako staged a popular protest against the peace deal. This was no bunch of hoodlums or a crowd-for-hire, as freelance journalist Martin Vogl (who has been reporting from Bamako for the BBC) noted on Twitter: “Protest against interim president staying on in Mali is huge. Real popular anger. One of biggest demos since coup.” The demonstration made its way from outside the office of interim prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra to the presidential palace of interim president Dioncounde Traore, and then to the presidential palace, storming the gates and surging into the building. A group of protestors found the president’s office, with the new and politically insecure president at his desk. His guards shot three people dead and managed to regain control, but not before the president had suffered a beating that tore his clothes and put him in hospital.
So much for “mission accomplished”. So much for Mali’s transition. On the surface, this is one of those moments that cause onlookers to shake their heads in disappointment and confusion, muttering “TIA –This is Africa”. Why would the people want to jeopardise Mali’s chances of returning to some kind of normality? Why would they want a military junta to stay in control?
But dig a little deeper, and, as always, things become a little clearer. Crucial to understand is that while the coup was universally condemned internationally, seen as derailing what had become one of Africa’s most promising democracies, it received widespread local support. The ousted government of Amadou Toumani Toure had become deeply unpopular, dragged down by widespread corruption and a lack of discernible development. Fatally for his administration, the former president was perceived as failing to deal with the rebellion in the north. Worse, a few convincing rebel victories against government troops revealed the army was poorly trained and woefully under-equipped to deal with the rebel threat. These were people’s sons and husbands and brothers dying, and the people weren’t happy.
It was this last issue that motivated the coup leaders, or at least provided the justification for their seizure of power. They promised to be much more aggressive against the rebels, and criticised Toure’s dialogue-first approach. Not that it’s helped much: The army remains poorly trained and under-equipped and, in the wake of the coup, has lost many of its top officers. The instability in the south caused by the coup has meanwhile allowed the northern rebels to consolidate their control, taking over all of the north’s major cities.
In fact, the north has largely been left to its own devices as the political fighting in and around Bamako intensified. Playing a prominent role is Ecowas, which sent a number of high-profile envoys and issued plenty of threats, even suggesting it would impose democracy by force if necessary. Its influence has been the main thrust behind the creation of the interim government, headed by President Traore and prime minister Diarra.
Both Traore and Diarra were considered front-runners in the elections before they were called off, and both are part of the established political elite, and – rightly or wrongly – associated with the failures and excesses of the ousted government.
There are two obvious issues this situation creates. Firstly, for the significant number of people who welcomed the coup, the interim government of Traore and Diarra is a step backwards. Secondly, this means the influence of Ecowas is not seen as benign, but rather as the meddling of a foreign power in Mali’s internal issues. Meddling rarely goes down well, no matter where it’s tried.
Suddenly, the popular anger to the transitional peace deal agreed between Ecowas and Sanogo becomes a little easier to understand. The protestors felt they were losing control of their own political change, which may not have come in the form of a revolution, but was no less revolutionary for it. And there was an element of betrayal in the sentiments expressed too: some people accused the coup leaders of treason for acceding to the deal.
Nonetheless, the transitional government currently represents the best option Mali has. The more they squabble in Bamako, the longer it will take to regain control of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Everyone thinks they’re fighting for Mali – the junta, the old political elite, the protestors. But the more they fight, they more likely it is they’ll be fighting for just half of it. DM
- Mali president Traore beaten up by protestors on BBC News.
- Mali: from democracy poster-child to broken state on Reuters.
Photo: Protesters occupy Mali's presidential palace in the capital Bamako, May 21, 2012. Hundreds of protesters entered Mali's presidential palace unopposed on Monday and said they would remain there until interim civilian president Dioncounda Traore resigned, a Reuters witness said. The protesters tore up images of Traore and called for him to be replaced by Captain Amadou Sanogo, the officer who led the March 22 military coup, the witness said. REUTERS/Adama Diarra.