The replacement of the Amadou Toure government and illegal accession to power by the ‘National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State’ (NCRD) signals an escalation in the political destabilization of West Africa. The army’s official reason for the coup according to junta spokesperson Lieutenant Amadou Konare, is that the Toure government did not provide support to the army in its fight against a northern rebellion led by Tuareg rebels and suspected Al-Qaeda networks. But taking place a mere month away from the Malian presidential elections in which deposed President Toure had no plans for breaking the two term limit, the coup seems completely unnecessary. While the coup has been described as ‘pushing Mali back by twenty years’, its implications for the sub-region and the continent are even more worrisome. This think piece considers these ramifications and how they might be mitigated.
The junior officers who instigated the mutiny and ‘guardian coup’ is explained by the need to improve public order and efficiency. While the NCRD is acting as an ‘arbitrator army’, the coup could also be classified as an anticipatory veto coup as the military were losing substantial ground to the Tuareg rebellion and therefore it could have been launched to pre-empt power passing to the rebels. Mali's poorly equipped army of just 7,000 has proved no match for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), the main front of the Tuareg rebellion. The rebels have recently taken and continue to hold several key towns in the north, including Tessalit, Aguel Hoc and Menaka. The NMLA has also been boosted by the return of an estimated 800 to 4,000 Tuareg fighters from Libya.
Four years ago, Mauritania - which shares 2300 kilometres of border with Mali - experienced a coup with the military junta effectively placing their General-turned-civilian into power through elections. This ‘successful coup’ possibly could have given impetus to the Malian mutineers. There have been times when it appeared as if some states experienced coups because neighbouring states had shown how easily it could be done, and what advantages accrued to the armed forces as a result. There is evidence in West Africa that military commanders tend to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other countries as to how to take power. Mali, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger, all marked by high levels of poverty, fragile institutions and underlying conflict, share borders, thus creating an arc of fragility in this part of West Africa.
Add to this structural fragility the immediate challenges of growing activities of armed groups across the Sahara especially after the fall of Qadaffi in Libya and a terrible food crises.
A mere two days before the coup, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane announced her government’s decision to offer emergency humanitarian assistance to the Sahel region in response to an assessment by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council meeting held in Bamako, Mali, warning of a major catastrophe in this area due to acute food shortages and conflict. The worsening humanitarian situation in the Sahelian states, she said, compounded the challenges created by the ‘uncontrolled proliferation of arms and ammunition’ emanating from Libya. She reported that the Council had noted the effect that these conditions might have in the spread of rebellions and insurrection in the region, given the conditions of deep poverty, high unemployment, a surplus of male youths, poor education systems, greed and grievance and a suitable terrain.
Of course, the current situation in northern Nigeria involving the Boko Haram group has many parallels with the NMLA rebels. Malian officers took power because they felt that the civilian government was incompetent in handling the Tuareg insurgency. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram is wreaking havoc while the political class appears to be clueless on how to defeat this. Both ‘rebel’ groups want to install a radical form of Islam, are associated with al-Qaeda and both view their respective political class as sell outs, apostates, hypocrites and colonial inventions. There are other shades of radical Islam spreading throughout the region.
If the Boko Haram can operate practically untouched in Nigeria, which has West Africa’s strongest military intelligence, the ripple effect on this part of the region will be dire. A major factor leading to President Wade’s failure to get a third term was his inability to be endorsed by the influential Mouride Islamic brotherhood. While this pattern of political Islam is a cause for concern, mainly because of its capacity to further destabilize and divide relatively weak states in West Africa, pre-emptive coups designed to stop this have the opposite effect of strengthening the hands of shady extremist groups. For this reason the Malian coup is problematic.
Both the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a West African regional grouping, have condemned the coup and have demanded an immediate return to civilian rule as a matter of principle. Following an emergency summit, ECOWAS is to dispatch a group of leaders led by the Ivorian president, Allasane Ouattara, to persuade the junta to hand over power immediately.
The West has imposed measures to isolate the junta, beginning by cutting off military aid. The EU is mulling over its own measures designed to isolate the coup plotters. The UN has issued a statement against the coup.
The principle of opposition to unconstitutional changes of power, while noble in and of itself, is not a sufficient response to situations such as in Mali where structural distortions and weaknesses create conditions for repeat coups and counter-coups. Neither is the isolation of the coup plotters through sanctions and other similar measures adequate. The lasting solution should be a region-wide intervention designed to strength state institutions, active citizenry, strengthen the economies and peace-keeping capacities.
Ultimately, Mali needs to face strict sanctions and the full wrath as stipulated in article 3(10) of the Lome Declaration.
But in order to counter is the rise of political Islam in West Africa which is aimed at filling the social and political vacuum created by corrupt and inept governments and the spread of insurrection that feeds of ubiquitous poverty, both Mali and West Africa especially should attract substantial support for institutional development and policy agendas aimed at strengthening societies in the region. More dialogue will also be needed to address the developing situation.
Anton M. Pillay is an MA candidate in Political Science at the University of Johannesburg