Mali's stability still at stake a year after coup

A year ago, a group of Malian soldiers ousted the country’s president, triggering a chain of crises that led to a January 2013 French military intervention. But even if Mali is back from the brink, the roots of its problems have yet to be addressed.


Shortly after midnight on March 22, 2012, Malian state TV began playing archive recordings of traditional music and some Malian pop interspersed with a title announcing, “In a moment, a declaration by soldiers”. The declaration took some hours, but by 7:30 a.m., the news was out: the president has been ousted in a military coup, the constitution is suspended, please remain calm.

Exactly a year after the fateful coup that triggered a perfect storm of crises in this West African nation, there has not been a moment of calm in Mali.

On Thursday, the eve of the first anniversary of the March 22 coup, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest near the airport in the historic northern Malian city of Timbuktu, killing a Malian soldier and wounding eight others.

The attack came a day after French President François Hollande said the French military intervention to drive out Islamists who had seized northern Mali following the coup was “in the last phase”.

The first phase of the French intervention kicked off on January 11 with the launch of Operation Serval, when France responded to a Malian call for intervention after Islamist rebels seized a critical central Malian town and looked set to continue their southward offensive to the capital of Bamako.

In 12 short months, Mali has slid from its position as one of Africa’s most stable nations to a country wracked by coup, Islamist insurgency, political collapse, military disintegration, deep societal divisions and instability so threatening to regional and international interests that it took a Western-led military intervention to try to set it back on track.

Looking back on that ominous day when a gravelly voiced Malian captain named Amadou Haya Sanogo made his state-TV appearance announcing the coup, most experts admit they had no inkling of the cataclysmic events to come.

“At that time, a lot of us thought this would be a passing event, the government will be restored and the military will be sent back to the barracks,” said Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh University, who was in Bamako at the time of the coup. “None of us foresaw the government losing 60 percent of the country’s territory and ultimately French forces intervening in the crisis. I don’t think anybody had any idea.”

‘Pushed back from the brink of complete disaster’

But while the months after the March 22 coup saw Mali slipping to new lows, the January 2013 launch of Operation Serval appeared to have stemmed the disaster, hammering out international consensus after months of ineffectual debate and arresting the Islamist advance – for the moment.

“The way I see it, Mali has been pushed back from the brink of complete disaster,” said Whitehouse. “The French military intervention is still incomplete and it’s too early to judge, but it has opened up some room for manoeuvre so the Malian leadership can have some discussion of what can happen next.”

But as French politicians publicly talk of troop withdrawals, experts are having a hard time discerning exactly what can happen next.

Hollande’s statement earlier this week that Mali’s sovereignty over almost all of its territory will be restored within “a few days” has raised many eyebrows and elicited quite a few snorts in West African circles.

“I found that a very weird statement,” said Patrick Smith, editor of respected monthly The Africa Report. “Does it mean the jihadists won’t be in control or will the French military withdraw? Clearly, no one believes the French will make a big withdrawal. We saw the recent suicide bombing in Timbuktu, there are signs there will be more hit and run attacks.”

Over the past few weeks, French forces have engaged in heavy fighting with diehard militants who fled the northern towns for the remote Ifoghas Mountains in the Kidal region near the Algerian border.

'Fixing Bamako'

While the military mission in difficult terrain is fraught with challenges, they pale in comparison to the political hurdles ahead.

“Everyone is focused on the North,” said Smith, noting the international community’s concern over the spread of Islamist militancy across the Sahel and West Africa. “But the critical thing is fixing Bamako, making the national reconciliation, the national constitution work.”

Recent reports from northern Malian cities such as Kidal suggest the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the group that announced the “liberation” of northern Mali - or “Azawad” - last April, have entrenched their power in the area, levying taxes and issuing papers stamped with a “state of Azawad” seal.

The MNLA’s ties with official French military and administrative circles have been a question of much suspicion and conjecture among Malians over the past year. France’s sensitivity to the MNLA leadership’s wishes was underscored in the early stages of Operation Serval when French troops entered the group’s northern stronghold of Kidal, without the Malian army.

Before the Kidal invasion, MNLA spokesmen made it clear that they would surrender to the French military, but not their traditional foe, the Malian army.

Suspicions of French support for the MNLA could severely damage the process of national reconciliation in a multi-ethnic country where many groups blame the Tuareg militant group for Mali’s recent crises.

“It’s a very sensitive question,” said Whitehouse. “So many people in Bamako view the MNLA as beyond the pale of inclusion in talks. They are seen as a terrorist organisation and a criminal group.”

The interim Malian government has promised to engage with the MNLA provided the group lays down its arms. But Whitehouse, like many Mali experts, warns the process will be “really tricky”.

Vocal calls for elections, silence on military reform

In recent months, the US embassy in Bamako has been “strongly encouraging” Malians to hold elections in July. But in a recent blog post, Whitehouse warned that holding “premature elections could well create another crisis within a matter of months”.

While some Western governments have been vocal in their election calls, there has been a noticeable silence on the international mission to reform the Malian military, the widely discredited institution that triggered the Malian crisis a year ago.

The Malian military is no stranger to international military aid and training in the pre-coup era. While France, the former colonial power, has been Mali’s largest military aid provider, the US alone has poured $1 billion into Mali during the past decade in development aid as well as military training to battle al Qaeda’s North African offshoot, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

Following the launch of Operation Serval, the European Union launched a mission to train the Malian army. But EU officials have provided few details of how they plan to train an army split between upstart putschists still loyal to Captain Sanogo and an older cadre of generals and senior military officials.

“I think the EU has been worryingly opaque about what they are doing on this front,” said Smith. “It’s clear all the French and US military training of the Malian military over the past few years didn’t work. The military still has the problems that plagued this institution before the coup – such as corrupt officials among several officer corps. Now, there are clearly big divisions between Sanogo and the old commanders, and there are no details on how the EU will tackle this.”

A year after Malian state TV broke its regular programming to air archive music and an upcoming military announcement, Mali’s privately owned media have boycotted government coverage.

The boycott is a protest against the detention of Malian journalist Boukary Daou, after his Le Republicain newspaper published a letter criticising Captain Sanogo.

Daou was arrested for “incitement to revolt," according to a Malian official, suggesting that exactly a year after a group of soldiers revolted against a democratically elected president, the man who led Mali to the brink of disaster retains control of critical security services in this West African nation.

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