Editor's Note: Jennifer G. Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
By Jennifer G. Cooke, CSIS
Disgruntled junior army officers have seized control of the presidential palace and state broadcasting apparatus in the West African country of Mali, declaring a coup d’état against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Calling themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), the soldiers have denounced the government’s incompetence, most notably its failure to respond effectively to an ongoing insurrection led by Tuareg rebels in the country’s north. The coup leaders have announced the suspension of the constitution, the closure of the country’s borders, and the imposition of a nationwide curfew. President Touré has reportedly taken refuge in an army barracks in Bamako, protected by loyalist presidential guards.
The coup, if it is ultimately successful, will be a major setback to Mali’s political development and a blow to the country’s hard-won reputation as a strong West African democracy. The country has earned widespread praise for the consolidation of democratic institutions, economic reform, and free and fair elections over the last 20 years, this despite being one of the world’s poorest and least economically developed countries.
What motivated the coup leaders?
The most immediate complaint of the mutineers is the government’s failure to give adequate support to security forces engaged in confronting a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north. In mid-January, a separatist movement launched attacks against the northeastern city of Menaka, setting off a prolonged confrontation that rapidly expanded southward, displacing tens of thousands of Malian civilians. The rebellion benefited significantly from an infusion of arms from neighboring Libya and returning battle-hardened militants who had fought alongside Moammar Gadhafi.
The Malian army took heavy casualties in the fighting and saw a succession of strategic garrisons and towns fall under rebel control. Just a month into the fighting, military troops and their families launched widespread protests against the government, demanding improvements in the handling of the military campaign and adequate support—in weaponry, food, and supplies—to embattled forces. Junior officers on the front lines have borne the heaviest burden, exacerbating what some analysts have identified as growing resentment against the senior officer corps and chronic underfunding of the rank and file.
In what sounds like a hastily prepared statement released via video late on Wednesday, the coup leaders add to this core grievance the government’s incompetence in fighting terrorism, the growing risk of national disunity, and the climate of uncertainty that the government has created around the upcoming national elections, which had been slated for late next month. The mutineers have promised to return power to a democratically elected government, but only on the somewhat nebulous condition that “national unity and territorial integrity are established.”
Is this coup likely to be successful?
It is not entirely clear that the coup will ultimately hold. The rebels do not appear to represent the military establishment as a whole, and as of this writing, no senior military officer has spoken out in their support. It is not clear how much support they enjoy from the rest of the rank and file - so far their admonitions to fellow officers to refrain from looting have gone unheeded - nor what access they might have to weaponry and ammunition to ultimately fend off presidential defenders.
Also unclear is the level of popular support the mutineers enjoy. President Touré’s popularity has declined in his second term, and as noted, there has been broad criticism of his handling of the rebellion. Those kinds of grievances point to the need for stronger institutions in which issues of national import can be debated and in which legitimate pressures can be brought to bear on the country’s executive. But they are not likely to translate into support for such a fundamental and blatant subversion of democratic rule, one that will have short- and long-term costs for Mali’s security, development, and international standing.
What are the costs if the coup is successful?
In the short term, the coup will distract from the effort to halt the rebellion’s advance in the north, as well as efforts - already undercut by the Tuareg confrontation - to combat elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has hit the Malian economy and security situation hard, with a spate of kidnappings in the country’s northern reaches. The coup attempt has met with international opprobrium, from the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union to Mali’s key security partners, most notably France, the United States, and its Sahelian neighbors. France has suspended security cooperation already, and the United States will likewise be compelled to do so, foreclosing the possibility of bolstered support for Malian troops, the very crux of the mutineers’ demands.
A successful coup will mean suspension of significant development assistance, including the country’s $461 million grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which seeks to increase agricultural production and Mali’s access to markets. It will certainly give potential investors pause and will likely complicate humanitarian assistance to the many Malians currently vulnerable to rising food insecurity.
Perhaps most damaging in the long term will be the stark setback to the country’s democratic progress and reputation. Malians are rightly proud of their country’s democratic leadership, and the widespread sense has been that the bad old days of crude military power grabs were long gone. Military coups in West Africa were once commonplace, and although unconstitutional transfers of power continue to occur, they are more often effected through more sophisticated maneuvers that make at least some attempt to work within the institutions of the state (however weak) and thereby garner some international legitimacy. The current coup attempt is anything but sophisticated, and coming just five weeks before a scheduled national election, it will be hard to justify as anything but a self-serving and short-sighted bid by a côterie of junior officers.
With the region, the international community, and very likely the vast majority of Malians in stark opposition, there is no good outcome here, and things are likely to end very badly for the mutineers.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jennifer G. Cooke.