Monday, March 26, 2012

Living and Tweeting the Coup

So far the experience of being in Mali while the country undergoes the transition to a military junta has been uneventful. There have not been significant shortages of any of the basic necessities, although I hear conflicting reports from Bamako about whether there is truly a fuel shortage there. Up North, transport has not been significantly interrupted and rumors I initially heard of banditry on the roads have yet to be confirmed. The little unrest and violence there has been was in Bamako and far North of where volunteers are. Certain precautionary measures have been taken by Peace Corps which we have been asked to not discuss publicly online. Suffice to say that it’s more or less the kind of precautions that you would expect from the United States government.

The military junta has announced that government services will start up again and the borders and banks will begin functioning again Tuesday (tomorrow). We have all been anticipating this moment, which could lead to drastic changes in the current situation for better or for worse. The ease with which the soldiers took over and the fragility of basic services in Mali are a sharp reminder of how layered and profound the challenges of development are. When a country is weak economically often the safeguards that we are used to in developed countries cease to exist. For the time being Mali is incredibly fortunate that the current military leaders seem have eschewed violence, although it is worth noting that Malian culture on the whole shies away from violence.

What happens from here for us volunteers? There are a number of possibilities, some of which involve us staying in Mali and some of which don’t, depending on the evolution of the political and security situation here. It’s hard to know until we’ve seen how the next few days play out. However, Mali has a lot to work out before volunteers like us can go back to business as usual.

The best-case scenario is that President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) will somehow be reinstated as president and things will get smoothed over. Most of us think but this is a remote possibility. For one, mutineers aren’t normally the type to willingly return power to the very person they overthrew. It’s also worth noting that the location of ATT is still unknown and practically the last anyone has heard from the office of the President was last Tuesday on Twitter when the official account of the government denied that a coup was underway : “@Bambyam Pourriez-vous vérifier votre source ? Il n'y a pas de coup d'état au Mali. Il y a juste une mutinerie dans la garnison de Kati.” My own translation of this official response to a question by another Twitter user is as follows: “@Bambyam Would you please check your source? There is no coup d’état in Mali. There is just a mutiny in the garrison at Kati.” Three minutes later came another Tweet, “Pour preuve, j'emets du Palais de la Présidence. Des déserteurs et d'autres militaires qui ne veulent pas aller au front se sont mutinés.” In English, “As proof, I’m broadcasting from the Presidential Palace. Some deserters and other soldiers who do not want to go to the front lines have mutinied.” Shortly afterward the palace was stormed by soldiers. The very last tweet from the account announced that the defense minister was neither injured nor killed and continuing his day as normal. Since that message at 17:24 last Tuesday, the account has been silent.

Tweets from Mali
It’s an odd experience to be reading and sending out updates from Twitter about a military coup in the country I’m living in. Not long before my departure for Mali I was scouring Twitter myself for firsthand updates on crisis zones across Africa and the Middle East. Now I’m occupying both roles – sending updates from the ground and reading updates from other people in country (as well as using it to find international news reports). To be clear, I don’t see Twitter having anywhere near the pivotal role in Mali that it has during other recent periods of crisis such as the Arab Spring. There are relatively few Twitter users here. Thankfully, so far there has been virtually no violence resulting directly from the coup. It follows that the information spreading online does not have the same critical nature that it did in other recent cases. Also, all other forms of communication are currently up and running in Mali, so Malians have not needed to rely on Twitter. There is also still a substantial international media presence here. However, given my current position with internet access Twitter has been a valuable tool for me as a one-stop location to get the most up-to-date information from international press, independent journalists and eyewitnesses. I have been happy to find that there has been a tendency in discussions on Mali to treat rumors as rumors and encourage fact-checking.

A lot of observers on Twitter responded to the evolving situation with humor. Shortly after the now infamous Tweet denying a coup attempt, another Twitter user, Andrew Stroehlein, posted “Is this a first? denying a coup attempt via #twitter?” Later JusticeJFK was one of many who brought up the questionable timing of the takeover when he wrote “#Mali Ceci est l'un des coups d'état les + ridicules que l'Afrique ait connu. Que promettront les putschistes? Une élection? C dans 1 mois!” (#Mali This is one of the silliest coup d’états that Africa has ever known. What will the mutineers promise? An election? It’s in a month!). One of the first actions of the mutineers was to take over the national TV/Radio station, ORTM. The station initially went dark and when it came on again for the first time Wednesday evening the audience was met with a message saying to stay tuned for an “impending military announcement,” as Malian music played in the background. Shortly after midnight, user Ogobere wrote “Bon ils se décident ou pas? Ils ont presque fini tout le répertoire de la musique malienne. #Mali” (Well will they decide or won’t they? They’ve almost finished the whole repertoire of Malian music. #Mali). User tbbBaseball, perhaps a more casual observer, wrote with equal sarcasm, “Finally I win a pool! I picked Mali in my coup d'etat pool at work #marchmadness.” Lastly, @DoudouDoucanss saw a possible French connection with the coup and “Ba alors Sarkozy y'a pas de pétrole au Mali tu t'en mêle pas ? #JeDemande,” (Hey Sarkozy there’s no oil in Mali why don’t you stay out of it?).

On a more serious note, as expected there are increasing reports of the Tuareg rebels in the North taking advantage of the uncertainty and instability to make military advances. A worrying prospect is that the new military leaders may increase their reliance on irregular militias. Such militias have been successfully used in defeating past Tuareg rebellions, but have also been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses. My host family and others on my site speak of the fear inspired by these militias and their massacres and brutal methods. As the already thinly-stretched military struggles to defend the porous North and now their power base in Bamako as well (to which enormous energy will be devoted) it seems plausible that Sanogo and the junta will welcome any help they can get from these militias. This may lead to a dangerous devolution of the situation up North, involving even more displacement of civilians, further proliferation of arms and harsher fighting tactics used on all sides.

Want to follow the updates on your own? Just search for #Mali on Twitter, and follow my updates by searching @scochrane89. For reliable and professional coverage of what's going on here I also recommend following the writings of journalists Martin Vogl (@martinvogl) and Peter Dörrie (@peterdoerrie). For consistent firsthand accounts from Bamako @SoulBamako Tweets in English and French and @philinthe_ tweets in English.