Thursday, March 22, 2012

Political Unrest in Mali

Wednesday morning in the city of Kati, at a military camp about 15
kilometers outside of the Malian capital of Bamako, reactions to a
speech by the defense minister turned sour. From what I've heard the
camp is home to a prestigious military academy (unconfirmed) and that
the Minister's address to recruits there succeeded not at reassuring
them but angering them. Soldiers reportedly began demanding better
munitions to use in fighting the current rebellion in Northern Mali.
As the Minister left his car was stoned. I have not found an account
of the transition from this event to the subsequent military takeover
of state TV and attacks on the presidential palace. Somewhere along
the way a number of trucks filled with soldiers entered Bamako and
began taking control of the city.

According to the perpetrators of the takeover, they will keep power
only until the country is "reunified" and there is no longer a threat
to the "integrity" of the country, references to the threats posed by
the secessionist Northern rebels. The danger I see in this statement
is that there is no indication that these goals can be achieved soon.
Ousting President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT, as he is known in Mali)
does not make the army better trained or equipped, and the rebels will
always have the advantage of their intimate knowledge of the Saharan
terrain. The National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and
State (CNRDR), as the soldiers have named themselves, has said that
when their goals are accomplished power will be handed over to a
democratically elected president. I have a hard time envisioning the
CNRDR satisfactorily achieving their goals of uniting and stabilizing
the country anytime soon.

As for ATT himself, unconfirmed rumors abound as to his current
whereabouts, but since there has been no announcement by the leaders
of the coup it can be presumed that they have not located him.

I have spoken with several other volunteers across Mali. From my
personal experience and the accounts of my friends the vast majority
of Malians are indifferent to the events of the past twenty four
hours. Daily life will continue here until supply chains are disrupted
or unrest spreads. We're far away from Bamako and there's a lot of
work to be done to earn the daily "dollar" and cook the rice and
sauce. Attacking the presidential palace doesn't change these basic
needs. We have been instructed by our administration to sit tight and
wait for further information and instructions. While for the moment
many Malians appear unaffected, volunteers are already getting
headaches thinking about how to do deal with projects planned for the
next few days. As volunteers the current political situation and its
future repercussions has the potential to seriously disrupt our work
the longer it continues.

The soldiers who currently control state TV and perhaps most of Bamako
have declared suspension of state institutions and the constitution
and have established a curfew. I hear a lot of reports that gunfire in
Bamako is violent and is actually celebratory or is meant to encourage
people to stay indoors. To specify, I am nowhere near Bamako and
haven't heard a single gunshot.

It is important to note the time of all of this – Malian presidential
elections are scheduled for a little over a month from now. I find it
sad that some members of the military feel the situation is so dire
that they must preempt the elections and disrupt twenty years of
stable democracy (Mali is often cited as an exception to the power
struggles, unfair elections and undemocratic transitions that plague
West Africa). Since I don't currently see many signs of this being an
outright power move by an individual or group, more likely legitimate
frustrated soldiers, I take the timing of the action as an interesting
statement of urgency and/or a lack of hope that the election planned
for April 29 would produce a significant enough shift in military
strategy. Note that there is no doubt that ATT would have stepped down
peacefully and encourage fair, democratic elections to the best of his
ability. I do not disagree that the soldiers have lacked adequate
equipment and training – there is evidence to support these claims. I
find it difficult to believe, however, that the current movement will
bring more good than harm to Mali.

That's all for now – I'll try to keep updating by blog and Twitter as
the situation evolves.