Three Takeaways from Last Week’s Coup in Mali

Last week in Mali, mid-level military officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo declared themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and deposed democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré in a bloodless coup. Known as the “soldier of democracy” Touré had himself launched a coup in 1991 against the military regime of General Moussa Traoré. Touré, then stepped aside the following year, allowing elections to usher in two decades of multiparty democracy. Having retired from the military, Touré was elected president in 2002, and was due to step down next month at the end of his second term. Presidential elections scheduled for April 29 would have marked the third successful transition of power from one democratically elected Malian president to his successor, and the further consolidation of the country’s democracy. Yet the spillover from the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya gave elements of the armed forces a pretext to oust Touré from power.

Battle-hardened and heavily armed Tuaregs who had fought in the military of the late Muammar al-Qadhafi began to return to their countries of origin – Mali and Niger – in the summer and fall of 2011. For those well-versed in the conflict dynamics of the Sahel, it was only a matter of time before the impact of this Tuareg exodus would be felt in the region. In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began to launch attacks in Azawad, a region encompassing the administrative regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Despite having fought two previous Tuareg rebellions (1962-1964 and 1990-1995) since independence, the Malian armed forces were caught off balance. In just over two months, the MNLA seized several northern towns and killed an undisclosed number of Malian soldiers, leading to the perception among lower ranking officers that Mali’s civilian government has mishandled its response to the conflict.

Touré has not been seen in public since last week’s coup, and much remains uncertain about the CNRDR’s seizure of power. However, there are three takeaways that are immediately apparent:

  1. The coup appears more opportunistic than it does rational. By seizing power a little over a month before scheduled elections, the military junta has precluded an alternative civilian approach to fighting the conflict in the north.
  2. As there have been no expressions of support from the upper echelons of the Malian armed forces, the coup may be a setback in terms of the military’s cohesion and effectiveness at dealing with the Tuareg rebellion. This may allow the MNLA to capitalize on the current state of affairs, and could similarly create a security vacuum for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to exploit.
  3. The rationale for the coup is in direct contradiction to the CNRDR’s stated objective to defeat the Tuareg insurgency and restore constitutional order. Due to the CNRDR’s unconstitutional actions, several countries and international organizations have suspended assistance to the Malian government until civilian rule is restored. Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. State Department suspended non-humanitarian assistance to Mali pending a resolution of events on the ground. According to Section 7008 of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, the U.S. government restricts security assistance to the “government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Under this determination, it appears that Mali is now subject to Section 7008, making it illegal for the U.S. government to continue the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) that Mali received, as well as Mali’s participation in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). Ironically, although the CNRDR claims to lack adequate arms and supplies to confront Tuareg rebels, they have disqualified Mali from receiving security assistance from the United States and other key partners – without which it may actually be more difficult to reverse the momentum of the MNLA. This is significant, because it means that Mali’s return to civilian rule may be prolonged, which prompts the question of how long the CNRDR will be able to stay in power before it must resort to the use of force in order to quell civilian discontent.
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