Mali's Unfolding Coup

5 MINS READMar 23, 2012 | 21:51 GMT
Leader of the coup in Mali, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, on television in Bamako on March 22

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, leader of Mali's military junta, seized control of the capital, Bamako, on March 21. The following day, he declared himself president of the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the States (CNRDR). The coup appears to have started with what may have been an impromptu mutiny at the Kati barracks outside the city after a visit by Malian Defense Minister Gen. Sadio Gassama reportedly failed to address troops' grievances.

The discontent in the ranks takes place amid a renewed Tuareg insurgency in Mali's far north, and some Malian military forces fighting in the north have fallen back to the city of Gao in the aftermath of the coup. While it is not clear whether those forces' loyalties lie with Sanogo or Malian President Amadou Tomani, a significant amount of territory has already been ceded to Tuareg militants and may prove difficult for the Malian government to win back.

Frustration with Toure and senior military officers appears to have been significant among the ranks for some time; in mid-February, less than a month after the most recent spate of clashes between the military and Tuareg rebels, deserters and their families began protesting in Bamako.

After the mutiny started, Sanogo appears to have led an effort to seize power. In addition to the presidential palace — the physical seat of government power — soldiers seized the state television and radio stations, shut down the airport and closed Mali's borders. These are critical targets in a coup because seizing them establishes control over key symbols of power and means of communications (and also denies the incumbent regime access to those resources).

The coup, led by officers in their 20s and 30s (notably backed by some more senior and older officers), was followed by a statement of grievances, the suspension of the constitution and the creation of the CNRDR, with Sanogo as president. These actions were couched in terms of returning the country to democracy, though Sanogo has already postponed elections scheduled for April — a delay that could easily last into 2013. A curfew was imposed, but by March 23 people were encouraged to return to work during daylight hours (few did).

In a sense, Mali is two countries, with the demographic core in the south distinct and distant from the restive north. The intensifying Tuareg insurgency in the north that Mali has struggled to contain is thus separate from the coup in Bamako, located in the country's south. The two events are related, however: As the small Malian military moved more units northward to reinforce the intensifying counterinsurgency campaign, Bamako was left vulnerable in terms of the military forces located in and around the city. In other words, with so much of Mali's military engaged in the north, the number of units that must be co-opted, neutralized or isolated in and around the city for a successful coup was reduced.

The coup did face some challenges. While Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubaye Maiga and Territory Administrator Kafrougouna Kone appear to be in CNRDR custody, the president evaded capture and reportedly is in hiding, protected by members of the 33rd Parachute Regiment or "Red Berets," a loyalist unit of paratroopers in which the president once served. This is an important factor, since Toure can serve as a rallying point for loyalist forces and as a figure whom foreign governments could support. Additionally, the coup occurred shortly after an African Union summit in Bamako and several prominent foreign diplomats are stuck in the capital, potentially attracting foreign attention counterproductive to the coup.

However, there is little immediate prospect of a meaningful counter-coup. While Burkina Faso to the southeast has intervened in coups in the region before, the popular support for the coup plotters (who appear to share some cultural and ethnic links to Burkina Faso) could hinder an overt intervention, which in any case would present serious logistical and operational obstacles. So while direct military intervention is unlikely, Burkina Faso could play a role as a mediator.

CNRDR is doing what it can to craft an image of broad support within the rank-and-file of the military, and the mutiny that occurred in the northern city of Gao prompted by news of the coup would suggest there is legitimacy to that claim. Furthermore, while elements of the loyalist 33rd Parachute Regiment may be protecting the president, much of that regiment is thought to be committed to the fight in the north, meaning it may not be in a position to intervene quickly.

It is not clear how unified the Malian military forces in the north are and where loyalties lie, as illustrated by the mutiny in Gao — one of the two main northern cities being used as a key base of operations for Malian forces fighting the Tuareg. Malian military units are now falling back from operations farther north and rallying in Gao, though it is unclear whether the result will be more infighting or a unified force — and to whom that force's loyalty will go. Meanwhile, Tuareg rebels claim to be advancing rapidly on Kidal, the other main base of Malian military operations in the north.

Basic military theory teaches that speed can be everything in a coup, and despite some important tactical failures such as Toure remaining at large, the junta appears to be in control of Bamako and could even have broad support among the population. The more time the coup plotters have to consolidate that control and support, the more difficult they will be to displace. The greatest threat to the junta at this point would be the return of Malian forces from the north to Bamako en masse — though that would involve its own logistical and operational challenges, especially given the potentially broad discontent among the rank-and-file.

The junta claimed that the government's campaign against the Tuareg insurgency was ineffective in order to garner support, but it is far from clear that the coup leaders will be able to wage a different or more effective counterinsurgency campaign in the north. Mali's inability to marshal the resources necessary to pacify the region remains. But by returning hastily to Gao, Malian forces have ceded a great deal of territory to the Tuareg, changing the operational reality. Militants likely will be harder to remove if the Malian government mounts a new offensive to retake the ceded territory. For now, it appears the Tuareg rebellion is benefiting the most from the coup in Bamako.

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