Soldiers attacked Mali’s presidential palace on Wednesday, 21 March, after a protest over the government’s handling of the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north of the country turned into an all-out coup attempt.
Official acknowledgement of fears of a coup only emerged after the presidential palace in Bamako was fired upon with heavy weapons and tracer fire, when an unnamed defence ministry official admitted: “We now know it is a coup d‘état that they are attempting.”
Earlier in the day, soldiers stormed the state television and radio station, under Amadou Sanogo’s command, giving the president’s guard time to secure the palace and the president against any attack; the President is said to be in a place of safety and unharmed.
The mutiny began on the morning of 21 March at a military camp less than 20km north of the capital in the town of Kati during a visit by Defence Minister Brigadier General Sadio Gassama. Gassama failed to address the grievances of the rank-and-file soldiers who felt that the government is mismanaging the rebellion in the north where a number of soldiers have lost their lives. Soldiers began throwing rocks at the minister before taking weapons from the armoury and shooting in the air.
The soldiers, who raided the television station building at around 16h00 local time, insisted they just wanted to pressure the government into listening to their demands, and not to overthrow the president. This did little to re-assure local businesses in the capital which has seen its fair share of coups in the past; the population was rattled and businesses closed early.
The Tuareg rebels
Tuareg fighters have been particularly active in recent weeks seizing several key towns in northern Mali such as Tessalit, Menaka, Lere and Timbuktu. This is due to the return of MNLA rebels, which is mostly composed of Tuareg nomads who are demanding a separate enclave in the north. These heavily armed Malian Tuareg are returning from fighting with Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow last year.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was formed in October 2011 after the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya, who fought on Muammar Gaddafi’s side in that country’s civil war last year.
The Tuareg link to Gaddafi goes back to the 1970s when the Libyan leader enrolled Tuareg fighters into his “Islamic Legion” – an army of mercenaries that the Libyan dictator used to destabilise neighbouring countries. Through this, the Tuareg earned the support of Gaddafi in their own regional conflicts, particularly in Niger and Mali.
The Malian government has accused the MNLA of having links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a claim they have vociferously denied and is tenuous at best.
In a new twist to the upheaval in Mali, the coup leaders are reportedly attempting to institute Sharia law in some of the military held towns in the north. This after Mali government officials had smeared the Tuareg rebellion of having al Qaeda ties earlier this year. There have been persistent rumours in intelligence circles that elements of Mali’s military structures had ties to al Qaeda despite the government’s official stance against the terrorist group.
Mali was due to hold the first round of presidential elections in just over one month’s time, on 29 April, with a second round scheduled for 13 May. Parliament was set for elections on 1 July with the second round tabled for 22 July.
The upcoming elections would have seen Touré step down, rendering the revolt nonsensical, unless the military either has other plans or severely lacks discipline within the rank and file. The incumbent, who has been in power since 2002, announced last year that he would step down after serving his constitutionally-limited two terms, despite his popularity.
Instead Mali now faces the real prospect of dissolution with a rising Tuareg rebellion in the north and a divided administration in the south.
The French-US reaction
Mali’s former colonial rulers, France, reacted within a day, suspending cooperation with the West African state, urging soldiers not to harm Touré. The US government suspended all aid to the country until such time as democracy is restored. The coup constitutes a major setback for both French and US national interests in Mali given the significant military and economic support both countries have poured into the Toure government.
What does the coup mean for business?
Much has been made of the number of foreign nationals stuck in Mali, including a number of South Africans; however, the international airport did “partially” reopen on Monday, allowing for the evacuation of these people – including the stranded Kenyan and Zimbabwean foreign ministers.
In the interim, international aid has been suspended to Bamako, and the AU and ECOWAS are pressuring coup leaders to restore democracy. Given the civil war on Mali’s southern border in Ivory Coast, the region is wary of coups spiralling into protracted civil wars – a likelihood seeing as the region has a history of overthrowing coup leaders like this in Guinea (2008) and Niger.
Mining is the industry most affected by the coup, with multinationals investing in relatively immovable infrastructure as well as bringing in a number of consultants from outside Mali. For them, long-term stability is key. Mining share speculators are less pessimistic about Mali’s fortunes, even though mining shares have dropped on the news of the coup. They believe that in the long-term stability will return for current investors, and new investors should “certainly have these companies on [their] radar screen.” However, developments are likely to get worse before they get better for investors in the country.
Gold mining accounted for approximately 80 percent of Mali’s mining activity in the 2000s, with a number private investments in gold mining include Anglogold-Ashanti and Randgold Resources – both multinational South African companies located respectively in the north-western and southern parts of the country.
As of Monday 1 April 2012, ECOWAS announced that it will begin imposing the following political and economic sanctions on the coup leaders:
- A recall of all accredited ambassadors to the country
- A travel ban on members of the rebel army and its associates within ECOWAS territory
- The closure of all borders between ECOWAS member states and Mali except for humanitarian purposes
- The freezing of assets of military leaders and their associates
- The freezing of the accounts Mali held at the Central Bank of West African states
- The freezing of all financial assistance to Mali through the West African Bank for Development and the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development
- The suspension of Mali from all sporting and cultural events
Timeline on developments
- Defence Minister Brigadier General Sadio Gassama addresses unhappy soldiers at the Kati military camp, less than 20km north of the capital, Bamako, where soldiers began throwing rocks at the minister before taking weapons from the armoury and shooting in the air;
- Later that day access to the presidential palace is blocked by armoured and the military takes over the television and radio stations
- Soldiers take over the capital Bamako, indentifying Amadou Sanogo as the spokesman for the newly formed National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), where he said: “The CNRDR … has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré,” and accused Toure’s government of failing to end rebellion in the north;
- Contrary to earlier reports, the president and defence minister were said to be safe and in good health, according to a military official who remained loyal to the President;
- Encouraged by the turmoil in the south, Tuareg rebels in the north launch further incursions deeper into Mali, seizing towns and bases formerly held by government forces fighting the conflict that caused the coup.
- The African Union suspends Mali – Addis Ababa reports that several African leaders had been in touch with Touré, saying he is safe;
- According to a BBC correspondent, it was mostly the low ranking soldiers who supported the coup, whilst the majority of the officers had not come out publicly to support the coup;
- 14 government officials and ministers were being held hostage in the Kati military barracks outside Bamako;
- The Tuareg rebels and the Islamist rebel group Ancar Dine state they have surrounded Kidal in north-eastern Mali.
- Sanogo insists that no soldiers of the Malian army remained loyal to Touré
- Reports emerge that men in police and military uniforms were looting shops and stealing cars in Bamako;
- Sanogo also announces his intention to seek peace talks with the Tuareg insurgents.
- Malian soldiers claim they repelled a fresh attack by Tuareg rebels in the north, on the Key northern town of Kidal;
- The stranded Kenyan and Zimbabwean foreign ministers were evacuated from Mali to Nigeria.
- President Obama announces aid to Mali has been suspended until democracy is restored to the West African country;
- The Bamako-Sénou International Airport is “partially” reopened for civilian transport
- Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara calls on an ECOWAS meeting in Abidjan to send a “strong signal” to the mutinous soldiers that democracy must be restored – following the meeting, ECOWAS places peacekeeping troops on standby, hinting at possible military intervention;
- Businesses and schools reopen following a call by the CNRDR for them to do so;
- A spokesperson for the French embassy confirms that Ambassador Christian Rouyer had spoken with Touré by telephone, and that Touré had stated that he was safe.
- Early April – Reports picked up by Reuters that coup soldiers are attempting to implement Sharia law in certain towns in northern Mali