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Legitimizing the Coup in Mali

Posted by James Kimer on April 5, 2012.

Amadou Haya Sanogo, the 39-year-old American trained Army Captain who led a group of officers to storm the presidential palace in Bamako, Mali, on March 21, is working hard to shore up support for the new military regime and to gain international recognition.

Captain Sanogo has dispatched a number of envoys to regional African capitals to lobby for support for his new government, seeking to argue that the former government of deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré was corrupt and illegitimate and had to be removed by force.  Capt. Sanogo has also given a number of media interviews this week that appealed to the security concerns of the international community, defining the coup as a response to the separatist rebellion in the north of the country.

So the question has become:  what is the best way to legitimize a coup, and pave the way for an exception in the interruption of the democratic process?  The answer:  make it a regional security issue and part of the global war on terror.

The coup leaders are doing their best to justify their removal of President Touré by frame the coup issue as inseparable from the fight against the Tuareg rebels of Northern Mali, which they claim hold ties to Al-Qaeda.  Africa will face a serious regional security risk, they argue, unless the coup government is recognized internationally.

“If the great powers are bale to cross oceans to battle fundamentalist structures in Afghanistan, what’s stopping them coming to us? Our committee wants the best for the country,” Capt. Sanogo told the influential French dailies Le Monde and Liberation.  “The enemy is known and it is not in Bamako. If a force was to intervene it would have to do so in the north. (…) Today, it’s no longer a simple rebellion. It’s Islamist groups basing themselves in the north of the country. If Mali is left alone to face this problem, Africa and the world will face the consequences.”

What is clear is that the separatist areas have gotten worse since the removal of the president.  The rebels have moved into the historic town of Timbuktu after a rapid advance through the north of the country, despite promises from the military leadership that the 1992 Constitution would be replaced.  According to analysts, the Tuareg fighters have been taking advantage of the political uncertainty to make a swift advance, taking over the northern areas of Kidal and Gao in recent days, and flying the flag of the the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).  However, perhaps in response to the new direction taken by the coup government, the Tuareg fighters have declared a sudden ceasefire and are promising not to advance further.

Some experts point out that Mali has been destabilized as a result of NATO’s intervention in Libya to unseat Col. Muammar Gaddafi through the controversial invocation of UN Resolution 1972 of the Right to Protect a civilian population under attack by its government.  Once NATO enacted a no fly zone, Gaddafi spent prolifically to hire Tuareg militias, who, following the end of the war, fled to Mali.  The mercenary forces from Mali and Niger are suspected of working alongside an Islamist paramilitary group known as Ansar Dine, which in turn has been linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“It must be said and said again that the factor that unleashed all of this is the Western intervention in Libya,” Eric Denece, director of the French Centre for Intelligence Research (CF2R), told AFP.  “At first, these veterans of the Libyan militia had nothing against Mali, but nature abhors a vacuum, and they needed to find something to do. So they allied with local groups, and now look where we are.”

Yesterday, an envoy representing the military government in Bamako was dispatched to Nigeria to raise support for the coup.

“We came here for a mission to tell the Nigerian authorities how the situation is in Mali,” the Malian envoy said following talks with Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru.”With the authorisation of president Amadou Sanogo, he mandated us to come and see the Nigerian authorities to come and explain how the situation is in Mali.”

But the reception in Abuja and other African capitals has been lukewarm.  The Nigeria Foreign Ministry attempted to steer the discussions toward the possibility of Capt. Sanogo surrendering power in exchange for amnesty, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has already applied an embargo on Mali, freezing their access to finance from the regional bank in Dakar, making it near impossible for them to pay wages to government workers.  Meanwhile, ECOWAS is putting in place a military standby force, after earlier putting some 2,000 regional troops on alert.

If the putschists want to make their cause about the fight against terrorism, then they are coming late to the job of communicating this fact.  According to many political observers in Mali, there were no shortage of problems created by the leadership of Presdient Touré, and he wasn’t the most popular politician to serve.  However the idea that a military coup was the only way to bring about a change in leadership is not selling among the African community, especially in light of the recent waves of democratic transitions, including Guinea and Senegal.  Further, the military junta’s claim that they were obligated to act to fight against Al-Qaeda does not appear to be winning over supporters – in comparison with just a few years ago, we may be seeing a higher value placed on the upholding of constitutional democracy than dedication to the war on terror.  Of course, maybe the evaluation of the coup’s legitimacy would be different if Mali had oil.

Conversely, the outcome of the international community’s response to the Malian coup will depend heavily on the decisions of the northern rebels, who, if they are serious about achieving independence for Azawad or at the least secure improved sovereign rights, they would be wise to divorce themselves from Ansar Dine and AQIM, and lay down their arms.

But the situation in Bamako poses some existential questions to the purpose of regional bodies like ECOWAS, and its ability to deliver order and accountability in response to a military coup.  For example, to what extent would other African leaders be willing to intervene to restore constitutional order?  There are many governments in the region facing their own separatist pressures, and the value of non-intervention has long been a defining feature of regional politics (just look at Mr. Mugabe’s endless reign).

The reaction to the junta’s proposed national dialogue should be very telling, because despite their compromises and promise to restore the 1992 constitution, they do not appear sincere.  One expert has pointed out that the repeated threats on behalf of the coup government to put President Touré on trial for treason is a clear signal that there is no intention to turn back the clock to the pre-coup legal framework.  So if this national dialogue has any chance of success, it will require an accommodation on behalf of other African nations to make an exception – which may prove to be an unacceptable precedent.

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