Anthony Scavone is a recent graduate of Boston University where he studied International Relations focusing specifically on International Development and Sub-Saharan Africa. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali from October until they were evacuated in mid-April. You can read more about his personal experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in his personal blog, Anthony in Africa. This is the first post in a two-post series about the motivations and impact of the recent military coup in Mali.
To boil down all the implications of recent events in Mali into a single post would not give justice to the true breadth of what has happened. Instead I will split this into two separate pieces: part one will focus on what this coup means for Mali and Malians. The second will focus more on what this means for me, the Peace Corps, and the international community at large.
Part 1: Mali and Malians
It’s become relatively common knowledge that the main grievance that drove the military to overthrow Amadou Toumani Toure (Better known as ATT) was the belief that ATT was strangling the military effort to maintain security in the vast northern regions of the country. Lack of food and supplies, while facing a Tuareg rebellion recently augmented by the fall of Gaddafi and the return of arms and trained Malian Tuaregs from Libya, drove mid-ranking military leaders to try to take matters into their own hands.
Hands ill-equipped to run a military, let alone a government.
Since Capitan Sanogo seized power a laundry list of problems have arisen: The Malian military has withdrawn from all its strategic strongholds in the north (the separatist MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine are the two main groups now in control of the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu); ECOWAS threatened and then delivered short-lived sanctions to try to choke out the military junta; And nearly all non-essential international aid (except for emergency famine relief) has been pulled from the country.
All in the name of overthrowing a president who had publicly stated that he intended to step down at the end of this month and cede power to the winner of the election, an election that was slated to take place on April 29th.
And, if all this hadn’t made matters bad enough, recent moves by the junta that technically “stepped down” a little over a week ago have made it painfully clear that they still have their incompetent hands in the cookie jar, and intend on continuing to meddle in the affairs of what was mere months ago a democratic poster child for the developing world.
So what exactly does all this mean for your average Malian?
-A lot of things, and none of them good.
When I first told my Malian friends and family that I had to leave Mali, they did not understand. They all said that the fighting was far from here, and that I wasn’t in any danger. In fact, some of them, disgruntled with ATT’s failings over the years, went so far as to support the coup.
It’s hard to blame them. At the time, I didn’t feel as though I was in any immediate danger either, and as members of a fledgling democracy with only 20 years of stability under its belt, I think it’s relatively safe to say that there were many amongst them who didn’t yet understand the vast and far-reaching political implications of what had just occurred.
It took about a week, but as time passed more and more Malian nationals sobered up to what was happening around them. The MNLA took Timbuktu, and came within hours of the Northern river port city of Mopti. San, the city I was in at the time became flooded with military vehicles and cars filled with personal belongings, all of them fleeing Mopti. By then all other international aid organizations had not only pulled out of the city, but out of the country, and we were left standing with only an uneasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs.
Our friends, our families had already been struggling. A poor rainy season and harvest was showing the beginning signs of a famine, as many areas began to start rationing their meals. Emergency aid distribution will be severely hampered by the political upheaval, and at best Mali is in for a few months of growing pains as it finds its feet. The reality of the situation on the ground however hints at something longer, quite possibly with an indeterminable end.
The situation in the north won’t help things either. Although the MNLA has clearly stated that it has no intentions of ever pushing past Mopti, the security situation for foreign nationals in the region looks as though it will only continue to deteriorate. With the kidnappings of Algerian nationals in Gao, and the kidnapping (and release) of a Swiss missionary in Timbuktu, it is quite clear that the northern corridor is fast becoming a no go zone for all foreigners, not just the white European ones. The MNLA may have no interest in kidnappings, but their ability to keep Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and other new splinter groups at bay seems questionable at best.
The coup and the incompetent and misguided junta that ran it have dealt Mali a devastating set back in terms of economy, politics and security. Even if the coup leaders immediately remove themselves from the picture, it could take the country as long as a year to get back on its feet, and even longer to restore its economic and security situations. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as though that scenario is likely to happen.
All of these facts are made even harder by knowing that Malians are a warm, hard-working and welcoming people who would invite you to come eat from their bowl even when they are struggling to feed their own families. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers because, like is most often the case, the people who will suffer most from these political failures will be the ones least deserving.
Ala ka nogoya ke, ala ka coup ban peu. (Bambara blessing: “May god make it better, may god finish the coup completely).