President Keita falls to a coup in Mali: 1968 is here again

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Colonel-Major Ismael Wague makes his announcement/ORTM TV via AP
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As the initial fog begins to dissipate, it is now clear that Mali has suffered its fifth coup d’état since independence. A mutiny in the garrison town of Kati, not far from the capital Bamako, spiralled out of control and led to the arrest of senior officers and the political leadership. Comparisons are already being made with Mali’s 2012 military coup. However, this is different. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (popularly known as IBK) is the first Malian President to be arrested since former military strongman Moussa Traoré in 1991. He is only the third President to be held by the military. The other, his namesake and Mali’s founding father Modibo Keita, died in captivity. This was an atypical case, Malian leaders have tended to survive the coups that remove them, but there is no question that the post-2013 era of IBK is over. Will this mark a point of radical change for the Malian state? Or will it prove destabilising and ineffectual?

Born of a coup

The current Republic of Mali was born from a coup d’état. The Dakar coup of August 1960 ended the Federation of Mali, dealt a mortal blow to African federalism more generally and established Mali’s current borders. The first President Modibo Keita suffered the indignity of a second such coup, the junior officers’ putsch of Bamako 1968. Taking advantage of his absence from the city, a dissatisfied military faction, led by the young Moussa Traoré, seized the city with ruthless efficiency. Despite the outward strength of the socialist state, and its extensive network of foreign support, Keita’s People’s Militia were easily disarmed and putschists in armoured vehicles controlled the key strategic points of the city by lunchtime. Keita had been deposed before he knew it and was arrested on his way back to the capital. Into this category would also fit the 1991 coup d’état which removed a far older Moussa Traoré when he could no longer secure the interests of his supporters. In conditions not so far from those we see today the shooting of protesters and a disastrous war in the North of the country proved too much for the military who opted for change at the top. This coup d’état led to Mali’s transition to democracy and, eventually, an era of relative peace.

The failed putsch against Moussa Traoré in 1978 was another such watershed moment. The 1970s was a period of great contestation between factions within the Malian leadership, and the future direction of the state was very much in doubt. Grown rich and powerful from corruption and patronage the leaders of Mali’s security apparatus sought to replace Traoré. Underestimating his support, and ruthlessness, they failed. This abortive coup settled this internal battle, left Traoré as the undisputed leader of Mali and set the state firmly on the path of return to the French sphere of influence. Traoré later described this moment in the same breath as the coup d’état of 1968, as giving back democracy to the Malian people for the second time. In Mali such extra-constitutional wrangling is always justified in terms of the people and of democracy.

The rise of the anti-coup norm

Mali’s recent history indicates that it has become far more difficult to carry out a ‘successful’ coup d’état in Africa in the 21st century. In 2012 military forces led by Amadou Sanogo were able to take control of the state, but not to keep it. Forced into an awkward halfway house of governance, with both a democratic acting President and a military junta, by ECOWAS pressure and the need for external military support, the new government was unable to consolidate itself. It was ultimately swept away entirely by French intervention in 2013. Perhaps this explains the haste of Mali’s current junta to announce they intend to hold elections. This is nothing unusual. Moussa Traoré claimed the same in 1968 although such elections as were held, many years later, were neither free nor fair. They may also be courting parallels with 1991 and the previous role of military leader Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali’s transition to democracy.

The deck is however stacked against them. Mali’s ‘successful’ coups d’état are all from periods when such things were more accepted, and when external pressure was not applied to halt or reverse them. It is no longer 1968 nor 1991 and the international community, ECOWAS in particular, has thus far shown little appetite for an irregular transfer of power outside of electoral norms. Secondly, and particularly relevant given the presence of thousands of UN, French an EU troops, is that the mere presence of foreign troops does not prevent coups d’état. In 1960 Modibo Keita benefited from thousands of French troops who were treaty obligated to protect his Federal government. This they chose not to do and appear to have sided with Senghor to remove him and end the Federation of Mali. Again in 1968 Modibo Keita had foreign support with a substantial number of Chinese military advisers in Bamako. This did not save him. The position of the European forces in Mali is now similar to that of the Chinese military advisers in the 1960s. EU capitals must decide whether to double down on a collapsing government or to call it a day and seek to maintain good relations with whoever comes next. Facing this choice, Beijing offered sanctuary in the Chinese Embassy to fleeing ministers but did not act to halt or reverse the coup once it had begun.

Setting Mali on a new path

The most critical point is that coups can represent a realignment of the political system when other means to achieve this have been exhausted. This could be a moment of profound change for Mali. The government of IBK has not lived up to its duties. However, it is unclear how this change of leadership can resolve any of Mali’s deep structural problems. A change of President could represent a first step towards something better, as it did in 1991, or it could represent a return to the bad days of 2012 followed by a medium-term state collapse. Only time will tell.

Joe Gazeley is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

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