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Blue Man Coup: How Gadhafi’s Mercenaries Broke Mali
Posted on May 16, 2012
By Susan Zakin
Tinariwen’s members traded AK-47s for electric guitars back in the 1990s, but for most graduates of Gadhafi’s guerrilla training camps, life has been quite different. Tuareg fighters were the backbone of the Libyan leader’s militia, and when his regime fell in the summer of 2011, several thousand veteran Tuareg fighters suddenly found themselves unemployed. Their only capital was high-end armaments: mortars, antitank and antiaircraft weapons. In early 2012, they bore down on the north, declaring themselves the standard-bearers of a new liberation movement, the MNLA, or Mouvement National Pour la Liberation de l’Azawad—Azawad being the Tuareg name for northern Mali.
Like most observers, New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter linked the uprising directly to Gadhafi’s fall.
“In life, he delighted in fomenting insurgencies in the African nations to the south. And in death, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is doing it all over again,” wrote Nossiter.
Faced with Gadhafi’s professional and well-armed fighters, the Malian army quickly lost control. The army’s most humiliating moment came when the Tuareg overran one of its military bases in January—the soldiers had used up all of their ammunition, according to Jeremy Keenan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who has spent much of his career in the Sahara.
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It may be worth noting that Sanogo was trained in the U.S.; however, by most accounts, the coup was not backed by outside forces. Whatever its roots, far from strengthening the Malian military, the post-coup disarray gave an advantage to the rebels. They gained control of the region’s two major cities in March; Timbuktu fell April 1.
Spokesmen for the MNLA demanded recognition of an independent Tuareg state, but the African Union and the U.S. Department of State quickly rejected the idea. Privately, even MNLA sympathizers—including Tuareg in the U.S.—noted that the group had no formal structure or defined leadership. And for better or worse, the national boundaries drawn by the colonial powers have legal precedent, at least so far, for remaining intact.
The best-case scenario seemed to be a power-sharing agreement that would guarantee Tuareg leaders full participation in the Malian government. As one Tuareg said: “There’s a saying we have: Ask for more than you can get, and get what you want.”
Hope for a quick resolution receded when the situation in the capital city of Bamako grew increasingly uncertain. Unable to stamp out the coup, Touré, set to leave office after elections April 29, ceded power to the coup leaders April 8. A week later, under economic sanctions and the threat of military action by the Economic Community of West African States, Sanogo, the junta’s leader, handed power to Mali’s former parliamentary speaker and a presidential candidate, Diaconda Traoré, with the understanding that elections would be held in 40 days—if possible.
The bones of Mali’s democracy appeared intact when Traoré named Cheick Modibo Diarra, another leading presidential contender, as prime minister. Diarra, the chairman of Microsoft Africa, is an astrophysicist who once worked for NASA. But Diarra is a newcomer to politics, and his presence was not enough to prevent the military from arresting high-ranking allies of ex-president Touré. The men were freed, but as the weeks passed, it looked increasingly unlikely that the military would relinquish control. A counter-coup attempt by presidential guards, reportedly aided by mercenary soldiers, failed May 1. Four days later, radical Islamists of the Ansar Dine group associated with al-Qaida attacked a Sufi saint’s shrine in Timbuktu, confirming the fears of art historians and archaeologists that this century’s upheaval would jeopardize the ancient city’s cultural treasures.
The implosion of Mali was one of those unintended consequences that so often eclipse the goals of Western intervention. As Bajan Ag Hamatou, a lawmaker from Ménaka, complained to the Times’ Nossiter: “The Westerners didn’t want Qaddafi, and they got rid of him, and they created problems for all of us. When you chased Qaddafi out in that barbaric fashion, you created 10 more Qaddafis. The whole Saharo-Sahelian region has become unlivable.”
As onlookers fight to figure out who’s on first in Bamako, it’s easy to overlook the obvious question: What kind of army runs out of bullets? The answer is simple—an army in a country saddled with $3 billion in debt, corruption and cronyism.
Vijay Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner chair in South Asian history and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., recounts a tale that sounds familiar to anyone who follows Africa’s post-colonial history: A post-colonial socialist leader striving to make an African country self-sufficient in the 1970s was replaced by a less imaginative president who borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF when things got tough in the 1980s.
By the end of that decade, according to Prashad, Mali had become the “test case” for structural readjustment, the privatization initiatives and public-sector cutbacks that multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have imposed on debtor nations for the past 20 years.
By 1989, Mali was spending 100.8 percent of its gross national product on debt service. By 1992, Mali’s debt had escalated to $3 billion. New York Times reporter Howard French quoted an associate of Mali’s president: “We service our country’s debt on time every month, never missing a penny, and all the time the people are getting poorer and poorer.”
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