*** Disclaimer alert : I am not speaking in any sort of official capacity here as a employee of the World Bank – just shooting bullshit from the hip as usual ***
So this is the first time that I am writing a post that is not about a travel adventure. (That will hopefully pick up in a less dramatic fashion in a few weeks.) But enough people have e-mailed me to ask me if I am still in Mali that I felt like I should say that I am not. I am back in DC – after finishing my hitch in Mali and then a few weeks in Tanzania and Kenya. This is relevant because it seems – rather than being a victim of random violence in Bamako – as originally thought – that I was actually in the vanguard of the revolution. Mali had a coup d’etat on March 21st. And none of this Arab Spring, ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’ nonsense. The president was democratically elected and not running for another term. Elections were supposed to be this month. No, Mali had themselves a good ol’ fashioned putsch. Well – maybe a half putsch. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives the definition of a putsch as ‘a secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to overthrow a government.’ Okay, I will give you the latter, it was suddenly executed and did manage to overthrow the government. As far as the ‘secretly plotted’ – I am not so sure. Basically it started with a riot at a military base because some stuffed shirt minister was talking down to a frustrated and demoralized group of soldiers, and ended when someone realized they forgot to lock the door to the Presidential Palace. But I am getting ahead of myself, here is what happened (at least as I see it).
The Malian government (similarly to most governments in the Sahel belt) has been fighting a low level insurgency against the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The Tuaregs are an ethnic group that has traditionally lived nomadically in the Sahara but got chopped into five countries when the colonizers took a ruler to the desert to draw borders. It is also unclear exactly what the rebels want. Sometimes it seems to be full independence. But sometimes someone seems to catch on that an entire country of thousands of square miles of sand would perhaps not be the most economically viable nation state – and then they want higher transfers from the central government. In any case, whatever they want – they have been fighting for it for quite awhile.
Then Qaddafi gets overthrown in Libya. He had maintained a large number of well-trained and well-armed mercenaries during his tenure – many of which were Tuaregs. So the recently-unemployed mercenaries packed up all the gear and firepower that they could carry – and headed south back to Mali. So you suddenly have a very heavily armed capable fighting force facing off against the Malian national army – whose gear which basically consists of a Chinese rifle and a hat. Naturally the insurgents are running rough shod over the north of Mali – helping themselves to whatever plunder they need in the villages they capture.
So all of this really pisses people off down in the capital. There are regular protests against the government to give the national army more weapons, training, and support. (And it was the aftermath of one of these protests that I got caught up in.) Fast forward to March 21. A minister is speaking to the troops at a military base a few miles outside of the capital. He apparently didn’t rally the men much because they booed him off stage, smashed up his car, and started breaking things and shooting their guns in the air. And then here is where the unexpected bit kicks in. These guys – enlisted men not officers – suddenly discover that no one is really guarding the city – so they march in – take the presidential palace and national radio and TV buildings – and declare themselves in charge. (Okay, the guy leading the charge was a low-ranking officer – who has in fact received anti-terrorist training in the US – but the bulk is just regular blokes.)
And – oh so ironically – these guys took over to ‘restore territorial integrity’ – meaning fight back against the insurgents with more firepower – but when the coup happened all chain of command broke down in the army – people abandoned their posts – and the rebels marched down and now control half the country.
So here we are. Where the guys in charge don’t have the experience to lead and the better armed rebels are in control of half the country. Put these two halves together and it would seem to be the perfect combination for a civil war. Good luck Mali – you guys kind of got screwed again on this one.