The African Union and its collaborative regional organisations, such as ECOWAS, have made it abundantly clear that they do not favour violent changes of government on the continent. Yet, whenever such a change does occur, cart-wheeling and verbal gymnastics occur within the organisations and puzzle those who follow their affairs closely. Our Associate Editor Cameron Duodu, analyses the situation in Mali as the country grapples with the effects of last month’s military coup.
Readers may recall the contortions that occurred within both the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS – also reflected in the international arena at large – over what to do about Côte d’Ivoire, when ex-president Laurent Gbagbo tried to manipulate the legal system to stay in power.
Is such an outcome, based on compromises and expediency, and negotiated with the assistance of outsiders who have an axe to grind, to become the norm in West Africa? Must such sleights of hand be allowed to run roughshod over the region’s laid-down constitutional and electoral laws? Is Machiavellian politics to become the typical way of dealing with and interpreting the people’s mandate?
Senegal is one West African country that did not opt for such an outcome in its election of March 2012. As soon as ex-president Abdoulaye Wade realised that he had lost the election, he graciously conceded defeat (despite the fact that the election campaign had been quite violent in places) and his former prime minister, Macky Sall, is now the president.
To tell us that we are in dangerous territory when it comes to elections in Africa, we ought to ponder the fact that that the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, caused by a deliberate sidelining of clearly-stated constitutional and electoral laws, cost the country the lives of at least 3,000 people in 2010-11. And we must recall with sadness that before the Alassane Ouattara versus Laurent Gbagbo confrontation, there had also been the General Guei-Gbagbo conflict, and before that, Guei’s putsch against Henrie-Konan Bédié, all of which had led to bloodletting in a nation that was once the model of economic growth and political tranquillity in West Africa.
And now, unmindful of the tragedies suffered by its neighbours, Mali has put itself firmly on a journey that will have the same tragic consequences as their own.
On 21 March, a junior officer in the Mali army who, significantly, has had intelligence training in the United States, Captain Amadou Sanogo, announced that he was seizing power from the country’s leader, President Amadou Toumani Touré. His beef with the president, he said, was that Touré was not supplying the Malian army with “enough resources” to promote the war against the Tuaregs that was raging in the north of the country.
This was complete nonsense. Mali is a very poor country with periodic famines caused by drought. Should the president of such a country ignore the sufferings of the populace and direct national resources into a war?
Besides, the rebellious Tuaregs have been waging war against the central government in Mali since 1962, and before that, they fought the French in the 1920s, when the French ruled Mali by joining it with Senegal and calling it French Sudan. Two years after Mali became an independent nation in 1960, the Tuaregs were at it again, and they haven’t quite stopped – ever.
They are nomadic peoples with a fantastic knowledge of the Sahara Desert and its oases, and they control much of the land routes that link Mali and North Africa. Vehicles that ply that route,
as well as camel caravans, must pay tribute money to armed Tuareg bands, if they want to carry out their journeys safely.
Now, the Tuaregs are to be found not only in Mali but also in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Pastoralists settled in these countries vie with them over water resources and control of land routes. So they are not popular, but no one can control them completely. So to blame the frustrations faced by the Malian army as it sought unsuccessfully to defeat the Tuaregs, on President Toumani Touré – as Captain Sanogo tried to do – is completely unfair.
Not only that, Toumani Touré (who is 63 years old) is an ex-army officer himself, a paratrooper general no less – and there is very little Captain Sanogo can teach him with regard to waging war against dissidents in one’s country.
Besides, Toumani Touré is a true Malian hero. It was he who saved Mali from the clutches of Moussa Traoré, in 1991, after Traoré had set his soldiers and policemen on student demonstrators and other protesters against his autocratic rule in 1991.
So popular was the Toumani Touré coup against Moussa Traoré that some of the players in Mali politics urged him to stay on in power. But he refused. Honourably – which is rare in African soldiers who seize power and utter sweet words to the populace about how anxious they are to hand over power and restore democracy. (Generals Idi Amin of Uganda, Kutu Acheampong of Ghana and Sani Abacha of Nigeria, come to mind.)
On the contrary, Toumani Touré held free and fair elections which installed the winner, Alpha Konaré as president. Meanwhile, he became a lionised trouble-shooter for the AU and ECOWAS and was received with great respect whenever he went to try and restore peace to nations in conflict.
It was only after Konaré had served his two terms and left the scene, as per the constitution, that Toumani Touré acceded to the request of his supporters to contest the presidency. He managed to obtain the backing of an assortment of parties and was elected to the presidency twice.
He was due to stand down on 29 April 2012, for a new president to be elected.
Touré had given no hint of not wishing to stand down. So, fully aware as he was, that Touré was going to leave the scene in a little more than a month, why did Sanogo nevertheless overthrow him? How can that make sense? What is Sanogo’s real agenda?
This is what ECOWAS seems to have ignored in the settlement it has reached with Sanogo. Of course, ECOWAS was immediately faced with the problem of what to do about Mali and it did at first act in a forthright manner. It suspended Mali from ECOWAS. Then, it gave Sanogo an ultimatum to stand down. When he refused, ECOWAS imposed sanctions against the country.
As soon as the sanctions began to bite, Capt Sanogo was theoretically finished. For Mali is a landlocked country and can’t survive if the ports of ECOWAS countries to the south – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and even Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria further away – are closed to its imports.
But far worse, Mali is also a member of the CFA franc currency zone, which uses one Central Bank – the Central Bank of West Africa. Once sanctions caused Mali’s accounts with the Central Bank to be frozen, Sanogo would not have been able to pay “his” army and public servants. So he could not import anything. And Malian workers would be at his throat for their wages.
In addition, France, which still has a great deal of influence over all its former colonies in Africa, announced that it would back the ECOWAS stand. The isolation of Sanogo’s regime was complete.
But in the midst of all that, a most powerful blow was struck to the solar plexus of Sanogo – the Tuaregs, whom he claimed he wanted to defeat, used the chaos caused within the central administration of Mali by the 21 March coup, began to start seizing the principal cities of northern Mali.
They took Kidal, Gao and the famous historical city of Timbuktu. Then they announced that they were setting up a separate independent state in the north, called “Azawad”.
Capt Sanogo’s standing was dead. He had been defeated by the very conflict that had served as the figleaf with which he had attempted to cover his ambition for power. He now began to beg the outside world to come to his aid to reunite Mali.
This was the time that ECOWAS should have ground Sanogo’s nose into the ground, “pour encourager les autres” (to encourage others to do right). For isn’t West Africa tired of military adventurists?
Of the 15 ECOWAS countries, only Senegal has never experienced a coup, and even there, a minor civil war has been tracing a tenacious course for years in a region called Casamance. Through struggle and, sometimes, sheer good luck, all the military regimes in West Africa have been phased out to be replaced by governments that can lay claim to some sort of civil legitimacy.
Of course, not all military influences have been completely eliminated from the administrations of ECOWAS countries. For instance, Blaise Compaoré’s government in Burkina Faso is definitely military, even though Compaoré now claims to be a civilian president. And Faure Gnassingbé’s multifaceted set-up in Togo has a strong military flavour.
But the majority of ECOWAS heads of state, who are civilians, should, acting on behalf of the peoples of West Africa, not have flinched at all in dealing with a crumbling Mali regime and Sanogo.
Instead, ECOWAS, through a deal brokered by the Burkina Faso foreign minister, Djibril Bassolé, has left Sanogo in a position whereby he can continue to be a major player in the Mali political game.
This is not surprising given the type of person to whom ECOWAS entrusted the negotiations with Sanogo. Djibril Bassolé has a very interesting background. He is a military man. From January 1999 to January 2000, he served in the government of Burkina Faso as Deputy Minister in charge of Security. In November 2000, he became the substantive Minister of Security, until he was appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation on June 10, 2007.
A lot of bloodshed has occurred in Burkina Faso under Compaoré and the Burkinabé blame everyone connected with security for some of these atrocities. Yet Bassolé was, for a time, a UN Commissioner for Darfur, Sudan, where there has been a long-drawn-out conflict.
It is axiomatic that President Compaoré, another military man, trusts Bassolé fully. But is such a man really the best person to negotiate a constitutional settlement with soldiers who have carried out a putsch?
The esprit de corps which a man like Bassolé can be expected to enjoy in his relations with Sanogo and his colleagues does not make him the best person to construct a viable “solution” to the Mali crisis. For the crisis is essentially constitutional and requires the return of the country to civilian rule before any other problem can be realistically tackled.
Yet instead of pressing for the restoration of the constitutional order through the reinstatement of President Amadou Toumani Touré, for the period until he steps down on 29 April, Bassolé has procured Touré’s premature resignation! In Touré’s place the president of the National Assembly, Diouncounda Traoré, was sworn in, on 12 April, to oversee an interim government that will organise elections for a new president, within forty days. There are three major problems with this “settlement”.
The first is that the National Assembly president who has become interim president, Diouncounda Traoré, is himself expected to be a candidate in the next presidential election.
Unless he renounces his candidature, the other candidates will question whether he can be the neutral person required to oversee a free and fair election, something that would have been guaranteed under the retiring Toumani Touré.
The second problem is this: it appears Sanogo will be hanging around during the election campaign.
It is not known whether he will be breathing down the neck of the new president during the time he is organising the election. Nor is it known what sort of position Sanogo will enjoy after the election. He is said to want to become defence minister. But that should be unthinkable.
Enter the “new Tuareg State”
Third, and this is probably the biggest problem, what is to happen to the “new state” of Azawad proclaimed by the Tuaregs?
The capture of Timbuktu alone has given the Tuaregs a supreme bargaining counter, for the city is without doubt one of the most important cultural heritages in Africa south of the Sahara.
Indeed, it is acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It has libraries full of very ancient documents, relating to African ideas about medicine, astronomy, diplomacy, history and
social organisation. Its architecture is beautifully distinctive, with quaint mosques unsurpassed in the way they tap into local artistry and ancient craftsmanship.
Obviously, delicate negotiations should take place in order to preserve the city from the ravages that could be carried out there by the Tuaregs and their military allies.
Some of the militant groups in charge of the new state of Azawad are known to be advocates of Sharia (Islamic Law) and may not be interested in preserving Timbuktu as a place to which Western tourists can flock.
These are issues that need clear-headed examination and a pragmatic solution, if they are not to worsen the existing conflict. With that in mind, it cannot be gainsaid that Sanogo’s hardline approach to the Tuareg issue would be an obstacle to a solution being found for it. There has been talk of an ECOWAS force of 3,000 men being moved from Côte d’Ivoire to help crush the Azawad rebellion in Mali.
But the populace of West Africa will hardly tolerate the use of their soldiers to engage in a military conflict meant to save the face of an ambitious military man like Sanogo.
Is there any reason, for instance, why Mali cannot adopt a new, proper federal constitution, which will give the Tuaregs regional autonomy while remaining within Mali? But would Sanogo accept that if he is allowed to hang around?
Meanwhile, it is to be regretted that the Mali situation has brought into play once again, a fudge of the sort typically favoured by both ECOWAS and the AU. Whenever the African situation requires a straightforward principle from the two organisations, they manage to bend it sideways and twist it back to front. Give them a clear victory and they will snatch defeat from its jaws.
A pity, a pity, a thousand times a pity – for such wishy-washy decisions invariably end in unnecessary bloodshed.