Gregory Mann, associate professor of history at Columbia University in New York City,* writes a guest post for Africa is a Country on the coup in Mali:

They say no press is bad press. False. When Mali makes the papers, it’s usually for the best reasons — Oumou Sangaré, Tinariwen, or Amadou and Miriam are coming to town. Lately, it’s for the worst — rebel attacks in the North, a mutiny, and now a coup.

The dust hasn’t settled yet, and no one knows which way the wind is really blowing, but a few things are worth saying about the mutiny and the coup that rocked Bamako over the last few days. Even in a hazy moment, a few things can be clear.

First, don’t believe the hype. The junta says they want to restore democracy. Bogus. Democracy in Mali is in pretty good shape, all things considered (i.e., bearing in mind that the central government has effectively no control over the northern half of the country). Presidential elections were planned for next month, and everyone expected them to go forward.

The coup was not intended to secure democracy, but to prevent it. If the people were to go to the polls in April and elect a new president, whoever won would be seen as legitimate, both at home and abroad. If there was going to be a coup, it had to be now. Better (and easier) to topple an increasingly unpopular incumbent than a newly elected president. They were running out of time. That’s why in addition to members of the current government, the junta locked up some of the candidates.

There is a rumor that ATT (Amadou Toumani Touré) — the popularly elected incumbent — was going to stage a ‘coup from above’ and hang on to office in spite of the fact that his constitutionally mandated second term was up. That rumor has been around since before “Barack Obama” became a household name. It’s categorically false. ATT has been ready to go for some time now — both his critics and his partisans recognize that he’s tired, and he has already given up power once, in 1992, before being elected in 2002.

Second, don’t believe the other hype. The Foreign Minister of France, the former colonial power, came out early to condemn the coup and to call for rapid elections. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Except the elections were already scheduled and the campaign underway. The coup on the other hand, was not yet settled — so why treat it as a fait accompli? France — which will take the lead in the European response — is no neutral actor here, even if it’s hard to know what game it is playing. The more cautious African Union and American responses — condemning violence, seeking consultation — are deliberately tepid, but justified, and they don’t impose a conclusion where one doesn’t exist.

All that said, there are questions, too.

First, where is ATT? The word on the street in Mali — what I hear when I call people there — is that he’s in the American embassy. False, say the Americans. He’s at the paratroopers’ base, someone in his entourage apparently told RFI. That’s possible, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the embassy and the base are practically next door to each other. And the Americans generally like ATT, even if they wish he were more willing to take the fight to those in the North who claim al Qaeda links or Salafist inclinations.

Second, what’s the link with the rebellion in the North? Some have already said that the Tuareg nationalist rebels in the North — the MNLA — wanted to forestall national elections, or at least to preclude the possibility of elections being held in the Sahara, in order to bolster their argument that they are excluded from national political life. Like the fractured and venerable Tuareg nationalist movement from which it emerged, the MNLA is more attentive to its image than a prom queen. France is said to be a suitor, with the idea that courting Tuareg nationalists will draw them away from the Salafist splinter group (Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine) that emerged alongside them in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall. ATT’s northern strategy of avoiding a fight even when it was brought to him would seem to partake of the same logic — better to split the movement by negotiating than to unite it by fighting it. If that was indeed his strategy, it relied on the slow expenditure of two resources he didn’t really have: time (either to let events unfold or to hand over power in May) and other people’s patience.

The undeniable link with the Northern rebellion is that the army was fed up with being told not to fight. To the shock of the soldiers, several garrisons in the North were lost to MNLA attacks, and some were given up without a fight. To their horror, in Anguelhoc defeated soldiers were massacred, their throats slit after being taken prisoner. This atrocity is disputed — some deny it occurred, others argue over who committed it. But the army believes it, and the soldiers’ wives and widows who marched in protest last month surely played a major role in pushing their husbands — or their late husbands’ comrades — to take the fight to the government if the government wouldn’t let them take it to the Tuareg. This is not new, only more dramatic. In 2009, in an earlier episode, Bamako was abuzz with rumors that the soldiers wanted ATT to be more aggressive in the North. Some were clearly holding him responsible for the deaths of the comrades in the North — thus the popular ring tone, recorded from a radio call-in show “ATT ye faforoden,” which translates loosely as “ATT is his father’s balls.”

Third, who’s playing whom? Some researchers claim that at least one of the major political parties is backing the junta (one of the minor gadfly parties has already announced its support). Hard to know, and harder to parse. But the soldiers will need civilians willing to work with them, in whatever form they hope to run the country. Khaki is out of fashion, and the soldiers will need civilian faces to present to the world. So, who is whose beard? The answer to this question will play out in the weeks and months to come.

A couple of final comments.

Mali’s a poor country, and its internal inequalities are becoming ever more profound. The coup is not going to help, not only because the usual suspects (France, EU, World Bank…) have announced a suspension of aid. Mali in the last ten years has begun to be able to fill the role of a regional economic hub that its geography and history would suggest is a natural one. I don’t only mean the investments from South Africa, Canada, and Asia. I mean the money from Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal and the steady investments from Mali’s diaspora in Europe, the U.S., Congo, and so many other places. That’s the money you don’t want to scare away. Anyone on the Left who thinks that the coup will clean up political life or re-orient Mali’s neoliberal path needs to step back a bit. Every junta speaks a populist language — it’s the only one available to them. But in circumstances like these, soldiers don’t take orders from civilians.

Last, watch out for Monday. There has been a lot of talk of “democracy” in relation to this coup, but precious little time or place for the people. A moment is coming. On March 26, 1991, as a young lieutenant colonel, ATT arrested Mali’s president, General Moussa Traore, and put an end to days of terror in which soldiers had shot hundreds of protestors in the streets. ATT was Mali’s hero then, and when he organized elections and handed over power, he became a hero across the continent and beyond. Twenty-one years is a long time, but the anniversary of ATT’s coup is a national holiday. Who will march this year?

* Mann is a historian of francophone West Africa. He is currently working on a book project entitled ‘The End of the Road: Nongovernmentality in the West African Sahel’. His award-winning book ‘Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the 20th century’ was published by Duke University Press in 2006.