First thoughts on Mali’s second coup

Mali’s interim Prime Minister—and NASA’s ex-interplanetary navigator—Cheikh Modibo Diarra was chased out of office Tuesday morning. He’d been arrested the night before by soldiers under the orders of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the man who led the coup that set the country into a disastrous spiral of instability in March. Early Tuesday morning, in a terse and somber statement on national television (in French and in Bambara), Diarra gave up his post and took his government with him. What that means for Mali’s political future is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t look good.

In the short term, not everyone will regret his precipitous departure. However, it hardly opens a path for greater stability. A long-shot candidate for president in the months before the coup, Diarra was named Prime Minister last spring in a deal forged between Sanogo’s junta and the organization of West African States (ECOWAS), in the person of President Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso. At the time, many—including me—considered his nomination a relatively judicious one. He’d done everything from selling handbags on New York’s Fifth Avenue to landing probes on Mars and piloting Microsoft Africa. Many Malians—in the diaspora at least—believed that he was not party to the corruption that had eaten away at the former government. He also had a certain amount of support from both prominent Muslim religious leaders and from the army itself (the latter via his father in law, ex-President and General Moussa Traoré, r. 1968-1991). The bloom on that rose faded fast, as Diarra endured intense criticism for being too close to both Sanogo and Campaoré. Over the last few months, however, Diarra had been working to put some daylight between himself and his erstwhile allies, notably by calling for rapid military intervention on the part of (some of) Mali’s neighbors, backed by outside powers. That position did not sit well with what’s left of the Malian army, which is firmly opposed to accepting any outside help. In the end, Diarra’s search for independence left him vulnerable.

The man had few allies, at home or abroad. He’d hardly made it back from Ouagadougou last April before he had alienated much of the political class by refusing to nominate many career politicians to the ministerial posts they felt they deserved. That position cost him both political capital and the counsel of more experienced actors, and he soon faced carping from the country’s perennial candidates that he was using the crisis as a power grab. By refusing to step aside as a candidate in the elections his government was charged with organizing, Diarra only fueled their fears. The prolonged absence of president Dioncounda Traoré—beaten nearly to death in the presidential palace by a mob—had left Diarra with some room for maneuver between April and August, when he had to begin to take a position on foreign intervention in the run-up to the U.N. General Assembly. Then and since, he’s called for Mali’s allies to act fast, and he surely knew that his own future was at stake, and that his former protectors would likely feel betrayed.

It wasn’t just Sanogo’s crew and the politicians who were displeased with him. French and American diplomats have considered him part of the problem for several months now. Whatever tentative support he once had from the international community has been drying up since at least June. Still, whatever one thought of Diarra’s track record, the sight of another civilian being hauled off by men in army uniforms is hardly reassuring. In the last few months, journalists, editors, and businesspeople have been the victims of such kidnappings, and the vicious assault on interim President Traoré—under the nose of the military—only underscored the fact that no one was safe. Arresting the Prime Minister represents just one step beyond what had become business as usual.

It’s a big step, and it will reverberate. One of the preconditions for any formal outside intervention in Mali has been political stability in the capital itself. The fragility of the situation there has just been exposed once again, and the national political convention that was to begin this week—at long last—has surely lost some of its meaning. Meanwhile, the resignation of Diarra and his team—assuming they follow him—risks making last week’s preliminary talks between rebel groups and the government moot. In other words, in terms of the occupation in the North, Mali’s latest coup sharply limits the possibilities for either intervention or negotiation, at least in the short term. It just might open up a third possibility—re-empowered, the Malian army, backed by ethnic militias and buoyed by popular sentiment, decides to go it alone, and soon, re-igniting a war it probably can not win. That would be one of the worst of a whole host of awful outcomes.

In short, it’s hard to imagine that a return to peace and security, North and South, is any closer with Diarra chased from power. His departure leaves President Traoré more isolated and exposed than ever, and raises the question of which angel might step in where Diarra once tred.

Note: these are preliminary thoughts on a story still unfolding. Here I’m calling it a coup d’état, but others might disagree and the Malian press I’ve seen hasn’t used that term.

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