Paul Melly
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

The 21-22 March overnight putsch in Mali's capital Bamako forced President Amadou Toumani Touré to flee his official residence and seek refuge with loyalist troops. Several ministers and leading political figures were arrested. At least four citizens have died, and soldiers have looted shops and petrol stations.

The immediate human and material casualties are just the first consequence of this violent explosion of anger by soldiers from the country's main military base at Kati. The uprising has paralysed the political functioning of the Malian state and shattered Mali's largely justified image as a consensual and tolerant democracy.

Crisis in the North

With the military in disarray, the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) have further accelerated their advance across the Malian Sahara. The situation in the north was already a major crisis even before this week's coup, with 173,000 civilians having fled the fighting.

Now the overthrow of constitutional government threatens deepening conflict in the north and a freeze in relations with the international community. It reverses important development progress that had taken Mali to the brink of self-sufficiency in cereals and slowly eroded poverty.


The Bamako coup was the work of mainly ordinary soldiers and junior officers, who proclaimed the formation of a 'national committee for the rebuilding of democracy and the restoration of the state' (CNRDRE), under Captain Amadou Sango. This is despite President Touré's democratic credentials and his insistence that he would stand down after the two-round election due to be held in April and May this year, in line with the constitutional limit of two presidential terms.

The mutineers' driving grievance is the lack of resources for the campaign in the north – where the army has been no match for the heavily equipped rebel MNLA, and has suffered successive defeats - including the cold-blooded murder of at least 40 of its troops taken prisoner at Aguelhok.

The mutineers feel Touré has been too soft in his response to the MNLA and the kidnap gangs of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And there is resentment at corruption in the command structure, which left some ordinary soldiers deprived of salaries and essential supplies.

This reflects the gulf between army units battered on the Saharan front line and a Malian urban political class focussed on southern domestic politics, under the umbrella of a political consensus which had seen Touré bring most main political parties into his government.

Ordinary Malians have some sympathy with the mutineers' grievances as there has been an upsurge in southern anti-Tuareg feeling since the MNLA offensive began. But many will have been shocked by the sight of soldiers looting in the midst of their capital city.

So is there any way back to national democratic stability, and peace in the north?

The putschists may seek to consolidate their power; but they are isolated. Their attempts to secure the endorsement of senior religious and political figures and the senior officer corps have been rebuffed. The Bamako establishment is well aware of what is at stake, and what the country stands to lose if the overthrow of democracy is confirmed.

The maverick Oumar Mariko, leader of the small SADI party, who last year stood out for refusing the invitation to join the ruling coalition, was this week the only major political figure to say he could work with the putschists.

The international community, including the African Union and the regional body for West Africa ECOWAS, is united in condemnation of the coup.But there is still an opportunity for resolution of the stand-off in Bamako through skilful and discreet negotiation.

The uprising was an almost spontaneous overflowing of anger, rather than a carefully planned grab for power by ambitious generals. It may be possible to devise a compromise that addresses the mutineers’ grievances about army conditions while permitting the restoration of normal constitutional government, especially as Touré was due to be replaced by an elected successor in just a few weeks.

The African Union discussed the crisis in emergency session on 23 March, and there were reports that an ECOWAS envoy, former Burkinabè premier Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo, might try to visit Bamako to mediate.

A negotiated deal in Bamako would still leave Mali confronting the massive challenge of the northern crisis. 

Despite the mutineers’ complaints, there is a widespread recognition that the crisis cannot be resolved through military means alone. Some sort of understanding would have to be reached with the MNLA, which has begun to hint that it might be ready to talk. And a new president, with a fresh election mandate, would be better placed than Touré to embark on such a deal. This may be a best case scenario.

There is, of course, also a worst-case option: that the mutineers reject negotiation opportunities, seek to hunt down Touré and then try to resolve the northern crisis through force alone. The consequences of that hardly bear thinking about.

Also read:

Will Mali emerge from its mire if the junta steps down?
Paul Melly, BBC News, April 2012