The coup in Mali: possible ramifications

Capitaine Sanogo, new head of the junta claiming to have deposed of the government. Photo via @BateEtah.

I originally planned to give you a roundup of what has happened in Mali since yesterday. But then I realized that several other people did this already and probably better than I ever could. Check especially here and here and here if you are looking for something like that.

I will instead focus on something different: what are the possible effects of the coup? This is of course a highly speculatory question, as the coup is not even over yet (President Touré is still holed up in Bamako with an elite army unit guarding him). But I think that the coup has several ramifications that are largely unrelated how it will end up exactly.

The junta, which bears the delightful name “National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State” (CNRDR) is primarily motivated by the total disaster of how the government handled the recent fighting with the Tuareg rebels of the NMLA.

In short, the mutineers allege that the government failed to provide the necessary material support (especially ammunitions) for the campaign, which has resulted in the string of embarrassing defeats at the hands of the rebels. In this they can rely on support from the population, which is highly critical of how President Touré has handled the crisis.

As “fighting the Tuareg” is the only political platform of the CNRDR, they will have to follow up their rhetoric with action if they manage to consolidate power. This will lead to an escalation of the conflict in the north, something that is guaranteed also by the fact that the MNLA has said it will try to capitalize on the current confusion within the Malian army.

An escalation of hostilities is the last thing Mali needs now. The country is on the brink of a serious food crisis and already up to 200.000 people were displaced by the Tuareg rebellion.

The CNRDR will soon notice that fighting the Tuareg is pretty hard, even if they manage to secure additional weaponry and implement a better strategy – which is doubtful, given their very junior military ranks and the measure of international isolation that the coup has brought.

As the need for the CNRDR to make visible progress becomes greater they will turn to increasingly unconventional methods of warfare. We have seen this in many countries, from Darfur over Congo to Libya and Mali is itself no stranger to using irregular militias and “inventive” counter-insurgency measures.

Such an escalation of the conflict can easily lead to a regionalization of the fighting, as the Tuareg and the junta will search for partners outside their borders for support.

But what will happen if the coup is struck down by loyalists or a countercoup happens? Well, I would venture out and say much the same. The current coup has made the level of frustration within the rank and file of the army pretty clear. Any successor – even if it is the old government – will have to take care not being seen as “soft” on the Tuareg and will be under enormous pressure to deliver results in the fight against the MNLA.

Based on these assumptions, I think the main priority of everybody involved (including the international community) is to find a way to prevent an escalation like the one described above. If this can’t be managed, Mali is very likely to descend into an humanitarian disaster.

If you want to keep up to date on how the coup develops, follow me on Twitter: @PeterDoerrie