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Mali's Coup 2.0: Adjusting to the New Normal

While international condemnation has poured in, many in Bamako have responded to the forced resignation of Mali's PM with apathy and impatience.
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Former Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra at a meeting in September 2012. Photograph by Paulo Filgueiras/UNDP.

Dakar, Senegal:

"What else is there to say?" asked Malian shop owner Aliou Sidibe over the phone, "it is the guys in Kati [a military town 15 km from Bamako] who are in charge...that is the reality”.

What was obvious to Sidibe became apparent worldwide early Tuesday morning, when Mali's then Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, was taken into custody and brought to the military barracks in the nearby town of Kati by soldiers loyal to the coup leaders that toppled Mali's democratically-elected government last March. Local news sources have described the arrest as "violent", and a source close to the arrest suggested to Think Africa Press that "kidnapped" might be the most appropriate term to describe the events.

Hours later, a visibly shaken Diarra appeared on state television to announce his resignation.

"Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace," he read from a script. "It is for this reason that I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, resign along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday December 11, 2012. I apologise before the entire population of Mali."

Mali’s starman?

Diarra's forced resignation was met with near universal condemnation abroad, but reactions in Mali’s capital ranged from of apathy to tacit support, as banks and businesses carried on, and there were no reported public demonstrations. Think Africa Press spoke with several people over the phone who viewed Diarra’s removal with indifference.

"It's politics, and he [Diarra] is not a politician," said university student Lamine Sissoko, “Diarra did not understand the situation... the new rules... he made bad choices. That is all.”

Sissoko suggested that Diarra's sudden fall from power was the result of his own political miscalculations, a view shared by newspaper vendor Adama Traoré, who commented, “Diarra forgot his role. That was his error.”

Boasting university degrees from France and the United States, Diarra, often referred to by local news outlets as the "interplanetary navigator", is an astrophysicist who has worked on several NASA missions and taught mechanical and aerospace engineering. His extensive resume, which also includes stints as a goodwill ambassador for the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and as Africa and Middle East chairman for Microsoft, betray the qualities of an effective manager, making his choice as prime minister of the fledgling interim government a popular one, especially abroad.

Shooting for the moon

Domestically, it was Diarra's status as a political outsider that proved to be his most valuable attribute early on. For citizens who viewed the overthrow of the previous regime as a necessary rejection of a corrupt and incestuous political class, Diarra came to represent a clean slate (despite the fact that he is the son-in-law of former president Moussa Traoré).

Hand-picked by coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and his inner circle, Diarra became part of a triumvirate at the top of a transitional government constitutionally led by interim president Dioncounda Traoré. But when President Traoré was severely beaten by pro-junta demonstrators and forced into weeks of convalescence in France, it was Diarra who stepped in to fill the civilian leadership vacuum. With Traoré marginalised, Diarra was said to be making regular trips to Kati to meet with the military leadership, who despite having nominally handed over power to a civilian transitional government, still exerted considerable influence.

Prime Minster Diarra also established strong ties with Mali's High Islamic council – a key political player in recent years – and his important political allies allowed him to retain his post even after his 40-day mandate had expired.

By late September, however, Diarra began to distance himself from the coup leaders, becoming a vocal advocate for outside intervention and reportedly making decisions without consulting the coup leaders. In addition to challenging Captain Sanogo on the issue of foreign troops in Bamako, local analysts began to believe that Diarra was trying to consolidate power behind the scenes, with some observers wondering if an increasingly assertive Diarra was succeeding in marginalising elements of the military. By October, it was an open secret in Mali’s political circles that Cheick Modibo Diarra wanted to be the next president.

Falling back to earth

Diarra’s forced resignation put to rest any questions about the power dynamics in Bamako. The military men in Kati are still in charge, and having concluded that Diarra’s individual political ambitions were an impediment to their own objectives, they removed him.

A Western diplomat who asked not to be named told Think Africa Press that Diarra had been operating on borrowed time for weeks, commenting, “Although lots of diplomats welcomed the idea that he [Diarra], and therefore they – the civilian government – were distancing Sanogo, it became clear that Diarra was trying to exercise power that he didn’t actually have.”

For its part, the military junta claims that Diarra’s resignation was an essential step to moving the country forward, labelling him “a blockage”. A spokesman for the junta, Bakary Mariko, told France24 on Tuesday that “the prime minister was not a democratically-elected official and we must all recognise that he has failed in his mandated mission to liberate northern Mali”.

Though there have been reports that the junta has been targeting political and military opponents for months with secret detention, harassment and even torture, Tuesday’s events mark the most open display of power by Sanogo since the coup. The junta’s most recent display of power also raises questions concerning potential preparations by the international community for a military intervention to liberate the country’s north, which fell to Islamist militants amid the chaos of the coup in March.

The new normal

But for many Malians, Tuesday’s events registered not as news as much as they did an affirmation of the new normal in a country that was once considered to be a model democracy in Africa.

“This doesn’t change anything,” said Ousman Ba, who works in a bank in Bamako. “It just makes it harder for people to stay in denial.”

Ba said he did not support the first coup, but supports Diarra’s removal because, “the people need to be realists, and maybe this will open their eyes”. Ba continued, “I believe in democracy, but I am also a patriot. We must forget politics and liberate the north.”

When asked what he thinks the international community can do to pressure Captain Sanogo, Ba rejected the premise of the question, “That is the last of my worries.... the goal is to liberate the north.”

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