A View of a Coup: A Personal Perspective on Upheaval in Mali

From the Series: Mali, March 2012

The the first signs of coming turmoil arose in the afternoon on March 21st 2012 when startling reports began to appear on the websites of local news outlets. Several posts indicated trouble at the Kati military barracks and then at Koulouba, the presidential palace on the hill overlooking the capital. "The palace is surrounded," according to one report.

Over the next few hours, my wife Tracy and I learned that Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), the sitting president, was under siege by some of his own national troops. In the months leading up to this moment, dissatisfaction within the country's armed forces grew, as they claimed that ATT was not doing enough to support them in their attempt to stem the rising tide of the armed Tuareg separatist movement in the north. People within the military and civilians on the street had hinted that they thought ATT was somehow invested in the uprising. The reports we read online that night revealed that their dissatisfaction had reached a critical apex.

Members of the military were attacking the palace and creating general havoc across the city. While the government-run radio and television stations went silent and dark after falling into the hands of the rebellious military actors, we continued to get news from various Internet sources that provided updates from across the capital. Citizens and news reporters alike posted almost minute-by-minute accounts of gunfire, artillery fire, military personnel and loosely affiliated followers in the streets availing themselves of food, drink, and even private vehicles. From our home along the Niger River we could see and hear the commotion that was being reported online. We heard gunfire from around the strategically important King Fahd Bridge, a main artery from the palace to the airport. We saw tracers of gunfire and arms fire across the city, especially in the direction of Koulouba. We received SMS messages from the US Embassy telling us to stay put and to shelter in place.

As the night progressed we continued to monitor reports from across the city and to hear gunfire. We tucked the kids in and buttoned down for the uncertainty of a long evening. By midnight the overall situation seemed to be settling down some, so we decided to get some rest. Our uneasy slumber was punctuated by the ringing of my cell phone. Scrambling to answer, I missed the call from our guardian, an unarmed, earnest young man, but I did not miss the reason for it. The air around our home was filled with smoke, sounds of pitched and angry shouting, the smashing of glass and rapid gunfire.

With chaos in our general midst, a profound sense of uncertainty and an ample degree of fear, Tracy and I gathered the kids and our houseguests (an MA student of mine and her fiancé) together in our main bedroom. We discussed the overwhelming situation, identified sounds and assessed the overall threat. We called contacts at the Embassy and were told that the city was in the midst of widespread looting and military forces were rounding up people they perceived as threats such as political leaders and military officials close to ATT but that there had no reports of any targeting of Americans or other ex-patriots. That news was somewhat reassuring but still the sounds of gunfire and madness outside of gates continued. Our group analysis developed on the fly: the immediate target was likely not us, but instead our neighbor Soumaila Cissé, a leading candidate for the presidency in the upcoming election. The hazards of locating near a leading political figure had quickly escalated from parking problems on the street to violent pandemonium. We hunkered down to pass a very unsettled night.

When dawn broke the turmoil had subsided. News reports indicated that ATT had been driven from the palace and was nowhere to be seen. A mid-ranking soldier Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and a band of compatriots had appeared on the national television station in the pre-dawn hours to announce their overthrow of the ATT government and the suspension of the constitution. Our thoughts returned to our immediate context. We reached our guardian by phone and I met him in the yard. He confirmed that the madness had been directed at the villa next door, at Soumaila's villa. In the midst of the chaos, through a peep hole in our gate, he had watched as military personnel arrived at the house in a motley collection of 4x4s and cars, had broken in to the locked house and laid siege to the place - apparently in search of the aspiring politician, and a person many people on the street had always identified as "a man from the north." Unable to locate him the soldiers proceeded to ransack the house, smash in the windows of all the vehicles on the premises. Our guard even reported hearing some of the soldiers saying that they should "look for his daughters." As the guard noted, cooler heads prevailed and the military personnel departed. But the event did not end there. With the house open, looters proceeded to haul off air conditioners, refrigerators and other 'portable' riches. The evidence on the scene was extensive and deeply unsettling - for us and obviously for the Cissé family.

Over the next few days, as the city spun with rumors, uncertainty and periodic gunfire, we consulted various contacts, including Embassy personnel and ex-pat and Malian friends. After much soul searching, Tracy and I decided that it would be best for our family to evacuate; our insurance company agreed and whisked us away to a more secure location close to the airport. While the facility was closed immediately during the coup, there were reports that it would open for international flights in the coming days or hours. Eventually we boarded the first flight out of Bamako, to Dakar and onward to Washington, DC. Our time in Mali had come to an abrupt and very unexpected end. As a seasoned researcher and regional specialist with first hand experience across southern Mali over the course of some 20 plus years, I had had no inclination that this set of events would transpire in our midst. Certainly I was aware of the "troubles in the north" and the general malaise among the diverse citizenry about difficult economic conditions. But a violent coup with only months to go before the national presidential election? The thought had not entered my mind, especially when I made the decision to share the world I love in Mali with my family for a year as Fulbright scholar. I was not alone in my amazement and not alone in my deep-seated worry about what was/is to come.

We left Mali with heavy hearts knowing that our local friends and colleagues faced great uncertainty, insecurity and difficulty. No one we knew had any real sense of what would occur in the days and months to come: that secular Tuareg separatists in the north would quickly gain control of key cities such as Gao and Timbuktu; that Islamist forces with links to international terrorist groups would enmesh themselves in that uprising, that citizens across the north would be subjected to harsh and inhumane sharia law - some loosing life or limb in the process, that tombs of ancient saints would be destroyed, that the leader of the coup would insert himself into the political (and economic) life of the nation, that the person eventually named as interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, would be beaten almost to death by a mob storming unimpeded by military personnel on duty into his office at the presidential palace, that thousands of well equipped French troops would land in country and pursue an active and aggressive military operation to push back the rebellious forces in the north, that key leaders of Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would be killed in the process, or that the majority of Malians would celebrate the intervention of their former colonial master - waving the French tricolor as troops moved across the country culminating in with president Francois Hollande's triumphant visit to Timbuktu, replete with a high profile gifting of a camel from local dignitaries.

My view of the events and process that began to unfold before my eyes in back in March 2012 has developed each day since. Along the way my eyes have been opened to new information, to new analyses and perspectives. My knowledge and understanding of Mali's difficulties and challenges continue to be enriched and to evolve. As I learn more, from old friends and from new voices alike, the more I hope and pray for peace and safety across the grand land of Maliba.