Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Coup d'Etat: 6 days later...

Well, now that the dust has settled slightly, I guess I'll try to write an update. What a crazy week it has been in my corner of West Africa: a coup d’etat in Mali where elections were scheduled to take place in less than a month and where the president had vowed to step down after two terms;  and, a peaceful election in Senegal to oust a president who tried to stay in power for a third term, despite protests, and which many feared may turn violent. The ironies abound!
I knew there was trouble brewing on Wednesday afternoon, when I got a message from the U.S. Embassy saying that there was political unrest and demonstrations in Kati (a city a few km away from Bamako, where the army is stationed). Fortunately, I was in Bamako at the time (I had just gotten back from several extended research trips over the past month to cities and villages around Bamako...more on that in another post). Anyway, I didn’t think too much of the message at first, because we have had similar messages over the past several months, and I continued with my plan to visit the family of one of the translators I have been working with in a suburb of Bamako. Fortunately, they don’t live too far from my apartment, because as soon as I arrived, I received another message saying that there were gun shots in Bamako, and this was immediately followed by a phone call telling me that the national radio station and television had been taken over (uh oh! coup in the making…), and that I either needed to stay put or get home as soon as possible. The family I was visiting was not aware that there were any problems, and seemed confused when I told them I needed to get home right away. But, they obliged, and after a quick trip on a moto through the back streets of Bamako (making sure to avoid the major roads), I made it home….and that is where I have stayed for the past six days.

I’m just going to try to summarize my experiences over the past several days, but if you want a very thorough and well-written account and analysis of what happened, check out a great blog by a Fulbright scholar here in Bamako: http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/gunfire-across-the-niger/

Wednesday: The first evening passed with much uncertainty. It was true, we could hear gunfire and the national television and radio stations had stopped broadcasting; but, we wondered, “Could this actually be a coup? Maybe it’s just a soldier mutiny?” We heard rumors that the presidential palace had been taken by the soldiers and that they were going to make a statement on TV, but we waited and waited and saw only Malian music videos. Very little sleep was had that night, with almost constant gunfire (some very close) in the background.

First message by the soldiers on national television.
Thursday: I was startled awake by a particularly loud blast at about 4:00 am, and started watching TV. At 4:50 am we saw the first glimpses of the soldiers on TV as they struggled to get all of the equipment in the television station to work in order to make their statement; the first time there was no picture and the second time there was no sound. Finally, the statement was broadcast; and, yes, it was a coup d’état to end, what they called, ATT’s (the democratically elected president) incompetent regime. They were calling themselves the CNRDR (La Comité National pour le Redressement de la Démocratie et la Restauration de l’Etat” (National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State).This statement, and several subsequent amendments, were then replayed every 30-40 minutes throughout the day, interspersed with Malian music videos, and then strange documentaries and Celine Dion concerts when their stock of Malian music ran out.

Soldiers reading statements on national television. Captain Sanogo is on the right. 
There was still quite a bit of gunfire at this point and a lot of uncertainty about what we should do. They issued a curfew, but the times were confusing (at first they declared a curfew from 6 am Thursday until 7:30 am Tuesday, and later they clarified that the curfew was only from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am every day). And, what does this mean exactly? Can we try to buy bread for breakfast at the boutique down the street? Are people going to work? I had been invited to a wedding that day at the house of the professor I have been working with. I called him, and he said the wedding was still going to take place (the band was already there!), but with directions from the U.S. Embassy to “shelter in place,” I told him I couldn’t make it.  

Lots of time during the first day was spent watching TV, listening to RFI (Radio France International, which thankfully continued to broadcast throughout the entire coup), and refreshing the discussion group pages on Facebook and Twitter looking for news. Fortunately, I had just installed a higherspeed, and more reliable internet connection, and my apartment soon became "information central" for others in the apartment building.  As the day progressed we started hearing reports of looting (initially we thought they were bandits who were profiting from the confusion of the situation, but then we heard that they were actually soldiers (sometimes drunk?) who were stealing televisions, refrigerators, and 4x4 vehicles, while shooting into the air in celebration). There were also reports of the arrests and seizures of many prominent politicians and ministers. I was slightly concerned, because I live in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Bamako, but fortunately it seemed like it was off the main roads enough that it wasn’t a target for looting. And, we were warned by several sources, that we should expect electricity and water shortages soon. So, we filled up buckets, charged all of the electrical appliances, and waited for more news! The electricity finally did cut at about 8:00 pm and stayed off most of the night. With temperatures of 100F or greater, it made for another relatively uncomfortable and sleepless night.

Capitan Sanogo on ORTM (before he decided to wear his dozofini cloth)
Friday: Most of the gunfire had stopped by the next morning, but I didn’t want to move too much (especially after seeing the red tail of a tracer bullet falling near our apartment building the night before). But, the Malians in my neighborhood seemed relatively unconcerned by both the shooting and the curfew. People seemed to go back to their normal routines. It was kind of surreal.

Meanwhile, in the online world of discussion boards and newspaper articles, there was no lack of commentary to digest. Was this a planned coup or just a soldier mutiny that spiraled out of control? Who are these soldiers, and who is this Capitan Amadou Sanogo who now claims to be president? Is the whole military behind them or is this just a small, disgruntled faction? Is there someone (political) supporting them? Why aren’t there any higher ranking military with them?  And, what is their motivation: just getting more weapons to fight the rebels in the north (which they had originally claimed was why they were upset) , or more substantial concerns about corruption and nepotism in the military (and the Malian government more generally)? Where is the ousted president ATT? What will the international donors, the African Union, and ECOWAS say about the coup?  Will they cut aid to Mali? Will there be evacuations of expats? When will the airport open? What do the rebels in the north think about this new development, and how will this affect the military’s effort to defend several key cities in the north including Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu? What do the Malian people think about this? Lots and lots of discussion and speculation….

That evening there were lots of rumors flying around (all of which proved to be false as far as I know): ATT had started a counter-coup with his elite group of “red beret” soldiers and they were in the process of reclaiming ORTM (the national television station); Capitan Sanogo was dead; and, the U.S. had landed a military plane at the airport. There were strange messages appearing on ORTM telling us to remain calm and not to panic (but we didn’t really know why we should be panicking in the first place). Finally, later that evening (several hours after the normally scheduled news broadcast) Sanogo appeared on TV next to several soldiers wearing red berets, claiming that he was in fine health, there were no problems, and that the whole military was backing him. Interestingly, during this clip he was wearing what seemed to be a dozofini (a hunter’s cloth) under his military fatigues and carrying a wooden baton, which apparently are both traditional signs of power and impenetrability. (For more information about this check out this fascinating blog entry by the same Fulbright scholar in Bamako http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/amadou-sanogo-power-is-his-middle-name/.)This was followed by several statements by groups that are supporting him (youth groups, religious groups, political parties, military factions, etc.). I was surprised to see someone who works in my research group reading a statement of support (wow...maybe there is more widespread support for this coup than I was thinking?!?). There was another power cut that night, but fortunately only for a couple of hours, and we were able to get some much needed sleep!

Saturday: The shooting and looting had stopped for good at this point. I was feeling kind of restless (after nearly 3 days in the apartment) and decided to walk down to the river (just a few hundred meters). Things seemed totally normal! There were people fishing and watering their gardens. A group of boys were swimming (or more accurately, stuffing Styrofoam cubes in their shorts to make them float…). People were walking around on the streets, drinking tea, listening to the radio. Eerily normal. Most of the shops with doors were still closed, but there were lots of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, peanuts, charcoal, etc. on the street. Life goes on in Bamako with or without a government! I start to realize that maybe it’s only the expats that can afford to be on lock down for 3 days straight; especially considering that many people in Bamako live largely hand to mouth, with a substantial amount of income coming from selling various items informally. The gas stations were still closed at this point and there were reports of shortages.  Fortunately, I don’t have a car (and frankly, didn’t have anywhere to go, because the U.S. Embassy was still directing us to “shelter in place”).  

Sunday: Still eerily calm. The Embassy finally sent a message allowing us to make short, essential trips to the store to buy food, so I set out for a small shop within walking distance. I found myself buying a pineapple, cashew nuts, 2 cans of beer, and some dried mangoes (definitely not essential items!). I’ll have to remember to let someone else do the shopping the next time we have a coup d’état...

At this point I had exhausted all of the discussion boards, news articles, and radio commentaries about the situation in Mali. But, fortunately there was something new to follow: the elections in Senegal! Throughout the day we heard reports that everything was calm (thankfully!) and predictions that Macky Sall would beat Wade (the current president, who was trying to stay for a third term) without much trouble. I was cautiously optimistic, but still skeptical (who knows what can happen if Mali just had a coup d’état!). Finally, at 10:00 that evening RFI broadcasted that Wade just called Maky Sall to congratulate him on his victory! Almost incredibly, he decided to cede power peacefully!! Yay for Senegal! One of the only West African country never to have a coup d’état!

Monday: It’s a national holiday celebrating the martyrs who died in the coup d’état on March 26th 1991, when ATT replaced the autocratic regime of Moussa Traoré. Strangely ironic…I’m wondering if they are going to have a new holiday for the new March 22 coup as well. March is certainly a turbulent month in Malian history! The Embassy warned of possible protests, so we spent another day indoors. However, it turned out that the demonstrations were peaceful and that over 1,000 people marched in support of a return to constitutional rule. The national news that night opened with the playing of the national anthem, then Sanogo gave a speech (much more well-rehearsed this time), and finally they showed shots of the military laying flowers on the tombs of the martyrs.This was followed by almost an hour of statements by various groups pledging their support to Sanogo and the CNRDR. I’m not sure what to think…

And that’s pretty much where I am right now. Almost everyone has returned to work today, but the Embassy is still advising “limited travel to and around Bamako.” It seems like the airport has opened for commercial flights today, and I’ve heard of many expats who are trying to get out as soon as possible. I’m still hopeful that I will be able to stay in Mali and finish my research. As the days go on it seems less and less likely that there will be counter-coup or violence now (although, I am troubled by the advancement of the rebels in the North). I think the next couple weeks will be very important in determining the course of events, and hopefully I will be able to determine if it will be possible to continue my research as planned (or find some way to modify it again). It’s a fascinating time to be here, and as long as the security situation doesn't seriously degrade, I’m happy to stay and try to wait it out.

Anyway, that is the situation “en grosso modo" (as they say in French). Thank you for all of your thoughts and well-wishes, and I’ll make sure to keep you updated as everything progresses! 

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