Dealing with coup leaders – a lesson from Mali

The West African nation of Mali, which briefly penetrated our consciousness early this year as a result of French military intervention, held the first round of its parliamentary election on Sunday. Turnout was a disappointing 38.4%, and it’s expected that the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta will emerge with a majority after the runoffs on 15 December.

But that’s not what’s interesting about Mali this week. The big thing is that former coup leader Amadou Sanogo has been placed under arrest and is to be charged with kidnapping and probably murder.

The coup that Sanogo led in March 2012 may not have been the source of all Mali’s troubles, but it’s absolutely clear that it made things worse rather than better. Coups usually do.

But although there was supposedly a transition to a civilian government, it was clear that at the time of the French intervention the military still held onto real power. And when Keïta was elected president three months ago, he was regarded as the candidate more sympathetic to the coup leaders.

The BBC’s Alex Duval Smith reported at the time:

One worrying signal for the future – and an indication of the military’s influence over the political process in Mali – came a few days before Mr Keita’s run-off victory.

Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the March 2012 coup, was promoted to lieutenant-general on 8 August, a move seen as preparing him for a ministerial post.

US-based Human Rights Watch said that instead of being promoted, Lt-Gen Sanogo should be investigated for his role in a range of arbitrary arrests, attacks on journalists, torture and disappearances.

Keïta has now taken the hint – realising that no matter how much they might appear to be on your side, military leaders who have developed a taste for politics are dangerous. With a big mandate and the element of surprise behind him, Keïta decided to move decisively.

There should be a lot more of this. All too often, trigger-happy generals are treated with kid gloves by their civilian masters and the international community: recall Australia’s complicity in the rise of Commodore Bainimarama in Fiji. Past coups are not punished and future coups are not prevented.

The big problem with last weekend’s election in Honduras, for example, is that politics in that country have been poisoned by the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya, for which no-one was ever brought to account. His wife, Xiomara Castro, can hardly be blamed for now being unwilling to accept her defeat at the hands of the same interests. (See my report here, with subsequent updates.)

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has a similar problem; a month or two ago, it seemed that the various court cases against former coup leader and president Pervez Musharraf had run out of steam. But the government is pressing ahead, and it was announced this week that a special court will commence his trial for treason next week.

That’s going to be a fascinating spectacle, but at least it should bring home the principle that the military can no longer be regarded as a law unto itself. All credit to President Keïta for trying to establish that principle in Mali’s difficult terrain.


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