Paul Pillar

The Accidental Coup

A reminder of how human history, including the portion of it involving political and public affairs, sometimes hinges on otherwise minor twists and turns is the coup d'etat two weeks ago in Mali, which has since become the target of regional isolation and ostracism. A group of junior army officers led by a captain named Amadou Sanogo deposed the government of Amadou Toumani Touré and declared itself to be a National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State. Sanogo, who says he will be happy to go back to the barracks soon and be a company or battalion commander, promises early elections.

Most coups, and certainly most that succeed, are the result of plans carefully constructed by determined plotters. That evidently was not the case with last month's coup in Mali. The event began with discontent in the ranks of the Malian military over the government's handling of a rebellion by Tuaregs in the north of the country. The rebellion has surged in recent months—leading the other day to a Tuareg capture of Timbuktu—probably facilitated by an influx of arms from Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. When the Malian defense minister visited a military camp a few miles outside the capital of Bamako and failed to respond adequately to grievances about the response to the rebellion, soldiers started firing in the air and stoning the minister's car. As things got out of hand in the enlisted ranks, most officers at the camp fled. An exception was Sanogo, who soon found himself at the head of a revolt that made its way to the state broadcasting station and the presidential palace. A spontaneous protest had transformed into a mutiny and then into a coup.

There probably are more turns of history than we realize that hinge on such spur-of-the-moment responses to unsettled circumstances. These and other accidents of the moment can, in the right circumstances, make the difference in something as significant as a government falling or not falling.

Besides reminding us of this reason for the unpredictability of history, the incident also is a reminder of how readily loyalties can shift. It would be easy to dismiss a coup in Mali as merely business as usual in the less developed world. But the lines between that world and our own are not always clear and thick as far as this subject is concerned. Mali had been scheduled to have an election later this month, and many were anticipating a peaceful transfer of power from Touré to someone else. And how should we regard such questions as they apply, say, to Turkey? The accepted wisdom about Turkey seems to be that military coups there are finally a thing of the past. But the past in question is not very distant, and the arrow of time does not always run in one direction as far as the coup-making propensity of militaries is concerned.

We might also note that it was fifty-one years ago this month, in the next country to the north of Mali—i.e., Algeria—that four French generals staged a putsch that they intended would lead to a takeover of the government of France. It took Charles de Gaulle, donning his World War II uniform and appealing once again to the patriotism of his countrymen, to defeat the coup attempt.

Image: State television of Mali