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Civil Wars and Coups in Mali

Mali Gold Mines.png

On August 18, the duly elected government of Mali was overthrown in a military coup. How duly elected the pre-existing government was is open to dispute. The results of every election in the most recent decade have been contested by the opposition. In the legislative elections held earlier this year, a constitutional court allocated 30 contested seats one-sidedly to coalition members of the ruling party. The leader of one of the major opposition parties was kidnapped three days before the election. That said, the recent coup just added to the long record of political instability in Mali. There had been previous coups in 1968, 1991 and 2012.


More importantly, the country has been in a constant state of civil war. In the most basic sense, the country is divided into a Southwest Triangle and a larger Northeast Triangle. The Southwest Triangle is more developed, has better agricultural land and generally controls the government. The Northeast Triangle is either Sahara Desert or semiarid. Agriculture is marginal. Economic development is even more tenuous. The region is divided between Arabs and Tuaregs. Those two groups fight the Southerners. Those two groups fight each other. Those two groups fight themselves. Soldiers from other nations show up to help the Arabs and the Tuaregs fight the Southerners, each other and the various factions within the Arabs and the Tuaregs. The Northern wars have been going on for decades.


I am not an expert on Mali. My understanding of the situation is fairly superficial. That said, there are some glaring realities that are obvious even to the casual observer of the Malian scene. They explain some of what is going on at a crude level; a lifetime resident of Mali would add some subtleties that I am missing.


1. Mali is a very underdeveloped country that has gold. Gold is a game changer for a poor country, much the way oil can be a game changer. If a country has gold mines, it will get all of the foreign exchange it will ever need from the mines. Better yet, the governing elite can take the proceeds from the mines, invest them overseas in foreign bank accounts and foreign real estate, and be rich for the rest of their lives. This means that the government does not have to develop the rest of the economy if it doesn’t want to. In development economics, this is the problem known as the resource curse. Valuable resources lead to poverty in the rest of the country because the government does not develop the rest of the country. The resource curse does not occur in every nation with mines or oil. But the resource curse is happening big time in Mali. Mali’s economic development efforts are negligible.


The map of Mali that is the title graphic for this essay is a map of the gold mines of Mali. Note that all of the mines are in the clustered in the far Southwest of the country. This basically means that the governing regime – based in the South - can utterly ignore the North from an economic point of view. Since independence, this is what Malian governments have tended to do.


2. Desertification is destroying the livelihood of Northern farmers and herders. Economic survival on the edge of the Sahara Desert has always been difficult. It is more difficult as the Sahara Desert relentlessly moves south, destroying farmland as it goes. Why are the semiarid territories of the Sahel being destroyed? Population growth. As population grows, the size of the herds of sheep and goats kept by the residents increases. The sheep and goats eat the brush that covers the land. Once the ground cover gets destroyed, the land can no longer retain rain water. The rain water runs off; the land dries up and the soil becomes permanently barren.


Note that even if sheep and goats were not consuming ground vegetation, population growth would represent a problem for the Sahel. Imagine a valley that can barely support one hundred people.


What happens when the population increases and that valley must now support two hundred people? Three hundred? Four? Ultimately, there is going to be a growing population that can not survive by either farming or herding. They turn to warfare or crime. Why? What else can they do? They have to survive somehow. If the only way to earn money is by raiding, then raiding is going to be what they do.


3. Youth unemployment is a major issue in Mali – even in the South. Countries with resource curses do not develop their urban economies any more than they develop the economies of the non-mining backlands. They also do not have strong population control programs. So the big cities have their populations grow both from high fertility, and from migrants moving in from the dying economies in the far regions. With no local development programs in place, the urban economy is fragile. The labor force swells with vast number of teenagers for whom no jobs exist. What can the teenagers do? They can turn to crime or to terrorist groups. A simpler solution is to join the army. It doesn’t matter whether they are with the crooks or the ideologues or the sergeants – they now have a gun in their hand. They make their money from killing.


The career soldiers – and many of them are career soldiers – have no economic prospects if they were to leave the military. (Actually, that last statement is only half true. Ex-soldiers can join private militias or paramilitaries. The militias are used by members of the political establishment to neutralize troublemakers such as opposing politicians.) But in general, the soldiers are highly vested in their careers because their outside options are limited. If some faction of the army wants to hog all the promotions for itself, or blame their unit for a military defeat, or interfere with any side rackets that one’s own faction is running – it makes a lot of sense for the different units to “neutralize” the other military group that is causing problems. This kind of within-military rivalry has much to do with the frequency of coups in the Global South. Poor employment prospects outside the armed forces increase the saliency and bitterness of internal military conflicts.


4. Herding economies tend to develop a lot of factionalism. Very dry climates do not support a great deal of population density. There are few logical reasons for people to come together. They live broadly separated from each other in small units – associated with families or clans. These are the largest units the ecology will support.


There are few public works or other reasons for people to come together – with the exception of situational military alliance. Multiple cultures can co-exist with relatively little blending or assimilation because each group tends to keep to itself. Plus the need for dispersion allows for fissures that split ethnic group from ethnic group, clans with ethnic groups from other clans in the same group, and family groups within clans from rival family members.


In Mali, it did not help that both the national government and foreign interlopers tended to play the various Northern factions against each other. The Malian government would send troops on expeditions to fight one and only one ethnic group – treating that group brutally but ignoring the neighboring peoples. Both the Malian government and foreign interlopers pick sides in pre-existing Northern disputes, all the while advancing their own interests at the expense of the locals. Northerners have come to be suspicious of nearly every social formation that is not their own clan group. These suspicions are often well founded.


*  *  *

What do these observations tell us about the coup that occurred in August 2020?


Generally, grand sociological theory will not tell you a lot about coups. Grand sociological theory will tell you a lot about places with persistent civil wars.


Coups generally derive from factional disputes within the military. You have to know who the players are. You have to know who is on what side and why. Sometimes these splits can be as simple as Ethnic Group 1 vs. Ethnic Group 2. Usually, the dividing lines between Faction 1, Faction 2 and Neutrals-Waiting-Until-the-Last-Minute-Before-Deciding-Who-To-Support are complex and subtle. You have to know the personalities involved – and what economic and political angles each of the military factions is involved with.  The military in these societies often has some fairly major economic interests – and the amount of money under discussion can be substantial. Sometimes the disputes are strictly within the armed services. Sometimes there are societal factions that are involved as well. Rival cliques of businessmen have their parallels among military businessmen with Civilian-Military Bloc 1 making a pre-emptive move against newly ambitious Civilian-Military Bloc 2. Note this does not rule out disputes that are simply about the legitimate affairs of the military such as how to handle a regional rebellion.


You can’t tell the players without a program.


It is also totally unrealistic to expect that American media - or media from any other wealthy nation – will be able to cover this type of military rivalry accurately. Officers planning coups tend to be fairly secretive about what they are doing. They do not tell the BBC all the details of what is up a week before the event. Likewise the subject matter of the disputes tend to be fairly arcane and recondite. They are especially recondite if some of the military’s business activities are illegitimate. Some generals are in the black-market arms trade. Others are tied to drug cartels. Reporters from the New York Times don’t exactly get briefed about these underground relationships. It is equally unlikely that a reporter will get early notice about a staff sergeant who is furious about a pending demotion and intends to take out the general whose idea it was.


However, on-going civil wars are very likely to have sociological origins. Many wars will have origin stories not unlike those we observe in Mali:


Governments that underdevelop particular regions,


Governments that go corrupt because they have mineral wealth,


Countries where ecological degradation is pushing otherwise peaceful residents into combat forces,


Countries with rising youth unemployment from uncontrolled population growth.    

These are all common themes in the Global South.


Knowing these things will not allow you to predict the exact time or place where a regional uprising will occur.


Knowing these things will certainly not let you predict whether or not there is going to be a coup d’état.


But you can get some idea of which regions are going to be relatively violent and which regions will be relatively peaceful.


That is very useful information to know.

For More Information

A good general introduction to the causes of social conflict in Mali can be found in Chauzal, Gregory and Thibault Van Damme. 2015. Roots of Mali’s Conflict: Moving Beyond the 2012 Crisis. Hague, Netherlands Institute of International Relations.


For a dismal view of the Malian economy, see Maiga, Ousmane, Moctar Tounkara, Seydou Doumbia, and Hamadoun Sangho. 2019. Mali Political Economy Analysis.Washington, United States Agency for International Development.


On Malian gold mining, see Wikipedia. Mining Industry of Mali.


On the resource curse in general, see Karl, Terry. 2005. Understanding the Resource Curse. For a more balanced view that discusses why some countries with oil or minerals get the resource curse and some do not, see Torvik, Ragnar’s 2009 article in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. “Why Do Some Resource Abundant Societies Succeed While Others Do Not.”


The current coup is very much a work in progress with no one knowing what the final outcome of post-coup negotiations will be. A brief but reasonable outline of recent events can be found in Diatta, Mohammed. 2020. “Mali’s Military Takeover Puts Popular Protests in the Spotlight” Institute for Security Studies – Africa. Pretoria, South Africa.


On the dynamics of coups see Barbara Geddes et. al. 2019. How Dictatorships Work. New York, Cambridge.

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