Bad Postcard from Bamako

ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail:

ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail:

Chidi Amuta

On the 21st of March, 2012, mutinous soldiers of the Malian army invaded the Presidential Mansion in the capital city of Bamako. The mostly other rank soldiers were thrilled to burst into the luxury and opulence of the mansion. Their instant punishment for any unfortunate occupants they found in the place was merciless flogging with several strokes of horsewhip. The soldiers then proceeded to empty the refrigerators of expensive rare liquor before ransacking the kitchen for choice leftover presidential food. They then sank briefly into the pampering comfort of sumptuous presidential leather sofas while savouring their momentary opulence, a taste of the gravy of privilege and the spoils from the conquest of power.

This earlier coup, like the recent one, began as a mutiny ostensibly in protest against the government’s handling of the Tuareg jihadist insurgency in the desert north of the country. The soldiers then proceeded to sack the government of Ahmadou Toumani Toure. Then as now, the coup was greeted with unanimous international condemnation and a barrage of sanctions, blockades and diplomatic lockouts. Concerted diplomatic squeeze led to negotiations between the coup leaders and ECOWAS which yielded an understanding that the coup leaders would hand back power to a transitional government in return for some form of amnesty. The ousted President was allowed to proceed on exile.

Before then, the Tuareg insurgents had taken control of northern Mali and declared an independent nation of Azawad led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist movement that dates back to about 1916. The armed wing of the Tuareg insurgency is fuelled partly by returnees from the Libyan civil war and sundry Islamist movements in the Arab world, some inspired partly by the Arab Spring.

Following a UN resolution and a formal invitation by the then interim government of Mali, the French intervened by launching “Operation Seval” in January 2013. The aim of the operation was to neutralize the threat of the rampaging Tuareg Islamist insurgents in the northern parts of the country. They had initiated a southward push to sack the government of the country. The French operation was part of an international effort to contain the spread of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism in the Sahel.

Fast forward to 18th of August, 2020. Widespread protests and civil unrest over worsening economic conditions and bad governance produced widespread discontent. The spectre of growing insecurity from continuing threats from the Tuareg Islamists in the north in the country worsened a bad political situation.

Another set of mutineers from a wing of the Malian army from a base in the small town of Kati invaded the capital city of Bamako and stormed the presidential palace. They arrested and detained the President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and the Prime Minister Boubou Cisse with key government officials. The government was forced to resign. The protesting mobs jubilated in the streets. A coup was completed with Col. Assimi Goita emerging as head of the new junta. Both the political opposition and the leaders of the civil unrest have welcomes the coup. No one knows whether there is a collaboration between the coup leaders and the opposition elements.

International condemnation and sanctions have followed. Mali has been suspended from the African Union while ECOWAS has imposed a land and air blockade of the country. The United States has suspended military training and assistance. ECOWAS has sent in a negotiating team headed by former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan. It is only likely that the soldiers will negotiate everything except their hold on power and the duration of their tenure.

The new coup in Mali is a replay of a familiar African script. Insecurity has bred bad politics. Political instability has in turn opened the door for ambitious soldiers to topple democracy at a bad time and in a dangerous place. The sad truth is that fragile democracies cannot in and of themselves protect themselves from the forces that bad politics and atrocious governance unleash.

Sadly, the ripples of the drama in Bamako will not stop in Mali. A host of regional security issues have been come to the fore. First is the future of democracy in vulnerable places where bad governance and unsettled national questions inevitably endanger national security. Second is the security of the nations sharing the Sahel against the strategic peril posed by the geo political relocation of international terrorism to the Sahel.

The long standing conflict between the Tuaregs in the north of Mali and political factions in the southern half of the country has remained intractable for decades. Mali’s geographical location as a gateway between North Africa and the Sahel make the strategic implications somewhat compelling and treacherous. Local Islamist jihadists have mixed freely with fundamentalist terrorists from North Africa and the Arab world from where they have been routed by concerted Western pressure. Instability has also made Mali a hot highway for illicit trade in drugs and human beings seeking a safe corridor to Europe.

Malian politics has been infiltrated by these contending forces. The jihadists have embedded themselves into the partisan divides of the country. Assorted Islamist fundamentalist groups have sheltered into the equation. The political opposition now includes jihadist elements seeking a bigger voice in the government.

It is doubtful if a government assailed on all sides with sectarian and political turmoil can deliver good governance to avert the kind of civil unrest that quickened the latest coup. Most tragically, the politicians in Mali have failed to strengthen the apparatus of state security over these years. Consequently, the periodic easy invasions of the centres of power and authority cannot be a credit to any credible concept of state security.

The fragile state of Mali’s national security has major regional and international security implications. Mali is central to the Sahel which is a continuum with the entire West Africa. This zone has also become the festering ground for the renegade formations of Al Queda, ISIS and now ISWAP. These terror groups having been routed in Europe and most of the Arab world have become more active in West Africa up to Nigeria where Boko Haram has remained a major threat for over a decade. Countries as far afield as Senegal, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Cameroun have all been targeted by the terrorists.

It is good that ECOWAS has initiated a mechanism for some resolution. Coaxing the soldiers to leave the comfort of the presidential mansion and return to the barracks may not be so easy. Forging a platform of common national commitment between the Tuaregs and the rest of the political factions in Mali may be the real challenge. Even more daunting would be how to dissuade the more militant wing of the islamists in northern Mali to disconnect from their patrons in the larger Arab jihadist formations.

For us in Nigeria, the development in Mali has an urgent resonance. We have unresolved internal security challenges. We have since adopted a strategy of involving the military in internal security operations. Increasingly, the insurgency in the North East is becoming institutionalized. It could acquire political coloration over time. They have attempted an assassination of the Governor of Borno state. They had previously tried establishing a caliphate spanning the border areas between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroun. There are unproven allegations of complicity between active politicians and elements of the insurgents. There have also been charges of sabotage of operations by elements in the security forces. These problems further complicate Nigeria’s internal security nightmare. Mali has shown that where insecurity and instability persist, incompetent governments no matter their military backing are a danger to national security and democracy itself. That incidentally is the postcard from Bamako to Abuja.
Pix: Goita.jpg


‘Animal Farm’ at 75: Art and Enduring Political Purpose

On 17th of August, 1945, Penguin Books published “Animal Farm”, the classic political satire by George Orwell (real name: Eric Arthur Blair). Initially intended as an anti Stalinist satire to dissuade Europeans from embracing Stalinist totalitarianism, Orwell’s slim ‘fairy tale’ has gained wide acceptance among the English speaking readership and in homes, libraries and school curricular in over 70 languages around the world. Orwell, who was himself a social democrat, was mortally petrified by the prospects of the spread of revolutionary absolutism, bloody dictatorship and upheaval in Europe especially in Britain.

For the last 75 years, ‘Animal Farm’ has cemented its position as one of the most remarkable literary events of the last century. It remains an undying political allegory of universal appeal and enduring contemporary resonance. Not even Orwell’s other much celebrated futuristic and prophetic novel, “1984”, has found nearly as much popular appeal and contemporary relevance.

Thus, wherever revolutions have occurred and self imploded, wherever the heroes of revolutionary disruption have turned the sword of subterfuge against each other, wherever the promises of messianic political change have turned into ashes of disappointment and mass betrayal, ‘Animal Farm’ has found meaning as a literary paradigm of human political behavior and experience. To the extent that such tragic reversals remain a permanent feature of politics and human behavior, the appeal of this otherwise simple animal fable has endured with recurrent freshness and troubling echoes.

Since after reading ‘Animal Farm’ as a high school junior in 1966, I have found myself repeatedly returning to the tiny novel ever so often. As a matter of personal choice and habit, each time any of my children began reading, I would instinctively gift them two books as primers: George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. My aim has been to prepare them in advance for two basic experiences that will recur in their future lives. The first is the ever present reality that every political change usually carries in its womb the seeds of its own reversal. The second is the inevitability of change as the only permanent thing in the world, be it political, cultural or indeed technological. As a teacher, I always included “Animal Farm” in reading lists for courses in ‘Literature and Politics’ or, for that matter, as textual matter for graduate courses in ‘Literary Theory’ or ‘Literature and Society’.

Ordinarily, a simple imaginative recreation of an animal fable should not graduate beyond bed side entertainment or, at best, a reading primer for young adolescents. “Animal Farm” fulfills both functions and rises to loftier heights. It is a revolt among animals in an English countryside farm. The animals in the farm, led by the pigs Napoleon and Snowball mobilize the rest for a violent revolt against Mr. Jones, a countryside farm owner. The revolt succeeds in chasing off the unsuspecting Mr. Jones and his family, thereby ending an era of ostensible human exploitation and ushering in a regime of government of animals by animals for animals with the memorable hilarious moto: “Two legs bad, four legs good”!

Soon enough, supplies run thin as the capacity of the animals to run the farm diminishes, leading to unavoidable hunger and widespread discontent. The totalitarian Napoleon deploys the wily propaganda skills of Squeler, a gifted propagandist to disinform and misinform the animals while justifying every act of the ruling oligarchy of pigs. The height of this propaganda blitz is the subversion of the original anthem of the revolt: “All Animals Are Equal” by a crafty emendation: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Soon enough, an oligarchy of pigs emerges with an entitlement to the good things with all the vices and excesses of the discredited humans.

Soon enough, Snowball overthrows Napoleon and the vanguard of animals spawns an opposition camp of silent malcontents. Devotees of the toppled Napoleon are routinely liquidated while widespread disillusionment among the animal population erodes and subverts the original ‘revolutionary’ fervor. In the end, the elite regime of pigs invites representatives of humans to an event that resembles a banquet and perhaps a disguised rehearsal for handing back the farm to human management. At the climactic moment, the other animals look in through the window. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This simple allegory which Orwell insisted on calling a ‘fairy tale’ captures the historical twists and turns of great revolutions and even the reversals in partisan democratic political changes of baton. The Bolshevik revolution bred the great purges of revolutionary ‘fellow travellers’ under Stalin and later led to the rise of a privileged communist elite class that lived in luxurious dachas in the suburban outskirts of Moscow. Similarly, the Chinese revolution under Mao Tse Tung produced the unintended rise of the infamous Gang of Four and the serial abuses and corruption that led to their subsequent purge in the post Mao era.

Elsewhere in the world where the adoption of leftist ideologies led to popular revolutions, there would seem to be a bit of the wisdom of ‘Animal Farm’ in the subsequent tragic reversals of the original revolutionary ideals. In Venezuela, the populist autocracy of Hugo Chavez and his comrades literally crippled the economy of one of the world’s potentially richest countries and sent millions of impoverished citizens into the streets literally with begging bowls. It is only perhaps in Cuba that the original revolutionary ideals and spartan discipline of Fidel Castro and his successors was never substantially diluted, leading to the survival of Cuba today as easily the most credible surviving vindication of socialist progress and humanism.

In Africa, the radical revolutionary model bred mostly unmitigated disasters of tectonic proportions. Ethiopia under Haile Megistu Mariam yielded a huge harvest of empty leftist sloganeering and the unmitigated disaster of famine and hunger that made Ethiopia the poster child of global hunger and charity. In Benin Republic, Mathew Kerekou further impoverished the people of the tiny West African nation while crushing all opposition and muzzling all dissent. In the poor land locked state of Burkina Faso, the honest revolutionary zeal of the youthful Thomas Sankara was cut short by the bloody subterfuge of his assumed comrade and fellow traveler, Blaise Compoare, who ended up subverting all the ideals of the original putsch and handing back the country to the ogres of capitalist exploitation.

The applicability of the “Animal Farm”paradigm to the politics of contemporary Africa is not restricted to failed leftist revolutionary episodes. The bane of the multi party democratic experience in Africa has been the gap between the promises of successive politicians and the serial failure to meet the expectations of the people. To that extent, the paradigm is as relevant to Stalinist Russia of the 1920s as it is to today’s Nigeria where Mr. Buhari’s promise of positive change has turned into an ash heap of failed hopes, frustrated dreams and insecure lives.

• Books of the Week:

1. Anne Applebaum- Twilight of Democracy:
The Seductive Lure of

2. Isabel Wilkerson – Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

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