Friday, 13 April 2012

The Bottom Brass

It is pretty worrying that Mali’s coup of March 21st  was led by junior officers. Your standard-issue general-led coup obviously doesn’t say great things about the military leadership’s basic willingness to subordinate itself to civilians, but a junior-officer coup says terrible things about the structure of the army itself. 

To complement some great work on structural preconditions in Mali—see below—this piece  by Bruce Whitehouse has some sharp thoughts on proximate causes and process. The junior officers’ motivations seem to go beyond the war itself, to broader issues of corruption and mismanagement in the top brass. (Whether this is because the putschists are noble, civic-minded guardians of probity or because they wanted their cut is, of course, another issue.) This makes sense to me. The success of the Touareg after the coup should have been relatively easy to anticipate, so it’s hard to buy the line that the coup was an attempt to rescue the war effort.

So we have to look for some other explanations, and the institutional weakness of the Malian military seems like an obvious candidate. Consider the previous experience with military regimes led by junior officers like Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in Liberia in the 1980s and Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. You have to have a pretty undisciplined army for a junior officer to mount a coup. And Whitehouse argues pretty convincingly that Captain Sanogo basically blundered into supreme executive power. It’s hard to imagine how a group of junior officers could just stumble upon power in a relatively professional army.

This might also help explain Capt. Sanogo’s relatively quick turn to civilians. Regimes led by the bottom brass, according to research by Barbara Geddes [PDF] tend to be particularly unstable and require a lot of effort to expand the ruling coalition in order to survive. There’s a new interim president in Mali, but it looks like the putschists will have a pretty strong, lingering influence

This basically adds an institutional reason—an undisciplined military—to the general sense that Mali’s got some serious and persistent risk of political instability. Mali’s coup came in the context of a food crisis and a rebellion. In addition, there were signs of risk visible last year, despite the general perception that Mali was a relatively stable regime. Jay Ulfelder has been a must-read on the coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, putting them into clear statistical context. Statistical trends help us to identify surprisingly likely (or unlikely) cases, and Mali was pretty high up Ulfelder's rank-ordering of coup risk in 2012. 

I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that ongoing instability in Mali is overdetermined. But overall, we have pretty good reason to expect continued, and potentially quite severe, military fractiousness. And the rebellion is likely to remain in charge in the north for the foreseeable future. The new interim president talks a big game, but I don’t see a chaotic army really able to dislodge the Touareg.


  1. Welcome to the blog-world, Theo!

    Do we know much about recruitment and retention patterns in the military? Mali nominally has two years of mandatory military service, but in many countries there are either exemption clauses (for only sons, allowing buy-outs of military service, etc.) or widespread non-compliance.

    It would be interesting to know whether the middle/lower ranks of the armed forces look much like Malian society in general, or have any strikingly different social characteristics.

  2. There's no mandatory service in Mali in practice. I've never heard of it existing in theory for that matter. I've been reading accounts over the past several months of widespread nepotism in Malian military recruiting in the ranks; there was also a top-heavy command structure (President Toure named 3 dozen generals in 10 years, compared to his predecessors something like 14 over 42 years!). Generals were selected more for their loyalty to the president than their ability. This in part explains the junta's distrust of senior officers.