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Amid chaos, Malians hope to get their nation back on track

By Moni Basu and Katarina Höije
updated 9:49 PM EDT, Thu May 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A professor says people were shocked by Monday's violence
  • Mali was held up as a model for democracy but Malians say the government was corrupt
  • The military staged a coup in March
  • Some fear the junta will not relinquish power; others see military rule as the only option

Bamako, Mali (CNN) -- Professor Bruce Whitehouse's blog from Mali began last fall as a slice of culture and society in the West African nation.

Since March, it has been all politics -- a repository of uncertainty, fear, expectations of a land in limbo. All of it was heightened this week when a mob stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Bamako, and brutally beat their country's caretaker leader.

"After Monday's chaotic events, God sent the rains Tuesday morning to cool Bamakois' heads and calm their spirits," Whitehouse wrote on Bridges from Bamako. The Lehigh University anthropology and sociology professor has been working in Mali for the past few months.

"It started around 4 a.m. (Tuesday) just as the first calls to fajiri (dawn) prayer were ringing out across the city, and built quickly to a heavy downpour punctuated by lightning and booms. After an hour or two it gradually tapered into a steady drizzle that lasted for four hours, until the morning commute was over. God kept sending down rolls of thunder every few minutes just to remind us. He was serious."

Whitehouse said people in Bamako, the Malian capital and a "budding West African metropolis," as he describes it, were shocked by Monday's events.

"It is unbelievable," said Yeah Samake, executive director of the education nonprofit organization Mali Rising Foundation.

"It tells us that even the highest office in the country is not protected," said Samake, who aspires to run for the presidency. "So Mali is in a serious problem."

Dioncounda Traore, Mali's 70-year-old interim president, was flown to France for medical treatment. On the streets, supporters of the March 22 military coup clamored for its architect, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, to take the helm.

"Sanogo has a strong support as you can see here today," said Mamadou Diouwara, who gathered with others at a central soccer stadium in Bamako Wednesday for a ceremony recognizing Sanogo.

"Still I was very disappointed by the attack on Traore," he said. "I knew people wanted him to step down, but the aggression surprised me and I believe it's representative only for a minority of the population."

Sanogo agreed over the weekend to a deal brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that allowed Traore to remain in power beyond a Tuesday expiration for his term. The idea was he would continue to lead a transitional government that would work toward holding elections -- toward restoration of democracy.

"So on Sunday, we were breathing a sigh of relief because we thought it was all over," said Whitehouse. "But the problem was civilian supporters of the coup were not happy."

Even though Mali is often hailed in the West as a beacon of stability, a model of African democracy, popular discontent has brewed under the surface, say many of its citizens.

Diouwara said government corruption has been rampant for the past two decades. Politicans, he said, have mismanaged Mali. People do not trust their leaders; that includes Traore, a former speaker of the parliament.

Part of the ECOWAS agreement afforded Sanogo all the rights and privileges of a former head of state. He has been asked to take a new post to reform Mali's army, which Whitehouse said was badly needed.

But Gilles Yabi, director of the International Crisis Group in West Africa, said some people frustrated with Mali's civilian leaders -- those who perhaps feel most dispossessed by the government -- have put their faith in Sanogo. And in the past few days that segment of the population has been the most vocal.

"The movements and political parties supporting Sanogo are not necessarily the popular will, but an example of how divided the society is," Yabi said.

Yabi said there wasn't necessarily a political vacuum, but the situation was probably not helped by Traore's hasty departure to Paris.

So, who exactly is in charge at the moment in Mali?

Officially, it's still Traore, although his prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, wields a lot of power as mandated by the constitution for a transitional government.

Samake, the presidential candidate, said he met with Diarra on Thursday.

"He is very optimistic," Samake said. "Certainly we believe Mali deserves better governance."

But many fear the military has not loosened its grip in the aftermath of the coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure in March.

"People keep writing about the ex-junta," Whitehouse said. "There really is no ex-junta. It wasn't dissolved. On paper, they are not in power but in real life they have quite a bit of influence."

Former government employee Abba Haidara came to the soccer stadium to hear what the pro-coup groups had to say.

"It's crazy what's happening in Mali," he said. "I want Traore to stay -- not because I like him and his party, but for the transition period. The government is not for the military. I'm very disappointed with the people who want him to return to power."

Whitehouse said the concern in Bamako now is how to stop squabbling over who will occupy the president's seat and get on with a bigger task at hand: how to unify the nation.

Separatist Tuareg rebels in northern Mali capitalized on the post-coup chaos in Bamako in the south, taking over chunks of territory. Islamists now control two-thirds of the country, and many fear they will benefit further from delays in transitioning back to civilian rule.

Sanogo staged the coup, complaining that Toure had failed to properly equip soldiers battling the insurgency, ignited by Tuaregs who had once sought refuge in Libya, fought for Moammar Gadhafi and returned well-armed.

Fatima Sy's husband was one of those soldiers. He returned home after the coup.

She said Sanogo was a strong leader -- someone who, with the aid of the regional bloc, could help defeat the rebels.

But recovering what has been lost will not be an easy military endeavor.

The government, said Whitehouse, will need to devote energy to the north if only for revenues. Tourists who normally flocked to places like the fabled city of Timbuktu have stopped coming to Mali. Those who depend of tourism for their livelihoods in Bamako are seriously hurting, Whitehouse said.

"The hope among Bamakois now is that their current shame will cause them to reflect on their situation and to pull back from the abyss," Whitehouse wrote on his blog after Monday's violence.

He said the last thing people want is for Mali to join the list of dysfunctional African nations.

"If this dynamic gathers strength, it can marginalize the radical voices and help build some kind of consensus at the center," he said.

And maybe then, Mali can begin its slow march back to stability, if not democracy.

CNN's Moni Basu reported from Atlanta and journalist Katarina Höije, from Bamako.

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