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The Globe and Mail

Coup in Mali sows chaos in one of Ottawa's favoured nations

Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure is seen in an April 2007 file photo.

David Lewis/Reuters/David Lewis/Reuters

When it came time to pick favourites in Africa, the Harper government put Mali high on its list.

The West African nation on the edge of the Sahara is among the poorest on the continent, yet it seemed democratic, stable and peaceful. It was rewarded with more than $100-million in annual aid from Canada, along with military support and cabinet visits, and was placed on the short list of "countries of focus" for federal aid.

That Canadian policy is in tatters today. Already racked by an escalating war and a refugee crisis, Mali has now tumbled into political chaos, with a group of soldiers seizing the presidential palace and declaring a coup, chasing the President into hiding.

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Drunk soldiers were reported to be looting the presidential palace on Thursday, carting off televisions and computers, pillaging gas stations and firing rifles in the air as they careered in pickup trucks through the streets of the capital, Bamako. A number of civilians were injured by stray bullets.

The soldiers, led by mid-ranking and low-ranking officers, were angered by the government's failure to crush a separatist rebellion in northern Mali. After capturing the state television broadcaster on Wednesday, they announced on Thursday that they had suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and closed all land and air borders.

The fate of the coup is unclear, since some military units are still reportedly loyal to the President, Amadou Toumani Touré, who is believed to be under the protection of elite presidential guards at a military camp.

Because the military is divided, further bloodshed seems possible. And in northern Mali, the ethnic Tuareg rebels – bolstered by a recent flood of weapons and returning combatants from Libya – said they would exploit the chaos by launching new offensives against the government.

Mr. Touré, who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2007, was scheduled to step down peacefully after elections next month, and he had given no sign of unwillingness to leave.

When the uprising began on Wednesday, the President's office went onto Twitter and reassured the country that it was "just a mutiny" and "not a coup." But since then, its tweets have gone silent.

At least three government leaders, including the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, were arrested and taken to a military camp about 20 kilometres from Bamako, according to Amnesty International, which called for their release.

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The coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is a little-known officer who was apparently an instructor at a military college.

The coup has been universally condemned by African and Western governments, the African Union, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Co-operation. The regional economic bloc in West Africa said the coup was "reprehensible."

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called on the coup leaders to "immediately withdraw" and respect democracy.

Under Stephen Harper's government, Mali had rapidly become one of Canada's favourites. In 2009, the government named Mali as one of the "countries of focus" for Canadian aid, along with just six other African nations. Canadian aid to Mali was just $20-million in 2002, but it soared to $110-million last year, making Mali one of the top three recipients of Canadian aid in Africa.

"Mali has been a stable country with a democratically elected government since 1991 and as such is considered an example of democracy in the sub-Saharan region," the Canadian aid agency, CIDA, says on its website.

Canada has sent at least two cabinet ministers to Mali in the past three years. It has also provided more than $2-million for a peacekeeping school in Bamako and has sent Canadian troops to Mali to provide training to the country's counterterrorism units, as has the United States.

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Business connections between Canada and Mali are equally strong. More than 20 Canadian mining companies are active in exploration or production in Mali, investing more than $300-million, with billions more in investments planned. Several mining companies saw their stock prices plunge after the coup on Thursday.

But Mali's supporters may have made the mistake of over-estimating its democracy, according to U.S. political scientist Jay Ulfelder. At the start of this year, Mr. Ulfelder conducted a statistical analysis and concluded that Mali was one of the world's 10 most likely countries to suffer a coup attempt. All the "cheerleading" about its democracy may have prevented people from seeing Mali's flaws, he wrote on his blog.

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