Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Well that was exciting...

Yesterday I came home from the office a bit earlier than expected because some people staying in a hotel (the ones that can't fit in the guesthouse as we're full up) who'd gone home early had heard gunfire. So we stocked up on beers from the Hotel Princesse in the neighbourhood (on which more later... it's a joy that deserves it's own blog post) and headed home to sit it out.

Being an Ushahidi-ite, my instinct was to go on twitter and figure out what was going on that way. Consensus was that the former Presidential Guard were trying to take the TV station in some kind of attempted-counter coup. It now seems (unconfirmed, via twitter) that this was actually triggered by soldiers from the Junta trying to arrest two Presidential Guard leaders - so nothing to do with the ex-President at all, which would make sense given that he's in Senegal, was due to step down at the election (meant to have been held in April) anyway, and hasn't shown any obvious interest in reclaiming power.

Next morning, we woke up to a huge thunderstorm. Everything was quiet after that, as if the rain had sent everyone hiding (given how hard it rains here, it's not implausible). So we went to the office and stayed there till we heard shots again at around 11. By 12, the shots were getting closer and more frequent and we could hear military aircraft overhead, so we decided to call it quits and head back to the guesthouse, stocking up on pasta and sauce on the way.

For the rest of the afternoon we sat around in the guesthouse, everyone else working and me trying to work but really trying to find out what was going on via twitter. Turns out my location meant I could figure out as much as anyone else could - the Junta attacking the 'red berets' (Presidential guard) in their compound to the South East of us, and a bit of shooting to the South West near the main bridge. Nothing much changed over the day, though the red berets were gradually pushed back and it now seems that the Junta have taken over their compound, and it's all basically over - and the fact that the shooting has basically stopped does seem to back this up. For a more 'as it happened' account see here: http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/strange-days-in-bamako/.

More worrying is what this means for the peace process. In the first place, the Junta apparently spent a lot of the day claiming that foreign influences were behind the violence, and parading some English-speaking 'prisoners' on TV. Whether these were actual prisoners, or whether they were anything other than poorly paid mercenary footsoldiers if they were, is beside the point - the Junta are obviously trying to portray 'foreigners' as destabilising the country. This could cause problems when the ECOWAS force that is supposed to enforce the transition deploys - if the Junta's strategy is to decry foreign influences whenever they do anything they don't like, it won't make their job any easier.

Even more ominous was the dog that didn't bark - the interim President, Dioncounda Traore, who hasn't been seen nor heard from all day. The Communications Minister was apparently on TV at about 4pm, by which time it was all over. But by that time we'd had many statements from the military supposedly reassuring us about the situation. The Communications Minister felt like an afterthought. Cobbled on to the fact that the Junta can apparently wander across town and try to arrest the leaders of the Presidential Guard, triggering two days of fighting which they comprehensively win, it makes it pretty clear that the Junta are still in control and won't stand any challenges to their power. I guess we'll wait and see, but it doesn't bode well for a transition to civilian democracy.

On a personal note, I've used twitter to follow crises before - Haiti being the most obvious - and to follow politics and Torpids. But this is the first time it's really been close and important to me, and it's a revelation. I remember the first day in Cote d'Ivoire, where we really didn't know what was happening, the phones were ringing and Dad was ringing everyone to figure out what was happening. The government planted rumours (Guei killed storming the TV station... only not so much) and it took days to be sure they weren't true. Without twitter, I'd have just been sitting at home all day listening to gunfire and climbing the walls. With it, I knew what was going on and by adding the information I had (where I'd heard shots from, what kind, how frequent) I could contribute to a process of working out what was happening. As I discussed in my evacuees post, uncertainty is corrosive and frightening. Knowing what's happening and being able to think about what it means for me and for the country is incredibly empowering, even if the knowledge I think I have shifts every hour. Bottom line: I don't get how people who use twitter every day have time for real life, but there are times where there's nothing like it.

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