While the world’s media has been distracted by the shooting of a terrorist in France, and the “million hoodie march” in America, there has been a coup d’état going on in Mali, a good, old-fashioned, storming-the-presidential-​ palace style coup d’état.
I know, I had to check on the map where it was too — just right of Mauritania and up from Burkina Faso — but a coup is a coup, so well done Mali. Good effort.
It’s funny how you sometimes don’t know you’ve been missing something until your attention is drawn to it, but I’ve been missing coups. They used to happen on an almost weekly basis in the 1970s and 1980s — an impressive 85 in Africa alone — but now they hardly ever seem to happen at all.
Even Latin America appears to have gone off the idea. There, they were so keen on them at one point that leaders would have a coup against themselves, as Alberto Fujimori did in Peru.
It even seems to have been a source of national pride. In 1998 I covered an election campaign in Venezuela in which Irene Sáez, a former Miss Universe, stood against Hugo Chávez. I accompanied her to a radio station where she proudly pointed out the bullet holes in the walls. You always have to get the radio station first, that is the etiquette when you’re having a coup.
That’s what they did in Mali. And those involved gave themselves a grandiose sounding name, the National Committee for the Establishment of Democracy. It makes you wander what our equivalent would be. I’ve always been taken with the name the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. They are a perfectly respectable conservation organisation, founded in 1977, but I’m sure if putsch came to shove they could be persuaded to storm the radio stations on our behalf.
But we’ve never really gone in for coups here. The closest we have come was the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher, but that was a bloodless coup. We aren’t even much good at exporting them. Simon Mann is our best-known practitioner, and he was rubbish. The coup attempt against Harold Wilson in 1968 is typical of where we go wrong.
A meeting was called between the press baron Cecil King, Lord Mountbatten and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the chief scientific adviser to the government. It was suggested that the country had become so unstable there would be “bloodshed in the streets”. Mountbatten was asked if he would be prepared to be titular head of a new administration. “Thank you,” he said, “but I must decline.” Too British, you see.
Will Mali mark a comeback for the traditional coup? I doubt it. In the past few days, China’s microbloggers have been feverish with rumours of a coup brewing there. Photographs of tanks on Beijing streets have been whizzing around the web, but it seems they are old ones, from military parade rehearsals. A virtual coup just isn’t the same.
Only once have I been swept up in a coup, and that was in Nepal. As I sat in a bar in Kathmandu, three homemade bombs went off not far away. The following afternoon was the vote to decide whether the king should be thrown out of his palace. Several thousand people marched through the streets, waving hammer and sickle flags. Tanks appeared. But the coup passed off peacefully. The king stood down and no one was hurt. Perhaps the gentle Nepalese are like us. It’s just not in their blood.