Sitting in his executive office at Mali's Ministry of Defense, Sadio Gassama received word early in the morning of unrest at the Kati barracks. Soldiers were preparing to march the twenty kilometers from the barracks to the center of the capital, he was told, in protest against the government's mishandling of the northern rebellion. The previous month, widows of troops killed in northern Mali had attracted international media attention by setting up barricades and burning tires in the Malian capital of Bamako, but until now the soldiers themselves had stayed on the political sidelines. Gassama and other Malian leaders were acutely conscious that the participation of uniformed military personnel in a political protest would amplify the national discord to a dangerous new level. It would threaten the separation of the military from politics that had prevailed since 1991, when the military had deposed President Moussa Traoré and set up the nation's first democratic government.
The long-simmering Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali had boiled over three months earlier, at the start of 2012. Tuareg separatists and Islamists who had fought in Libya's civil war were at the front of the action, wielding heavy weapons they had brought back from Muammar Ghadaffi's arsenals. Their newfound firepower enabled them to overrun towns and military outposts that had withstood assaults for years. The most prominent rebel victory took place at the town of Aguelhok, where the rebels killed nearly one hundred people, including both soldiers and their families. News of the violence and mayhem spread fear across the civilian population of the northern provinces, causing two hundred thousand to flee their homes.
Malian soldiers blamed President Amadou Toumani Touré for the defeats in the north, seeing in them the same inertia, incompetence, and corruption that had characterized his government's past efforts against drug traffickers and terrorists. Reports of corruption in the supply pipeline were particularly galling to the military. Supply shortages in the north had spelled death for soldiers at isolated outposts, including the one at Aguelhok, where the defenders had fought effectively until running out of ammunition.
Gassama, in his capacity as Mali's Minister of Defense, decided to travel to Kati himself in order to head off the protest march. His chauffeur drove him through Bamako's streets to the barracks compound, a collection of ramshackle cement buildings with tin roofs.