Mali’s Dilemma

Africa is once again a centre of turmoil with the recent coup in Mali abruptly ending the President Touré era less than two months before presidential elections. The mutiny, led by Malian soldiers, is the end result of anger over the constant killing of soldiers in the north by insurgent Tuareg rebels, and the government’s seeming inability to deal with it. The source of tension? The mishandling of anti-rebel operations by sending the military to a remote area lacking proper resources.

Particularly disconcerting is the escalation of events after the coup. Countries such as France and the United States have already put a halt on foreign aid. West African leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have warned the military junta of possible repercussions from the coup. Financial sanctions including a travel ban and the shutting down of its banks could lead to total isolation and plunge a country already plagued by poverty into pandemonium – and the first to suffer will be the population. The country, considered one of the poorest on the continent, depends on foreign aid for its very survival.

Fueling more angst is the unknown whereabouts of President Tour̩. Believed to be hiding somewhere in the country for fear of his life, the population has been left to its own fate, with many cheering the junta without knowing what to expect tomorrow. Dialogue is almost nonexistent Рwith the airport runway incident being the last blow where protesters gathered to stop foreign involvement, attesting the breakdown of civil order.

No one can ignore that Africa has been the scene of repeated coups and coup attempts since the independences in the 1960s Рestimated at over 300 hitherto. Twenty four years ago Tour̩ himself, formerly known as Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Tour̩, ousted his predecessor, then Mali president Moussa Traor̩, with the aid of France. Shortly after, Mali took pride in setting an example of a durable African democracy and Tour̩ peacefully handed power over to democratically elected President Alpha Oumar Konar̩. But Tour̩ later returned to power upon his election in 2002.

Coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo insisted that democracy will remain the focal point and that the international community should understand the soldiers’ grievances. But did he fully grasp the consequences of his actions? Was the coup the right strategy to end the ongoing Tuareg rebellion?  

Sanogo’s reassurance that general elections will be held as scheduled is questionable. Shortly after the coup, the military junta changed the articles of the constitution giving more power to the military including the creation of a military committee with the power to elect the prime minister. A signal has thus been sent that military rule may not be as transitional as it appears, and that other issues are on the agenda. Moreover, the political turnaround sheds light on an a deeper reality overlooked by many: the autonomy of the Tuareg.

The Tuareg, a nomadic tribe, is known to have a distinct history which has for decades fought to gain the right to own land – perhaps even its own state. Obviously, the demarcation of African countries by European colonizers did not take tribal settlements into account, particularly those of nomadic tribes such as the Tuareg. The total Tuareg population in Niger is over one million, and around 900,000 in Mali with a small footprint in Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.

Tuareg independent movements and insurrections surfaced in the late 1990s, especially in Niger and Mali. Although the integration of Tuaregs in the Mali Government did not completely settle the problem, additional progress was made after a long series of peace talks resulting in Tuareg self-government in the Kidal region, along with opportunities for Malian Tuaregs to join the government and the army. Nonetheless the Tuareg movement continues to escalate and according to UN reports over the last few months over 30,000 Malian refugees were forced to flee Kidal for their safety.

The increase in killings, seems to justify the demands of the soldiers. Yet the latter fail to understand that this is not a localized issue, and that neighboring countries such as Niger and Algeria must work hand-in-hand with them to tackle it. Worse still, the coup triggered the end of the peace agreements that were in place previously, leaving the rebels no longer bound in principle to refrain from claiming more territories. After seizing Kidal, Tuareg separatists Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), with Islamist group Ansar Dine, have entered the city of Gao, from where they will most likely will continue the insurgency.

Calling for international support, Sanogo is now confronted with a harsh reality and must carefully think about what action is ultimately in the best interests of Mali. The international community has made clear that President Touré must come back to the forefront of the political scene. Without proper planning and resources for his troops, Captain Sanogo will lead the country to more anarchy including a humanitarian crisis. Even worse, the rebel movement could be exploited by terrorists groups such as AQIM and become a serious threat for the region. It is therefore urgent for Sanogo to promote durable democracy and continue the democratic path laid by President Touré.