Nearly a week has passed since a group of mid-level officers led by Captain Sanogo carried out a coup d’etat in Mali’s capital, Bamako. The army was deeply frustrated and angry with the sitting president’s seeming lack of appetite for going into battle with the Tuareg rebels in the north of the country, and a shortage of resources committed to equipment that might have allowed the army to be more effective in driving them back.
But today, one week on, the future of the country looks ever more uncertain.
Many Tuareg groups have sought greater autonomy, if not an independent state, since colonial times. There was a pre-independence proposal in the 1950s for a central Saharan state which would have grouped together all these people who felt foreign to the sub-Saharan peoples taking power in Bamako, Niamey and N’Djamena. Rumbling revolts in the north during 1960s and 1990s have been put down with a varying mix of force, political decentralisation and aid money.
On the fall of Gadhafi last year, thousands of well-armed, battle-hardened Tuareg and others returned home from Libya, determined to achieve their longstanding aim of independence. Creating the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad in October 2011, the rebels gained a series of victories against Mali’s army in January and February this year.
On their return from Libya, they also found an Al Qaeda presence scattered across the north of Mali and neighbouring Niger, stemming from the Salafist groups in southern Algeria. Responsible for a series of raids and kidnappings in Timbuctu, Gao and Niamey, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) has been targeted by US and French special forces working with the Malian government to monitor and restrain their movements. Currently, they are thought to be holding up to a dozen westerners somewhere in the desert.
A dangerous twist in events occurred in late January when the rebels took Aguel hoc, a town in the north, capturing 80 or more soldiers. A number of these were then murdered, hands tied behind their backs and throats slit. When news of this horrendous treatment of prisoners came out and photos were posted on websites, it generated huge shock and fury around the country. It remains unclear who was responsible – was it the MNLA, or was it AQMI? The former deny responsibility, but if it was AQMI, have they been fighting alongside the Tuareg?
Army widows and wives took to the streets of Bamako, and were joined by the population, outraged by such appalling treatment of their folk, then went on the rampage, ransacking and burning the houses and shops of anyone who looked like a Tuareg, leaving them to flee for their lives to neighbouring countries, losing all possessions.
So, for those in Mali, the political situation has been very worrying for some time. The government of President Toure was said to be playing a complex game with the rebels and elements in the administration were also implicated in a growing trade in drugs across the Sahara. Everyone in Bamako can tell you of the airliner that had crash-landed in the desert in 2010, stashed with drugs from South America, a source of big bucks for both security forces and rebels.
For the presidential candidates in full campaign for the first round of elections due on April 29th, the coup has come as a rude awakening to the fragility of their democratic institutions. Many of them are now engaged in discussions amongst themselves and with the regime, in the hope of setting up a transitional structure which can re-establish elected government as soon as possible. Some of those ousted and held under house arrest by Capt Sanogo have started a hunger strike. No-one knows where the President is, but it is hoped he is being protected by his elite bodyguard, somewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, what do we know of Capt Sanogo? Not a lot, except he has done several training courses in the US, and he gives the impression of not having thought through all the potential consequences of his actions. He may possibly be looking for a way out that will enable him to exit with honour from a role that does not sit comfortably with him.
Since the coup, the rebels have seized the initiative – not surprisingly – and plan to capture the northern half of this enormous country while Bamako is in disarray. Their sights are set on Timbuctu and Gao, from which it will be difficult and costly to dislodge them. Neighbouring north west Niger is increasingly affected and being drawn into the conflict.
Meanwhile, the US and France are caught between imposing cuts in military and development aid and expressions of disapproval for this unconstitutional action, and at the same time seething with frustration that both rebels and AQMI are gaining ground rapidly. It is said that a range of other interests have also got a finger in the pie, through support to one or other forces in play. And the possibility of major oil and gas finds in the northern region will only further competition by proxy.
From the first, the African Union, neighbouring states and the regional grouping ECOWAS have all condemned the coup and called for a rapid return to constitutional order, but it is difficult to know what more they can do. No-one is considering an intervention force to reverse the coup. Meanwhile, the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries will only grow, as the combination of conflict and last year’s poor harvest prompt an urgent search for safety and food. With more than 100,000 displaced before the coup, the figures are likely to balloon, pushing the Sahel into a major humanitarian emergency that has not been witnessed since the mid-1980s.
There are big questions about what might happen next. How rapidly can the coup perpetrators transmute into a transitional regime that has greater legitimacy, can re-start the democratic process and re-engage in the fight against the rebels? Or is negotiation with them the best route? Capt Sanogo seems to think the latter should work, but negotiating requires a strong position and a credible threat, both of which are missing from Bamako’s current stance. How will France and the US manoeuvre in the fight against AQMI with the current confusion in the north of the country?
Looking across the border to Senegal and the stable transfer of power from President Wade to Macky Sall, democrats in Mali have reason for sadness and despair. Perhaps from this crucible of frustration, anger and outrage can come a concerted push by Mali’s political leaders to live up to the proud tradition established by president Toure in 1991, when he overthrew military president Traore, and set up a transitional government that led to 20 years of electoral government. But there is much uncertainty about how things may pan out over the next few days and weeks.
Camilla Toulmin is Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). She is on the council of the RAS.