What just happened in Mali?


The fallout of the recent Libyan civil war and NATO intervention has yet to fully take form.  Immediate problems such as general instability and the proliferation of armed militias has been the most obvious thus far.  Many if not most of the various militias, organized by town and region, have not been De-militarized.  Rather than lay down arms they have decided to use their weapons as a means of gaining power and dominance in a country that has been stripped of civil society institutions after decades of dictatorial rule.  Torture and human rights abuses are still rampant throughout the vast country.  A culture of impunity has persisted as the central government in Tripoli scrambles to maintain power.  Gaddafi ‘s son Saif al-Islam is still being held incommunicado by the powerful Zintan militia.  And untold numbers of black Africans remain in jail being tortured.  So far this has not been entirely lost on the West, who so callously decided to pick sides in the civil war.  Overtures have been made by both President Obama and Secretary Clinton to offer assistance and help to the struggling NTC.  And yet the myriad of problems facing Libya have managed to over shadow a much more menacing issue effecting the whole Sahel region.  This has been the influx of anywhere from 800-4,000 heavily armed and well trained Tuareg fighters returning to Northern Mali.  These Tuareg have created a power vacuum in the north of Mali which has facilitated a group of low ranking army officers to over throw the democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure known as ATT.  Once a beacon of hope for democracy in West Africa, Mali now faces a growing number of problems that could drag in the surrounding nations into armed conflict, as well as the international community due to the increasing likelihood of drought and famine.

[Tuareg rebels]

The nomadic Tuareg people are an indigenous ethnic  group that is spread throughout the vast deserts of the Sahel.  Found in Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and most prominently in Northern Mali.  It is here in Mali where the Tuareg have been most restive.  Long marginalized by Bamako and the more populous and urbanized south, the Tuareg have for decades fought for autonomy and their own independent state.  Major rebellions in 1962-1964, 1990-1995, and 2007-2009 have long plagued those in power in Bamako. With the ascendency of Muammar Gaddafi the Tuareg were able to find both a sanctuary and patron in the dictators country.  In Gaddafi’s bid to become a regional power he co-opted the Tuareg people, providing them with huge sums or money and arms in exchange for their support.  Many Tuareg fighters rose to prominent roles in the Libyan Army.  Fiercely loyal, it was the Tuareg who protected Gaddafi and his family in the final months of the uprising.  Both Saadi and Aisha Gaddafi are said to have been shepherded by the Tuareg to Niger and Algeria respectively.  When Gaddafi was murdered in October the Tuareg became public enemy number one.  Fearing reprisal from the NTC and militias thousands of Tuareg fighters began the long journey south to Mali.

[A Mali coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo (left)]

And now we arrive at our current situation.  Arguably the best equipped and trained military force in the Sahel has returned to their ancestral homeland with the express desire of forming an autonomous state.  The various Tuareg groups formed the Mouvement National de Liberation de l”Azawad or MNLA as the new umbrella group of the Tuareg independence movement.  As a result of the recent Tuareg  rebellion two hundred thousand Malians have fled into neighboring countries.  Many fleeing into Niger, already racked by drought and lack of food, have put an enormous strain on the already fragile stability there.  Vastly under equipped the Malian army has tried in vain to put down the rebellion.  President Toure, the long beloved leader, was seen by the Malian public as wholly inadequate at combating the problem.  Protests in Bamako against government inaction turned so violent in February that Tuaregs living there had to flee, lest they face violence and even death.  The MNLA easily took control over large swaths of the North, attacking and killing scores of Malian soldiers.  This instability has led a group of low-level, and according to various reports drunk, army mutineers to overthrow President Toure.  Announced yesterday on state TV, coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo said that the new government known as the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) had dissolved both the government and the constitution.  They claim they will hold free elections once stability has been restored to Mali.  The CNRDR main greivenace has been the lack of adequate means with which to combat the Tuareg rebels in the north.

But is this the real reason for the coup?  President Toure was due to step down after the presidential election on April 29th.  This begs the question as to why the army could not wait until a new leader was sworn in.  Or better yet continue to press ATT to be more assertive in fighting the Tuareg.  It is the view of Porkins Policy Review that this is simply just a coup.  Lofty ideas like fighting the Tuareg and restoring stability to Mali are being used as a smoke screen to gain power.  It is true that a segment of the Malian army has been vocal about the incompetence of President Toure in combating the Tuareg.  But it is also true that there is no way that a bunch of drunk low-level soldiers and officers  would have been able to overthrow the president with out some form of political support.  It is Porkins belief that there most certainly is a benefactor supporting the Malian mutineers.  And this benefactor in conjunction with the coup leaders plans to exploit unrest in the North as a justification to grab power and hold on to it.  While crushing the Tuareg rebellion is most likely on the list of things the CNRDR hopes to accomplish, their main goal will be to stay in power.  It also fails to be seen how overthrowing the President will somehow result in the army being better equipped to fight the Tuareg.  It is too soon to really make an educated guess as to what will happen in Mali.  The only thing anyone can definitively say is that the Sahel region is reaching its breaking point.  A massive drought has already effected Northern Mali and especially Niger, leading to conditions likely to result in famine.  Battle hardened Tuareg in Niger may also be dragged into the fight in Northern Mali.  This would putt an even greater strain on Niger which is still unstable after its most recent coup two years ago.  AQIM has consistently been on the rise through out the region; growing in influence and sophistication.  The Tuareg rebellion and now the coup are only adding fuel to the fire.

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