The many factors behind the unfolding military coup in Mali underscore just how complex and unstable the country’s political situation is.
The ousted leader, President Amadou Toumani Toure is himself a former military man, known to some as “the soldier of democracy” for his role in removing dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991 and overseeing Mali’s transition to an electoral democratic system before stepping aside.
Re-entering politics at the start of the last decade, he successfully stood in the 2002 presidential election which, despite clear irregularities, was largely welcomed as legitimate. His re-election in 2007 followed a similar script, with controversy over fraud but a broad stamp of approval from international observers.
Law dictates that this should be Toure’s last legal term and the president himself had confirmed that he would once again be bowing out at next month’s presidential election. However, escalating events rapidly threw these plans into turmoil resulting in his early removal.
At the heart of the unrest is a long-running rebellion by the traditionally nomadic Tuareg people in Mali’s North. Having suffered decades of neglect and persecution at the hands the Malian government (and indeed other governments throughout the Sahel region), various Tuareg groups have fought militarily for an independent state of Azawad. Their struggles were given a fresh impetus following the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, when swathes of Tuareg fighters and vast hauls of weaponry flooded across the Libyan border. Though many Tuareg had fought alongside Gadaffi and were fleeing repercussions, the overall picture is far less clear-cut; some are reported to have been active in the Libyan rebellion, whilst other factions appear to have some links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In spite of such complexities, and whilst a number of Tuareg fighters from Libya have integrated into the Malian army, many of the freshly armed and bolstered rebel groups have come together under the banner of the new National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and in recent months launched an unprecedented push against Malian government forces.
It is here that tensions emerged between Toure’s administration and the government troops on the front line, who claim they have been abandoned without sufficient food or weaponry for the fight. These issues were lumped in with existing military grievances over the government’s failure to tackle the influence of AQIM and serious drug traffickers in the region, spurring a coup to “restore security” under the command of Captain Amadou Sanogo.
Whilst initial violence and looting that followed the coup has now subsided the outlook remains incredibly uncertain. It is not clear how much of the army is under the command of Sanogo and how much remains loyal to Toure, nor whether the latter will be willing to fight in order to regain control.
And whilst the new military administration has offered to hold talks with the MNLA then step down once the country is “secure”, there is no guarantee that either of these will come to pass. Meanwhile the MNLA is actively exploiting the instability, pushing even harder in its bid to seize territory.
There could not come a worse time for such a crisis. With an impending famine across the Sahel, Mali needs clear leadership, workable infrastructure and a safe environment for the delivery and distribution of any international relief that may be required. If Sanogo and his troops genuinely work to ensure security, then quickly pass the reigns back to an elected leadership, full scale humanitarian disaster may yet be avoided. On the other hand, an increase in violence, refugees, internally displaced people and political instability could yet make an already bleak outlook significantly worse.