TSG IntelBrief: The Coup in Mali: Perils of Life in the Sahel
As of mid-March 2012, the Republic of Mali was rightfully described by the U.S. Agency for International Development as “a stable democracy in the midst of the troubled West African region.” By the third week of March, however, the country is entrenched in the intractable chaos that has emerged in the wake of a coup staged by junior military personnel in the capital city of Bamako. The overthrow of the popularly elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure, took place against the backdrop of ? and in large measure resulted from ? the recent successes achieved by rebel forces of Mali’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg opposition group, in gaining significant ground in its ongoing battle with Malian armed forces in the rugged desert terrain of northern Mali.
In this politically volatile part of the world, government stability is arguably a relative term as the ousting of Malian president marks the fourth successful coup/regime change in the region in four years (including Mauritania in 2008, Niger in 2010, and Libya in 2011).
The coup leaders announced the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State ? all below the rank of captain ? claimed their actions were driven to protest what they viewed as the government’s lingering inability to effectively suppress the uprising in the north. A major grievance has been the lack of weaponry provided to the military in its fight against insurgents who have become increasingly formidable as the result of the flow of arms entering Mali along with Tuareg mercenaries returning from Libya to engage in the war against the Malian government.
The Tuareg rebels are the descendants of a nomadic tribe that supported itself for generations largely through the caravan trade. The twin factors of modernity and politics, specifically alternative supply systems and the imposition of national borders, respectively, have largely destroyed that traditional lifestyle. As a result, many Tuaregs migrated throughout the sub-saharan region, with a number serving as mercenaries in Libya’s Islamic Legion. With the fall of Qadhafi, however, came the fear of reprisals from Libya’s rebel forces, leading hundreds of Tuaregs to flee Libya in 2011 for Algeria and Mali.
Over the past two decades, the Tuaregs have been involved in a number of rebellions both in Mali and neighboring Niger. The current Tuareg uprising in Mali ? one that has included demands for independence for the north ? was driven by allegations that the government of President Toure had consistently failed to address the chronic deprivation that is the grim reality for a section of the country characterized by the dry and unforgiving landscape of the southern Saharan desert. They further claim that the allocation of government resources greatly favor the south, where the nation’s capital is located.
The Sahel: An Incubator for Conflict
Regardless of how those resources are allocated, they are, at best, limited. Despite its considerable gold and uranium resources, Mali remains one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. It falls within the continent-wide, semi-arid region known as the Sahel, where the dry Saharan desert transitions into the wetter lands of equatorial Africa. This area is often cited as one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded areas on the face of Earth.
In addition to the obvious challenges presented by geography, there are endemic social, ethnic and tribal factors that have made the Sahel an incubator for conflict. This has been especially true within the countries of Mali and Niger, where the the Tuaregs have played a central role. That role has continued with the expanding links some Tuareg elements have formed with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who took advantage of the rugged nature of the region to setup training camps and refuge. The AQIM activities resulted in forming the Sahel Joint Military Command, comprising militaries of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Spearheaded the dominant regional power, Algeria, the Command is composed of around 75000 troops and is currently headquartered in southern Algeria.
The Tuareg legacy of transporting goods and people across vast expanses of forbidding terrain endowed them with a skill set of interest to AQIM. Although the Tuaregs are predominantly Sunni Muslim, they do not hold a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that al Qaeda has exploited across the Sahel. The Tuareg-AQIM connection is largely based on economic considerations. This has manifested in the form of kidnappings of Westerners staged by Tuaregs who, in turn, deliver the hostages into AQIM hands for a fee.
Epic Challenges Await the Next Government
Mali has enjoyed democratic rule for the past 20 years. Whether the March 22nd coup has put an end to that political run or is simply a temporary shift in the country’s leadership remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is not encouraging. The current situation in Mali is not yet clear. The next government in Bamako ? in whatever form that might emerge ? will face the almost impossible challenge of managing an impoverished country with significant uranium resources, one that is located in a region synonymous with conflict and facing a substantial threat from the north in the form of independence-minded insurgents with close ties to a major terrorist organization. This is a leadership challenge of epic proportions.
- While the coup leaders have expressed an intention to transfer power back to a democratically elected government as soon as the country’s “integrity is no longer threatened,” the time frame for such a transition remained noticeably vague. It is too early to tell if they plan to follow the model set by deposed President Toure, who took part in a successful military coup in 1991 that resulted in a return to civilian governance a year later.
- The incredible volume and array of arms that poured into Libya during the 2011 uprising have already begun to be redistributed throughout the region. While militants such as the Tuaregs in northern Mali are known to have brought back a sufficient arsenal to push back against government forces, of more strategic interest is whether (or, perhaps, how many) of these weapons have been obtained by AQIM. Western counterterrorism officials are increasingly focused on the Sahel as the next major battleground against an al Qaeda franchise. A well-armed AQIM can only make this complex challenge even more problematic.
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