May 29, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Continuing Crisis in Mali


As of late May 2012, the transition back to democratic rule in Mali remains stalled. Since the "accidental coup," which overthrew Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22, the international community has focused its efforts on restoring constitutional order to a country that had previously enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies. As reported in our April 4 IntelBrief, the coup was launched by low-ranking soldiers angered that they were being sent into battle against ethnic Tuareg insurgents in the harsh Saharan environment of the north with inadequate weapons and supplies, and even worse leadership.

With Western donor countries having cut off all except the most basic humanitarian assistance — the Sahel region is suffering through its third drought in a decade and United Nations officials are estimating that some 15 million people face food insecurity — and the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatening severe sanctions, the junta led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo agreed on April 12 to a return to civilian rule with National Assembly speaker Dioncounda Traoré as interim head of state. This legal vehicle was rendered possible by President Touré's resignation and departure for exile. Traoré, in turn, appointed a cabinet consisting largely of technocrats (as well as three military officers with key security portfolios) headed by a prime minister with "plenipotentiary powers," Cheikh Modibo Diarra, a former NASA scientist and chairman of Microsoft Africa.

Despite the apparent return of authority to civilian hands, the putschists never quite relinquished a role in politics and a new controversy arose as Traoré's constitutionally mandated 40-day interim presidency approached its end on May 22. A summit of ECOWAS heads of state extended the transition for one year, a move which was not only rejected by the erstwhile junta, but by a number of political parties and a good part of the Malian public, which resented what they perceived to be outside interference. A crisis was only averted when African mediators hammered out an accord with Sanogo whereby the coup leader was accorded the status of a former head of state — complete with such entitlements as a residence, salary, and guards — in exchange for agreeing to the 12-month transition under Traoré that would lead to presidential and parliamentary elections.

The deal began to unravel almost as soon as the negotiators left Bamako. An angry crowd of protesters supporting the coup and opposing Traoré besieged the interim president in his office on May 21. The mob broke through security, which shot and killed several attackers, and beat up Traoré, who sustained injuries to his head and back necessitating an overnight hospitalization and, eventually, a transfer to France for additional treatment, where he remains.


Below the Surface

While the coup was widely condemned internationally, observers abroad largely missed the fact that it enjoyed significant support within Mali. For months leading up to the ouster of President Touré, Mali's vibrant media had hounded his administration with allegations of corruption (during his tenure, the country's ranking on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index had plummeted from 77th to 118th out of 182 countries surveyed) and various questionable business deals involving presidential associates. Journalists and civil society activists also criticized the government for costly renovations carried out on the presidential palace even as the country consistently ranked near the bottom of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index (Mali placed 175th out of the 187 countries and territories surveyed in 2011). Moreover, the government's inability to defeat the Tuareg insurgency in the north led to repeated demonstrations, some violent, in the streets of Bamako.

This last issue — the view that soldiers were being sent to fight and die in the harsh Saharan regions without adequate weapons and supplies (or even their salaries paid, for that matter) — was what provided the spark for the coup. In fact, one of the first promises made by the junta was to aggressively deal with the rebels, although the irony was that the distraction of the coup and the cutoff of international military assistance that resulted from it facilitated the takeover of the north by the Tuareg insurgents and their Islamist allies.

For a significant portion of the Malian population, the country's traditional political class — of which both Traoré and Diarra are exemplars — is in disrepute and ECOWAS's attempts to restore civilian rule through such actors are viewed as unwanted foreign interference. While these sentiments complicate efforts to resolve the political impasse, they are a reality that can be ignored only at one's peril.


An Islamist State?

Meanwhile, the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its Islamist allies, the Ansar Dine ("Supporters of Religion"), have taken advantage of the situation playing itself out down south in the capital to tighten their control of the northern part of Mali. In particular, the latter group, headed by Iyad ag Ghaly, a leader of an earlier Tuareg uprising who subsequently converted to Salafism and cultivated close ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has made major gains and even arguably outmaneuvered the MNLA to take control of major population centers in the north, including Gao and Timbuktu.

Another ominous development since the collapse of Malian government authority in the north has been how the area has become a magnet for violent extremist groups from across the Sahel, including AQIM; the AQIM offshoot, Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya ("Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa," usually known by its French acronym MUJAO); and various Nigerian and other Islamists. Together, these extremists have imposed their own brand of religion on the local populace, banning alcohol consumption, smoking, music, and other""un-Islamic" behavior, initiating hudud punishments like floggings, and razing shrines and monuments deemed shirk ("idolatrous").

On May 28, MNLA and Ansar Dine moved to consolidate their grip on the north by signing an agreement to merge and establish an Islamic state governed by shari'a. The groups announced the independence of "Azawad," a landlocked territory that would be Africa sixth-largest country, and, according to their protocol agreement, created a "transitional council" to govern the area. While a final communiqué was not released due to differences which remained to be ironed out between the two sides, the deal highlights the increasingly dominant position of the Islamists in the area since the concessions came almost entirely from the MNLA, which has previously been avowedly secular.

While the independence declaration was immediately rejected by the government in Bamako and is unlikely to be accepted by any African state, the emergent entity poses a threat not only to the territorial integrity of Mali, but to the security of other countries in the Sahel that confront some of the same Islamist groups — a point underscored by reports Sunday that AQIM had seized a key arms depot in Gao as well as those of a coordinating meeting on Monday in Timbuktu of the leaders of the different Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine's Iyad ag Ghaly, AQIM's Nabil Makloufi, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, and a representative of MUJOA.


Going Forward

The failure to resolve the political impasse in Bamako impedes any effort to resolve the conflict in the northern part of Mali since, without a stable and legitimate government around which to rebuild and rally the Malian military, reuniting the country is, at best, an aspiration. Delays thus raise the stakes for other countries in the region, which run the risk of the uprising spilling over their own borders.



This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.



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