Mali's crisis: pitfalls and pathways

A short-lived military coup in Mali highlights the complex crisis unfolding in the country's north, where armed groups and religious networks are active among a disaffected Tuareg population. Both immediate measures and an intelligent medium-term strategy are needed to preserve the nation's unity and create new foundations for progress, says Gilles Olakounlé Yabi. 

 

Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the chief of the military junta that overthrew Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Touré on 22 March 2012, has had his moment in the spotlight. The coup leaders failed to gather the support of the majority of political parties and civil-society organisations in Mali, and - following heavy pressure and stringent economic and diplomatic sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) - they signed an agreement on 6 April accepting the need to return power to a constitutional civilian authority.

The coup marked an abrupt end to the career of President Touré. Approaching the end of his second and final term, he was due to stand down in June and, unlike some of his counterparts on the continent, made no attempt to circumvent the constitution to stay in power. His formal resignation on 8 April was a precondition for the junta to accept Ecowas’s framework for the return to constitutional order. The president of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traoré, is now (with effect from 12 April) interim president. But Captain Sanogo, having ousted and discredited the former military hierarchy and become the self-proclaimed head of state for two and a half weeks, is likely to try to maintain his influence along with those around him.

The other key aspect of the framework negotiated by Ecowas - more political in nature than strictly constitutional - was to ensure that the coming period of transition will be led by a prime minister and national-unity government. They will, according to the text of the 6 April agreement, have "full powers" to "manage the crisis in Northern Mali" and to "organise free and fair elections". But given the country’s instability, the period for which these powers apply remains uncertain.

The challenges to unity

The absence of an internationally recognised government in Mali has been an obstacle to the resolution of the country’s northern crisis. But the return to constitutional order will not in itself restore state sovereignty over the entire territory. The peace, security and unity of the country and its population are severely threatened by the independence of the "State of Azawad", unilaterally proclaimed by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA).

The threat is compounded by the presence of numerous additional armed groups, sometimes aligned but motivated by a disparate set of causes and interests, notably including: a radical reading of Islam that is foreign to established religious practice in the region; terrorist influences; and criminal networks that operate across the Sahara. The rapid fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, long a crucial actor in the region, and the subsequent exodus of seasoned, well-armed fighters from Libya, has also contributed to Mali’s current instability.

Even before the coup, the rebels of the MNLA, aided by the Islamist group Ansar al-Dïn (led by former senior Tuareg rebel Iyad al-Ghali) were arguably driving government forces - already demoralised and poorly organised following nearly two months of attacks against them - out of the north. The military takeover hastened this process, as amid the chaos and leaderlessness that seized the Malian army, the rebels were able to complete their northern campaign in just a few days. Kidal in Mali's north-east, Gao further south and east, and Timbuktu in the north-west all fell without substantial resistance.

Gao and Timbuktu have since become sites of pillaging and destruction, plunging their isolated civilian populations into a deep humanitarian crisis. Credible reports of human-rights violations have been emerging from Gao in particular. Though life in these austere desert cities has never been easy, the deterioration since January 2012 - when residents could go about their daily lives peacefully and without fear of having new practices and doctrines of Islam imposed upon them by force - is stark.

Ecowas, the African Union and the United Nations have constantly upheld the principle of Mali’s territorial integrity, and thus have unequivocally condemned the unilaterally-proclaimed independence of the Azawad. However, simply affirming that principle is not enough. In the context of a highly charged climate of division and mistrust, two major potential pitfalls must be avoided.

The first would be to show complacency (even naivete) in dealings with the MNLA, by taking at face value its leaders' articulate discourse and its promises to restore order in the territory it claims to control and to pacify the various armed groups operating in the region (particularly those associated with Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]). The second would be to believe that the the Malian government's reconquest of the north - whether or not this is accomplished with the supporte of a regional force - can either reset the situation to that of January or that it can in itself ensure a viable peace.

The dimensions of conflict

The plight of the Tauregs is at the heart of the situation. The question of the Tuaregs, as well as the broader relationship between Mali’s vast, sprawling northern deserts and its southern regions, is rooted in the creation of an independent Republic of Mali in September 1960 - and indeed before. During the French colonial conquest of the Saharan sections of current Malian territory at the beginning of the 20th century, the colonising forces met with fierce resistance from several Tuareg clans. There were echoes of this hostility in the Tuaregs' reaction to the integration of the region into the newly-independent state of Mali in 1960; particularly as the new nation’s capital, Bamako, was remote (both physically and culturally) from the deserts of the north.

Antagonism between "lighter-skinned" northerners and "black" southerners remains a reality despite considerable intermarriage and decades of peaceful cohabitation between Tuareg, Arabs, Songhai, Fulani, Bambara, Malinke, Sarakollé, Bozo Dogon and numerous other communities across the north and south of the vast country. The proliferation in the last four decades of groups describing themselves as "fronts" or "popular movements" for the armed liberation of the Azawad testify to the failure of successive Malian governments to completely extinguish Tuareg rebellions. The latter's demands for greater levels of autonomy relative to the central state in Bamako have persisted, as have their claims that not enough is being done to support the Tuareg or to preserve their cultural identity.

The Malian and African response to the armed conquest of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu must be as sophisticated and multifaceted as the various factors underlying the conflict, especially given the complicating presence of heavily armed Islamist groups whose objectives are uncertain but worrying. There is little evidence to suggest majority support for the independent state proposed by the MNLA, but establishing a clearer picture of what the Tuareg do want will be essential for future peace efforts. It is vital in any event to secure and preserve existing ways of life for the people of northern Mali, and the option of using force to achieve this goal should remain on the table.

The quick implementation of key measures can help ensure Mali's reunification. These include an intense effort to rescue the civilian populations in the north from the immense suffering that currently affects them; dissuading the MNLA from pursuing independence; and assuaging the jingoistic fervour developing in Bamako. The involvement of Ecowas, the African Union and the United Nations to improve security and facilitate political dialogue and meaningful negotiations between legitimate Malian actors from the north and the south is also vital. In this complicated situation the psychological and emotional aspects of the conflict must be carefully considered, as neither side will accept an absolute defeat. If one characteristic is common to Malians - both those who originate in the desert and those from the savannah - it is intense pride.

About the author

Gilles Olakounlé Yabi is west Africa project director of the International Crisis Group. He was formerly a journalist for Jeune Afrique magazine, and an independent researcher and consultant in the fields of conflict analysis, peacekeeping operations and political governance in west Africa

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Gilles Olakounlé Yabi is west Africa project director of the International Crisis Group. He was formerly a journalist for Jeune Afrique magazine, and an independent researcher and consultant in the fields of conflict analysis, peacekeeping operations and political governance in west Africa

Also by Gilles Olakounlé Yabi in openDemocracy:

"Guinea: a state of suspension" (28 February 2007)

"Liberia: the post-election challenges" (10 October 2011)