In a little more than two months, Mali’s political regime has been demolished. An armed rebellion launched on January 17, 2012 expelled the army from the north while a coup deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) on March 22. These two episodes ushered Mali into an unprecedented crisis that also threatens regional political stability and security.
An external armed intervention would nevertheless involve considerable risks. The international community must support dialogue between the armed and unarmed actors in the north and south to favour a political solution to the crisis.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must readjust its mediation efforts to avoid aggravating the already deep fault lines in Malian society. Strengthening the credibility of the transitional institutions to restore the state and the security forces is an absolute priority.
Finally, coordinated regional security measures must be taken to prevent originally foreign groups from turning northern Mali into a new front in the war on terror.
In Bamako, the capital, the transitional framework agreed by ECOWAS and the junta, composed of junior officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, has failed to establish undisputed political arrangements. The junta has rallied grassroots support by capitalising on the anger of a significant minority of the population towards ATT’s government, with which it associates the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, former head of the National Assembly.
Traoré was physically attacked, and could have been killed, by supporters of the coup leaders in the presidential palace on May 21, 2012. Flown to France for treatment, he had still not returned to Bamako in mid-July. The destruction of the military apparatus and the weakness of the transitional authorities, notably the government of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, which is soon to be reshuffled, impede the Malian forces’ ability to restore territorial integrity in the short term without the risk of serious collapse.
In the north, the Tuareg group that launched the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, MNLA) has been outflanked by an armed Islamist group, Ansar Dine (Ançar Eddine), led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg chief initially sidelined during the discussions that led to the creation of the MNLA.
By taking control of the north, Ansar Dine has established a modus vivendi, if not a pact, with a range of armed actors, including former regime-backed Arab and Tuareg militias and, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The latter is responsible for kidnapping and killing many Westerners in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, attacks against the armies of the region and involved in criminal trans-border trafficking. Northern Mali could easily become a safe haven for jihadi fighters of all origins.
Considered for twenty years a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is now on the brink of sheer dissolution. The prospects of a negotiated solution to the crisis are receding with the consolidation of hard-line Islamist power in the north and a continued political, institutional and security vacuum in Bamako.
Although ECOWAS initially sent out positive signals, the credibility of its diplomatic action was seriously compromised by a lack of transparency in the attempts at mediation led by Burkina Faso, which was criticised bitterly in the Malian capital and beyond.
Pressure is mounting in favour of an armed external intervention as specific security and political interests of foreign actors – neighbouring states and others – prevail over those of the Malian population in both the north and south.
It would be wise to ignore calls for war and continue with existing initiatives to promote a political settlement of the conflict without, however, neglecting security issues.
ECOWAS countries willing to send troops do not appear to fully grasp the complex social situation in northern Mali, and underestimate the high risk of inter-tribal settling of scores that would result from external military intervention. Such an intervention would turn Mali into a new front of the war on terror at the expense of longstanding political demands in the north and rule out any chance of peaceful coexistence between the different communities.
Finally, it would expose West Africa to reprisals in the form of terrorist actions it is not equipped to respond to. AQIM’s logistical links with southern Libya and northern Nigeria (through Niger) make it perfectly feasible for it to carry out terrorist operations far from its Malian bases.
This series of events in Mali is the result of a weak political system despite democratic practices, disillusion from the lack of economic and social development in the north and south, government laxity in state management and the unprecedented external shock of the Libyan crisis.
The relations between the centre of power in Bamako and its periphery under the ATT government rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances with regional elites with reversible loyalties rather than on robust democratic institutions.
This low-cost governance of the north was able to contain the actions of the opposition, including armed groups, given their limited military ambitions and capacities. It disintegrated when faced with a rebellion the Libyan crisis had swiftly transformed into a well-armed group and the opportunism of Islamist groups that have in recent years accumulated plenty of arms using profits from lucrative trans-Saharan trafficking of illicit merchandises and Western hostages.
The perpetuation of a battle for power in Bamako, during a transition period whose end is impossible to predict, and the confused overlapping of armed groups in the north mean the future is very uncertain.
A solution to the crisis depends, first, on how to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and, second, on whether the jihadi movements manage to consolidate their position of strength in the north.
The decisions of Mali’s neighbours (Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso), regional organisations (ECOWAS, African Union) and Western and multilateral actors (France, U.S., UN, European Union) will also have some influence. It is urgent and necessary to restore the political, institutional and security foundations of the central state prior to working towards the north’s reintegration into the republic.
It is also essential to increase humanitarian aid to the civilian population in the Sahel-Sahara region, which was already threatened with a food crisis, and quickly resume foreign aid to prevent an economic collapse.
— Culled from International Crisis Group Report