A lot has happened in Mali in less than three weeks’ time. Renegade soldiers have declared a coup d’état; Touareg separatists have carved out their own state the size of France in the country’s north; the president has formally resigned; elections have been promised within 40 days; and a handful of Algerian diplomats have been kidnapped.
All of this has happened to the surprise of Malians, Mali’s neighbors, the entire African community and Western Intelligence. The media across the board has provided us with the “news” of these events, but nothing more. There is an unusual dearth of analysis. More significantly, no one is asking the right questions. In fact, no one is asking questions at all.
Where it concerns Western media reports, the lack of news analysis in this case could reflect the lack of US intelligence on the ground in Africa, and more to the point, the lack of a coherent US policy on Africa, which to a very large extent drives the more prolific US media outlets.
That, however, should not stop journalists and analysts from asking some important questions, even if they don’t have the answers. The first question should probably examine why renegade soldiers felt the need to force out a president who was due to give up office in less than a month anyway.
Elections were already scheduled for 29 April, and President Amadou Toumani Toure, who formally resigned on 8 April, was planning to step down like a true democrat (this is not another Gaddafi) and make way for a new president. Instead, he has stepped down a few weeks early and interim power has been handed to Diocounda Traore, former parliamentary speaker, with the agreement that new elections will be called within 40 days (if at all possible).
From this perspective, if the true objective of the coup leaders was to spur on the formation of a new government, which it said was mismanaging the Touareg rebellion in particular, they have only delayed such.
Mismanagement of the Touareg rebellion was listed as the main reason for the actions of the renegade soldiers. Disgruntled soldiers claimed the government was not giving soldiers the necessary arms, ammunition and food supplies to fight against the rebels.
Instead, the 21 March coup was exactly the window of opportunity Touareg separatists needed to make their final move for an independent state. And they wasted no time in organizing and executing their final push. One might even question whether they knew about the coming coup in advance.
That leaves one final question. The coup plotters have now vowed to stand down and allow the interim president to organize new elections, in return for immunity. So what have the coup leaders gained? Militarily, it would seem they have only lost.
What has Traore gained? At the time of the coup he was campaigning for April presidential elections, running as a candidate for ADEMA-PASJ (the Alliance for Democracy in Mali-African Party for Solidarity and Justice), of which he has been a leader since 2000. The elections were originally scheduled for 29 April, so Traore has gained 20 extra days, plus a boost in exposure as the man charged with heading the interim government in a post-coup environment. Traore is a mathematician who by all accounts appears to be very open and pragmatic, if not benign.
The only gains made here appear to be on the part of the Touareg, and to a lesser extent, for now, Islamic militants. That said, headlines suggesting that “al-Qaeda-linked rebels [read: Touareg] declare independence in Mali’s north” are not helpful in understanding the situation in Mali.
The nomadic Touareg, who have long relied on caravan trade, have very little in common with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and certainly do not share their agenda. At times, the government of Mali has used Touareg to fight Islamic militants; at other times, the Touareg have cooperated with AQIM, most probably in a relationship that resembles “subcontractors” for AQIM’s smuggling activities. Any form of relationship between the two has been one simply of convenience, as proxies against the government or in relation to smuggling gains.
The greater likelihood is that AQIM-linked groups are less than pleased with the Touareg’s move to solidify power in the north, which could affect AQIM’s smuggling activities. Parallel to the Touareg’s declaration of statehood, Ansar Dine, a group loosely linked to AQIM, began to take over some towns and impose Sharia law. AQIM will find the Touareg a more formidable force with which to reckon than the Mali military.
In the meantime, Mali’s neighbors have reason for concern. Azawad, after all, is a name that refers to the parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria which the nomadic Touareg call home, irrespective of inconvenient post-colonial borders.
The Touareg number up to three million and occupy a vast swathe of the Sahara and Sahel, from Libya, through northern Niger, southern Algeria and northern Mali to Burkina Faso. An estimated one million live in Mali.
“Azawad” will not win international or African Union recognition. The AU understands that the unnatural post-colonial borders are troublesome, but the alternative would be chaos, violence and countless conflicts. As such, the AU is very clear about the sanctity of borders, which is why Somaliland has never been recognized seven years after declaring independence from Somalia.
While Niger would like to launch an offensive against the Touareg, fearing the implications for its own border territory, Algeria is more concerned with the implications of military intervention, which could complicate matters, despite the fact that seven of its diplomats have been kidnapped by suspected Islamic militants in Touareg-held territory.
It is a quandary for Mali’s neighbors, who are not sure what the collective response to the Touareg declaration of independence should be – aggression or engagement.
Right now, Mali is the weakest link in the Sahel, and the coup was a very ill-advised undertaking that for all intents and purposes handed the Touareg their victory – a victory that threatens the stability of the entire region.
Should foreign gold-mining companies be worried? Yes. It is easy for now to downplay the coup and its aftermath, which have so far not affected mining operations, but stability is uncertain at best and indecision over the Touareg, the AQIM’s response, and rushed elections bode ill.
By Charles Kennedy