Overrun by a Touareg separatist rebellion and an increasing threat from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the government of Mali has been overthrown in a coup d’état by mutinous soldiers who seized the presidential palace on 21 March and installed a transitional council, promising to hand over power after new elections.
On some level, this is partly fall-out from the conflict in Libya, from whence Touareg rebels who fought alongside Gaddafi returned home new empowered and emboldened. The Touareg are seeking independence for the north, and a number of recent developments have made their collusion with AQIM convenient, threatening to internationalize the conflict.
In the meantime, there has been growing unrest among the military ranks, with protests staged by soldiers’ wives and mothers, tens of thousands of refugees, and a general consensus that the conflict is being lost, quickly. Indeed, the mutinous army officers cited the incompetence of the government in handling the Touareg rebellion and the intensified AQIM attacks as the main reason behind the coup.
The immediate fall-out of the coup has seen France end its security cooperation with Mali and the US and the African Union condemn the mutiny. But this is likely to change as the dust settles and as it become clearer if President Amadou Toumani Toure has been ousted for good. Presidential elections were planned for April, so the coup’s timing was purposeful on this level as well.
The Touareg rebellion was revived in full force some two months ago. A number of attacks launched in mid-to-late January this year heralded the start of a renewed conflict. Their modus operandi includes hit-and-run attacks on government installations followed by a retreat to the desert, where they can easily outmaneuver the military.
The Touareg are nomadic tribes relying on caravan trade and their activities have at times become intertwined with the extremely honed smuggling activities of AQIM. Though the two groups have little in common, and very different agendas, the past two months have opened a window of opportunity for cooperation and it is likely that AQIM is using the Touareg as subcontractors for its smuggling and terrorism operations. On the reverse side, however, the government has also used Touareg rebels in the past to fight against AQIM.
Internationalization of the conflict in Mali is a pressing concern as Touareg tribes also inhabit Niger, Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Libya, and AQIM spent the better part of the last decade extending its reach across the Sahel.
The coup leaders, now operating under the “National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of State” (CNRDR), have vowed to fight the Touareg and AQIM with a new vengeance.
Gold producers are on edge in the uncertainty
Mali is one of Africa’s largest gold producers; in fact, it is currently vying with Tanzania to be Africa’s third-largest producer of the metal, responsible for some 44 metric tons of gold last year alone.
Shares in gold mining companies plunged as a result of the coup, though operations have not been interrupted as the coup events are limited for now to the capital.
In determining the effect the coup may have on political stability in Mali, it should be noted that the 21 March coup d’état was accomplished without much to speak of in the way of resistance, and can in no way be compared to Arab Spring events that have rocked the MENA region.
This military coup is not a reaction to mass social unrest, rather it has as its foundation real military concerns about the handling of the Touareg rebellion and the AQIM. The coup leaders have promised new elections, though it is too early to expect them to have been scheduled yet, and barring any messy external interference or wrong move by the president and those loyal to him, there is not likely to be major fall-out of the type that would see severe policy shifts.
By. Charles Kennedy