Over the weekend, Tuareg separatist rebels and their shaky Islamist allies seized more than half of Mali, setting alarm bells ringing in all of West Africa and beyond.
There have been many Tuareg rebellions in Mali over the years. With some justification, the Tuaregs accuse the government based in Bamako, Mali's capital, of having neglected their interests. But when Libyan strongman Moammar Gadaffi was overthrown and killed last year, Tuaregs from Mali and elsewhere who had been serving in his army availed themselves of their Libyan weapons, training and fighting experience to return to Mali in force. A new rebellion began in January, and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Touré was not up to the task of stopping it. One government outpost after another was taken over, as troops ran out of ammunition and supplies and waited in vain for reinforcements.
On Feb. 9, the main left-wing parliamentary political party in Mali, the African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI), called for Touré to resign. They accused him of incompetence in dealing with the insurgency, and of leaving Malian troops in the lurch, resulting in serious casualties to this country's small army. Suspicions were also raised that a thriving cross-Saharan drug trade may have corrupted some officials who therefore did not want to deal too closely with the situation in the Northeast.
Then on March 22, soldiers led by junior officers rebelled in a coup d'etat and drove president Touré from power, forming a military junta with the stated goal of carrying out firm measures to prevent the splitting of the country.
Mali is one of the countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Fellow ECOWAS states immediately began to take action to force the junta to step down and restore Touré and his government. Touré at any rate was due to step down after an April 29 election.
ECOWAS sent a team of five presidents of its member countries to Bamako to lay down the law to the junta, but they had to turn back because supporters of the coup massed on the airport runways and would not let them land.
Several of the five ECOWAS presidents who were turned back have very direct concerns about coups and political instability. Blaise Compoaré, president of Burkina Faso, first took power in a very violent coup in 1987, in which his predecessor, leftist president Tomas Sankara was killed. Last year, Compoaré temporarily had to go into hiding when rumors started that his military was about to carry out a coup against him. The president of Mauretania, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, took power through a coup in 2008.
France, Mali's former colonial overlord, was quick to denounce the coup, even though the French government has itself been implicated in a long line of coups d'etat in its former African colonies.
At any rate, even though Captain Amadou Sanogo, the head of the junta, made statements that "the constitutional order" would be restored, ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Mali starting April 2, and the African Union followed suit. Supplies are cut off, travel by Malian junta officials and their relatives are blocked, and Mali's accounts in the ECOWAS Central Bank are frozen. The U.S. has cut off non-humanitarian aid. The question remains as to how the junta can pay the troops, and what will happen when current oil stocks run out.
Meanwhile, the Tuareg rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and their uncomfortable allies from Ansar Dine, linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have swept everything before them, and now control the entire Northeastern triangle of the country. Over the weekend, the towns of Kidal and Gao were overrun, as was the historic city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main fighting seems to have been done by the Tuaregs, but the Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb forces have been moving in the Tuaregs' wake, with reports that they are now imposing Sharia law in Timbuktu, forcing women to don veils and suppressing other activities they deem un-Islamic. With the exception of the Dogon ethnic group in the center of the country, Malians are almost all Muslims, but have preferred moderate forms of Islam.
France had been pressing president Touré to allow it to set up a military base in Mopti, South of Timbuktu. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has now called for the United Nations Security Council to take up the Mali issue, adding that France has no intention of sending troops. But many in Mali suspect France of wanting to use the crisis to increase French power and influence in the country.
Mali, one of the poorest countries in Africa and already beset by an enormous drought that has affected the whole Sahel area, will now be afflicted with yet more destabilization and economic privation, including vast new migrations of refugees from the fighting, numbering already in the hundreds of thousands.