Mali coup plays into the hands of Tuareg rebels

Malian soldiers take part in a joint exercise with US special forces, February 2011. © US AFRICOM

By Natalia Debczak-Debski, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

Known for its relative political stability in an otherwise volatile region, Mali has often been characterised as one of Africa’s best-functioning democracies. However, a mutiny which began on the evening of 21 March resulted in a coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, just a month before scheduled presidential elections in which he was not standing for re-election.

On the morning of 22 March, coup leaders, introducing themselves as the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), pledged they would ‘return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are restored’ in the north of the country. The committee, chaired by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, primarily accused Touré of incompetence and inadequately supporting them in the fight against the new Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a rebel movement seeking to establish an autonomous state in Mali’s desert north. The tension between the two groups had intensified in recent months following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi, which resulted in an influx of well-armed rebels returning from Libya.

The political turmoil in Mali has been brewing for some time and highlights a growing popular dissatisfaction with the Touré administration. Having foiled two coup plots in 2010, Touré’s government is perceived to have failed to equip and support troops fighting against Tuareg rebels, leading to a series of protests beginning in early 2012. Reports of government corruption and allegations of its involvement in the growing drugs trade across the Sahara have also exacerbated grievances with Touré.

However, public sentiment may quickly turn against Sanogo and the CNRDR. The MNLA has taken advantage of the coup and made further territorial gains. When the CNRDR pulled back its soldiers from the north to consolidate power in Bamako, Tuareg rebels continued to advance, together with the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine, taking control of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu between 30 March and 1 April, representing a massive loss of authority over the northern region. Facing pressure from the international community, which stands united in condemnation of the coup, a new administration will certainly struggle to consolidate power and retake the northern cities.

On 4 April, Ansar Dine, which is seeking to impose sharia law across all of Mali, reportedly forced the MNLA out of Timbuktu and held talks with members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This move was not only a significant setback for the MNLA, but it could well pave the way for further insecurity in northern Mali.

The CNRDR’s pledge to return power to a civilian government after restoring the country’s ‘territorial integrity’ seems very unlikely to happen any time soon.


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