It would be hard to overstate the mess that's been made out of Mali over the last fortnight. A surprise coup, an accelerating rebellion that has split the country in two, and an economic embargo by the landlocked country's neighbors have battered what had been, until recently, a West African success story. Add to that a looming food crisis in the northeast, and you have quite a fine mess. But the world can't turn away: Mali is too important to write off the country's 20-year old democracy as a failed experiment.
The coup was not accidental, as some have argued, but it was definitely improvisational. On March 22, a mutiny in the country's main garrison turned into a coup d'état as soldiers and junior officers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from his palace. The coup leaders, angered by a lack of military material and political will to suppress a rebellion in the country's vast Saharan region in the north, dubbed the junta a "National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State" (CNRDRE).
Its name aside, the junta aims to destroy, not to establish, democratic rule -- the coup took place little more than a month before a scheduled presidential election, in which Touré was not a candidate. Since then, Mali's political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations have with near unanimity formed a common front with one goal -- to reject the junta and demand a return to civilian rule. Internationally, the regional group ECOWAS slapped harsh sanctions on the junta and threatened military intervention if the constitutional regime is not restored.
The junta now has its back to the wall, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the coup leader, Cpt. Amadou Sanogo, has no real plan to extricate himself from this disaster. The junta's actions have been erratic: It staged the coup in order to fight the war in the north, but then sought peace negotiations with the Tuareg rebels. It proclaimed a new constitution, then rescinded it. And it announced a national conference, only to cancel it when its domestic opponents refused to attend.
In an interview published on April 4, Sanogo claimed that if the situation was allowed to fester, "both Africa and the whole world will one day be its victims." For the first time in the past two weeks, what he's saying makes some sense.
A Tuareg separatist movement called the MNLA has exploited the chaos in the capital to pursue its dream of an independent state in what it terms "the Azawad," an old regional catch-all newly redefined to include most of the Malian Sahara north and east of Timbuktu. The MNLA and various Saharan rebel movements have been at war with the Malian army since January, and the army has been losing consistently. It has suffered a double humiliation: Both Touré and now Sanogo have ordered soldiers to retreat rather than fight, and those units that have stood their ground have been over-run. In one particularly gruesome episode, defeated soldiers in the northern town of Aguelhoc had their throats slit, and images of the atrocity circulated widely.
But though the MNLA has a secular nationalist bent, the rebellion in the north is helping Islamist extremists expand their foothold in the country. The MNLA has been in a loose partnership with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s. Ag Ghali's career is a testament to the tangled web of alliances in the region: His most recent gig was in Libya, where, according to reports, Libya's transitional government encouraged him to lead a large-scale defection of Tuareg fighters from Muammar al-Qadaffi's security forces.
Ag Ghali obliged, but the Libyan rebels' gain was the Malian government's loss when he brought several dozen men in arms into a situation in which a rebellion was already simmering in the Malian Sahara. Since then, he's fallen in with the MNLA, and he seems to have a productive working relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The warriors of Ansar Dine care less about an independent Azawad than they do about an extreme Islamist program. Ansar Dine doesn't communicate much -- theirs is not a media operation -- but it's their black flag that now flies over the northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao.