I realize that most Americans or Europeans wouldn't be able to pick out Mali on a map. But it's still a shame that recent events in that West African country have been getting so little attention. Until recently, Mali was one of Africa's big success stories. Now it's foundering.
This is especially ironic when you consider that it may be the policies of the West -- well-intentioned policies that were aimed at ridding the world of a specific evil -- that have contributed to Mali's troubles.
In a continent that doesn't have much of a reputation for liberal governance, Mali stood out. For the past twenty years this country of 12 million people has stuck doggedly to democratic principles. In 1991, Malians overthrew a military dictatorship and convened a national assembly that drew up a constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, far-reaching decentralization, and presidential elections every five years. In the years since then, the people of this Muslim-majority country have consistently managed to stick to those principles. The next presidential vote was scheduled for the end of this month.
Now that election has been postponed, and the fate of Mali's democracy is up for grabs. In some ways this latest crisis is not entirely new. For decades the government of Mali has been contending with flickers of rebellion in the country's arid north, which is inhabited by Tuaregs, a desert people scattered across the Sahara and Sahel. The Tuaregs have little in common with southern Malians, who tend to be much closer, in culture and mentality, to the coastal Africans who dominate the countries to the south. But for all their discontent, the Tuareg separatists never quite succeeded in making much headway. Even Mali's underequipped military managed to contain the insurgency.
All that changed dramatically in January of this year, when a Tuareg separatist army, suddenly emerging from obscurity, achieved a stunning series of victories across the north. The Malian army was forced into a humiliating retreat. Disgruntled officers then staged a coup in the capital of Bamako, accusing President Amadou Toumani Touré of failing to offer proper support for the war effort. Earlier this week, after a long period of uncertainty over his whereabouts, Touré emerged to tender his resignation as part of a compromise deal reached with the coup leaders, who have now handed over executive power to the leader of the national assembly. (The deal, rather remarkably, was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States, a regional grouping.)
Touré's resignation is supposed to pave the way toward a new presidential election, but it remains to be seen whether Mali's democratic institutions can recover from the damage that has been done to them. On April 6, the rebels declared that the territory under their control -- an area a bit bigger than France -- is now an independent state, which they call Azawad. Taking it back may well prove beyond the capacity of Mali's armed forces, and a failure to do so will undoubtedly strike a blow to the credibility of the government during what is sure to be a delicate transition.
But how did the rebels - who staged earlier rebellions in the 1990s and then again between 2007 and 2009 - suddenly manage to pull off such a breathtaking victory? While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, there's one factor that immediately jumps out: the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya, Mali's neighbor to the north.