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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Swift and Proper Action Vital to Mali’s Crisis

By William Vu, MPA 2013

The precipitous turns that the country of Mali and its citizens have experienced over the past two weeks have stood in stark contrast to what has been perceived as a stable democracy in the West African region. It has seeped all the joy that was witnessed by Macky Sall’s democratic yet arduous pathway to power last weekend in Senegal.

The infighting between the Malian government and the army has resulted in a Tuareg rebellion by those from the MNLA to reclaim the northern frontier of Mali as the territory of Azawad. The ranks of rebels had swelled from returning fighters from Libya, and this served as the initial catalyst to this rebellion. As of this post, the rebels have succeeded in claiming the strategic towns of Gao, Kidal, and most recently the well-known, ancient town of Timbuktu, where the military held its biggest garrison.

While some may characterize it as the new “African Spring,” the apparent impetus for the coup was the government’s inability to provide soldiers with sufficient resources and ammunition to meet the rebels in the north. This led to a humiliating defeat for the army and a forced retreat. Escalating tensions finally reached a head between the army and the civilian government, and on March 21, President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) was ousted from power by a military junta. In the interim, stepped Captain Amadou Sanogo.
Ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré

Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo

At that moment, leaders from all African nations and especially those in the region must have been on the edge of their seats. Although the rebellion had been in full swing for a couple months and reports of soldiers’ complaints against the government had surfaced, the thoughts of a coup would have been far-fetched. Democracy and stability were synonymous with Mali for two decades, a period of time that the track records that countries in the region have failed to emulate (i.e. Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone). It would be a stretch to say democracy was flourishing or that its citizens were completely satisfied with ATT and his government. There were still wide reports of rampant corruption and mismanagement, but relative to the rest of the region, Mali had served as an exemplar.

Furthermore, the presidential election was expected to take place in a little over a month before the coup began, on April 29th, with ATT expecting to leave office to make way for a new candidate. Such seamless political transitions are an oddity, given several West African leaders’ pre-disposure to extend their terms beyond the limits defined in their constitutions.  Yet with a twist of irony, ATT, who was a military officer himself, would be sacked by the same mechanism that brought him to power two decades earlier, a coup. 

Since Captain Sanogo and the junta have moved into power, the regional bloc of nations, Ecowas and the international community have failed to recognize their legitimacy. They have threatened the junta with financial sanctions, freezing of assets and the closure of land borders. As these sanctions take form, it is likely that their implementation will cripple the economy, especially since the nation’s petrol is imported. There have been reports also that commercial banks are limiting the withdrawal of funds up to $1000, as clients brace for the sanctions.

What might have been conceived as a plot to take over the reins of the government and install a military government has now turned into a chess match, with what concessions Ecowas and the civilian government are willing to offer the junta. Faced with the daily cascade of victories by the Tuaregs and the regional pressure to bow down, Captain Sanogo said on Sunday, that the junta would restore the nation’s constitution, and “organize free, open, and democratic elections” that the military will not participate in. This latter point is central because it is necessary that responsibility be returned to the civilian government. However, the military has still not offered a timeline for departure.

Taureg rebels captured control of major cities in northern Mali following the coup
Map of Mali

In the midst of all this internal turmoil between the President and the military, three discernible things have occurred: (1) The MNLA have gained control of the north, with more citizens likely to be caught in the crossfire as the fighting continues,  (2) the government remains in a state of confusion, (3) and finally the coup and the rebellion will only weaken the government’s ability to deal with the projected food crisis as the hot season approaches.

It is unsure how (1) and (2) will unfold, but it is necessary that the military and civilian government find a swift compromise. Each day that the civilian government and junta fail to find common ground, another day the Tuareg rebellion advances. Assuming that the leaders of the MNLA will not cease fighting unless they gain recognition of their independent homeland, Ecowas and the international community will have to send in reinforcements if they want to preserve the territorial integrity of Mali. Even if the Malian army reconciles its differences with the government, it appears that external military assistance will be necessary given the Malian army’s recent spate of defeats and the MNLA’s unlikeness to compromise. This is a struggle that could last for weeks, if not for months. Hopefully not for years.

(3) Finally, the event that might cause the biggest crisis is the projected food shortage. Some 13 million people in the Sahel region are facing food insecurity in 2012 as poor rains and locust attacks led to a drop in cereal production of 25 percent. Furthermore, over 200,000 people have been displaced since January with many fleeing to neighboring countries. With the conflict, the disruption of local and cross-border food markets have limited food supplies and increased prices, and it is expected that the lives and livelihoods of 3.5 million Malians were to be affected – even before the coup unfolded. Instability in the region will only aggravate the food insecurity. It is imperative that humanitarian aid continues to be ensured and that it reaches the north where the fighting is occurring. If not the stockpiles of dead bodies from starvation might dwarf those killed in any conflict.

As I periodically refresh my computer’s browser, my sense of optimism that a quick resolution between the military and the civilian government remains cautious. In no case is timing more of the essence, as the government and military not only have to deal with the Tuareg rebellion, but the impending food crisis. My thoughts drift not only to the soldier who steps upon the battlefield, but the mother who heads to the market and finds that food prices have increased beyond her budget. Thus, I can only hope that the actors in this show will make the proper decisions and soon…


  1. Interesting perspective. Hopefully, the focus on the political and military situation will not completely overshadow the food crisis.

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