Regional leaders and the wider international community must act quickly to help put Mali back on the path of constitutional order.
In the wake of the military coup that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré on 21 March, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which holds an emergency summit of heads of state and governments on 27 March, the African Union (AU), and the United Nations (UN) must immediately establish a contact group to demand the military junta respect human rights and civil liberties and restore democracy. The contact group should focus on the protection of freedoms, the installation of a democratically elected civilian government, the preservation of Mali's territorial integrity, and the management of its cultural diversity within an institutional framework that is not imposed by force of arms.
Coming just as a new Tuareg rebellion had plunged the north into armed conflict, the coup is a disaster for Mali and for all West Africa. It is a dramatic regression for one of the region's most advanced countries in terms of the consolidation of electoral democracy and the resolution of conflict through political dialogue. Without swift action, those gains will be impossible to win back for years to come.
As of today, 26 March, the situation in Bamako, Mali's capital, remains confused and still volatile. The sole certainty is that a mutiny, which began on the evening of 21 March in the Kari garrison - roughly 15km from the capital - has turned into a fully-fledged coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The fate of the president remains unclear four days after the start of the events; several contradictory reports have been disseminated.
Coup leaders first made themselves known to the wider Malian public through a televised statement on the morning of 22 March, in which they announced the establishment of a "National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State". The committee will be chaired by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and seems comprised of rank-and-file officers rather than senior army commanders. The "incompetence of the government" is the mutineers' main argument for overthrowing President Touré six weeks ahead of presidential elections in which he did not intend to run - and in fact could not due to a constitutional term limit. They denounced the failure to provide "adequate equipment to troops fighting against the rebels and armed groups in the north".
Since 17 January, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a new Tuareg armed group, has launched attacks against government armed forces in a few northern towns, seeking the independence of a territory including the administrative regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. The MNLA maintains an ambiguous relationship with a second armed group, Ansar Dine, led by a former Tuareg rebel Iyad Aghaly. Ansar Dine has stated that the imposition of Sharia law rather than self-determination of the Azawad is their main objective. Despite these differences in ideology, the MNLA and Ansar Dine seem willing to share the credit for their military victories against the Malian army.
During the last decade, the risks of instability and insecurity have become a reality in West African Sahel countries such as Mali and Niger, which contain some 15 million inhabitants each, spread over vast, largely desert territories, often very far from their respective capitals, Bamako and Niamey. These concerns, raised by Crisis Group in a report, were justified by the gradual installation of Islamist groups in mountainous areas of the Sahara, a by-product of several years of terrorism in Algeria. This was partly the result of Bamako's and Niamey's long-standing conflict with Tuareg armed groups. Instability has also worsened with the normalisation of various forms of illegal trafficking - including drugs, weapons, migrants, cigarettes and Western hostages - becoming the most lucrative and main economic activities in these regions.
Since last year, Mali has clearly been the most vulnerable country in the Sahel, as noted by a recent United Nations assessment mission. The end of President Touré's term has been marked by an inconsistent security policy in the north. High army commanders have also been regularly accused of nepotism, corruption, inefficiency and lack of accountability, further weakening their credibility, while instability in North Africa was on the rise.
The Libyan conflict and the downfall of Muammar Qadhafi effectively destroyed the precarious balance of power in northern Mali. The potential for turmoil in Mali was already real enough. The influx of Tuareg fighters returning from the country of their deposed patron with unprecedented quantities and quality of weapons has certainly compounded instability.
Those Malian Tuaregs who had been working with the Libyan army returned in several waves. They joined a pre-existing Tuareg protest movement, the National Movement of Azawad (MNA), a group of young activists which denounced the regime's management of northern Mali allegedly based on its alliances with corrupt local political elites and a racketeering arrangement with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MNA leaders elaborated the political platform of what would become the MNLA. Whether the MNA has been absorbed into the MNLA or constitutes its political wing is still to be clarified. The sudden windfall of Libyan weapons precipitated the armed struggle, but the final outbreak of the rebellion itself follows numerous failed attempts by Bamako to engage in dialogue with the MNLA (founded on 15 October 2011). Simultaneously, criticism from neighbouring Mauritania and Niger, as well as more distant foreign powers, of how the regime of President Touré has managed - or failed to manage - the threat of AQIM in recent years has increased.
The inability of a president at the end of his term to meet the new security challenges in the north and the discontent within the security and military apparatus are essential to understanding the 21 March events. It explains how a coup d'état happened in a country that was considered one of West Africa's bright prospects for democracy, both in terms of political change through credible elections and the resolution of social, political and communitarian conflicts through dialogue. The roots of dissatisfaction within the army and the security and defence forces run deeper than the trauma from human loss and military setbacks since the outbreak of the MNLA rebellion.
There had already been rumours of at least two foiled plots against President (and former General) Touré in Bamako in 2010, allegedly involving disgruntled young officers, particularly with controversial promotions of officers from Touré's generation; perceived corruption, whether exaggerated or not; and profiteering on an unprecedented scale by the military and civilian elites close to the presidency. The proliferation of transfers to northern Mali of Western hostages abducted in neighbouring countries and, more recently, the incursions of armed groups in broad daylight in historical cities, such as Timbuktu, has destroyed the tourism industry and its important revenues and has further undermined the government's credibility in the eyes of some of its own forces.
Could this grim assessment of the situation justify the overthrow of a democratically elected president due to retire in June after an election whose first round was scheduled for 29 April, even if this date was not realistic? Were the "incompetence" of the government and the signs of helplessness displayed by the president in the face of the loss of control of a large part of his country to rebel groups sufficient reasons for a coup? How does this affect efforts by ECOWAS and the AU to launch diplomatic initiatives so that the future of Mali and its similarly fragile neighbours, Mauritania and Niger, is not determined by the balance of forces or those who have the most powerful friends? Do the leaders of the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State have a solution to resolve the crisis in the north, beyond the suggestions of heightened courage, patriotism and integrity that they purport to show? What can they practically offer to restore state authority and eradicate corruption in Mali? The simple overthrow of the political and military elites answers none of these questions.
The weariness of some of Mali's population with the drawn-out end of President Touré's mandate had reached such a point that some have welcomed the coup. Yet African history is filled with military transitions gone awry. The behaviour of soldiers in the field since the coup does not bode well for stability, with incidents of looting and carjackings reported. Clear condemnations by ECOWAS, the AU and the UN, as well as Mali's suspension by the AU, are welcome. These organisations must remain unanimous in affirming the dual principles of not accepting an unconstitutional seizure of power while ensuring respect for the territorial integrity of Mali, especially as established groups in the north are naturally tempted to take advantage of political confusion in Bamako.
However, mere condemnations are not enough. The junta is a reality. Many political and military prisoners are being held in military camps. The MNLA and other armed groups have installed themselves in the north and are capable of acting, positioned not far from the major cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Tens of thousands of Malians - estimated recently to be more than 200,000 - have fled areas of fighting and are still in a precarious humanitarian situation.
ECOWAS, the AU and the UN must create, as quickly as possible, the conditions for dialogue between political, military and civil actors in Mali with the aim of establishing a transitional authority which should give neither a central nor a peripheral role to the authors of the coup. The democratic process should resume where it was interrupted: all actors should focus on options for organising a credible presidential election as soon as possible without excluding the population resident in the north.
The use of an international contact group, such as the one that assisted the end of military rule in Guinea (Conakry) in 2009-2010, should be considered immediately. West Africa is still recovering from armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire, is threatened by serious insecurity and terrorism in northern Nigeria, and concerned about the political stalemate in Guinea (Conakry) as well as the electoral and politico-military tensions in Guinea-Bissau. ECOWAS, the AU and the wider international community cannot leave Mali adrift.