The situation in Mali has considerably deteriorated over the past few days. Tuareg insurgents and Islamists have taken advantage of the existing political stalemate in Bamako to occupy the northern region and proclaimed its independence.
At the same time, the junta that seized power in Bamako has found itself isolated both locally and externally. The downfall of the major cities in the north and the ensuing humanitarian crisis in the rebel-controlled areas have exposed the inability of the junta to effectively take control of the country and preserve its territorial integrity, as they expected of the previous government before staging the coup d'etat.
The sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), coupled with domestic pressure has compelled the coup leaders to engage in negotiations with the regional body under the auspices of Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore to craft an exit strategy for the junta and the resolution of the political and security impasse. The speed at which ECOWAS responded to the crisis in Mali emanated from its appreciation of the high stakes and the impact of the crisis on the region as a whole.
At the moment, Mali has to confront three main threats at the same time.
Firstly, apart from violating the regional norms on unconstitutional change of government and disrupting the national democratisation project, the coup d'etat has become a major source of instability due to the junta's inability to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. Secondly, the Tuareg declaration of independence directly threatens the stability of Mali and many see the junta as contributing to these developments. Thirdly, the threat of terrorism as represented by the fundamentalist group Ansar Dine has gained momentum besides the proliferation of armed militias and groups and the complexity of the worsening security situation in the north.
The northern region of Mali has become a dangerous area where various armed groups including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (NFLA), Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with divergent agendas seek to establish their control at the expenses of the fundamental human rights of the citizens. There are also reports that Boko Haram members, the fundamentalist sect active in Nigeria, have been sighted in northern Mali raising fears over the possibility of a threat to create an Islamist state in the region.
All these call for diligent and coherent response mechanisms from Mali's partners. ECOWAS is currently working on a strategy that encompasses both political initiatives and military options. Close to 3 000 troops are said to be on standby with the mandate for their deployment awaiting approval from the Heads of state. This military venture might face serious challenges in terms of its logistics, and the familiarity of the troops with the desert area.
The agreement reached by ECOWAS and the junta this week is therefore significant in many regards provided that all parties adhere to its provisions. The deal makes provisions for the appointment of an interim president, a government of national unity, and a plan to work towards holding presidential elections in forty days.
As Dioncounda Traore, the Speaker of Parliament met with Amadou Sanago, the leader of the military junta, it was expected that both would work out the details for a speedy normalisation of the political crisis.
Under the current arrangements for transition, Sanago is meant to step down for Traore to be sworn in as interim president.
As guarantees for its support, ECOWAS immediately lifted the range of sanctions imposed on Mali on the conditions that an interim government be put in place. The normalisation of the political environment is seen as the first step toward the resolution of the security crisis in the north. There are concerns that the immediate lifting of the sanctions might weaken the regional body's bargaining power and remove important tools for pressure and allow the junta to manipulate the process.
Even though the ECOWAS deal stipulates a role for the junta in the defence and security matters of the country, some of its members might want to remain central to the political process for their own interests.
As is common with most of the post-coup transitions, disagreements over the interpretation and implementation of the political deal by hardliners could cause further delay in the resolution of the crisis.
Yet, the longer it takes, the more complex and protracted it could become.
Another concern is whether the elections could take place within the timeframe prescribed by ECOWAS. It is hoped that return to constitutional order will have two major outcomes. It could provide the much-needed sense of authority and create the environment to plan credible elections. It could also provide for a framework for negotiations with the insurgents on the status of the northern region.
ECOWAS, AU, and other development partners including the US and France have officially rejected the declaration of the independence of Azawad.
The debate is now around the nature of the political entity and the degree of autonomy that could be acceptable to all actors involved.
Regardless of the form it will take, two key principles are likely to remain at the heart of the negotiations on the status of the northern region. These are the principle of territorial integrity and the principle of the intangibility of colonial borders, as controversial as they might be.
An independent state in northern Mali under the current circumstances will create more problems than it seeks to resolve. If allowed, Azawad is likely to become a refuge for war criminals, arms traffickers, kidnapers and terrorist groups. What is at stake here is no longer the national security of Mali but the security of the whole region and beyond. There is a need for coherence in regional and external actors' stand on this. In the past, Tuareg insurgents used to seek refuge in Libya. The prevailing security and political situation in Libya and their involvement in the conflict alongside Muammar Gaddafi's army made the Libyan option impossible. Discussions between Algeria, Mauritania and Niger might also provide opportunity to define a common approach to the crisis.
The situation in northern Mali has the potential to become very chaotic and any further deterioration and delay must be avoided at all costs as it can lead to the destabilisation of the entire region.