The unresolved schisms that led to the military coup in Mali last March 22 and its aftermath have continued to fester, tearing the country further apart.
That coup toppled the elected government of President Ahmadou Toumani Toure. Mali has not known peace since, tottering from one problem to another. Mali is today grappling with the greatest threat to its corporate existence following the seizure of three northern regions: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu by Touareg insurgents who say they intend to establish an Islamic republic there.
The Touaregs capitalised on a leadership vacuum created in Bamako following the coup led by Captain Ahmadu Sanogo that abruptly ended two decades of constitutional rule on the eve of elections for a new president.
The regional ECOWAS bloc denounced the coup and imposed sanctions, including closure of Mali's land borders, a bitter blow for a landlocked country. Under unrelenting international pressure, the soldiers buckled and agreed to a transition to civil rule.
The former president of the national assembly Dioncounda Traore was then installed as the interim president to oversee the transition. The coup leaders however appear to be hedging, prolonging the timetable in order to hang on to power for a longer time than the ECOWAS had demanded. ECOWAS would have none of it.
While the situation in Bamako is still precarious, the problem preoccupying the international community, particularly ECOWAS, is what to do about the deteriorating situation in the north. Some reports suggest that Islamist groups, consisting of the Ansar Din, Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for the Unity and Islamisation of Africa (MOUJA) had been in an alliance with the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which proclaimed the state of Azawad over northern Mali in April. There is division among them about how to proceed; fighting broke out between the Islamists and Touareg separatists recently in Gao with casualties on both sides.
It is into this fluid situation that ECOWAS is proposing to send a standby force of some 3,000 soldiers, if peace talks failed.
ECOWAS leaders must, however, think long and hard before committing troops to an area that is the size of France. Nigeria in particular must be very careful not to be stampeded into an action it may later regret. There is a real possibility that such a standby force might get bogged down in a quagmire from which it will be difficult to extricate itself. The UN Security Council appeared reluctant to grant ECOWAS' request to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force to bring the rebels to heel under chapter 7 of the UN charter.
There is need for clarity and what a standby force would be required to do in Mali. It is not clear whether the Malian army would agree to external intervention; in case they do what would their role be in it. Does ECOWAS have the capacity to undertake such a mission? To be sure, the US and EU might help with logistics and some resources, but ECOWAS troops would do most the effort to secure the country.
The precedent set by the rebels cannot be allowed to stand, not least because of the security challenges it poses for the sub-region. It could serve as inspiration to others. Sending in the troops must however be as a last resort. Thousands of refugees have been internally displaced while others have fled into neighbouring states, precipitating a humanitarian crisis.
Nonetheless, the conflict between the Islamists and the Touareg insurgents might provide an opening for ECOWAS to exploit. The Islamists, for instance, want to establish Sharia in the whole of Mali while the Touaregs are more concerned with their self-declared State of Azawad. In between these two positions lies a window of opportunity to find a lasting settlement of benefit to the entire country.