Mali’s Dangerous Power Vaccuum

The military coup that ousted Mali President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012 was supposed to restore security and territorial integrity in the unstable northern regions of the country. The junta leader, Captain Sanogo, claimed that the coup was justified because of widespread discontent with Toure’s management of the crisis; nevermind that the country was slated to hold presidential elections in two week’s time.

In the months since Mali’s crisis has deepened significantly. In Bamako, the power vaccuum created by the coup and its aftermath has meant that the government has been unable to adequately respond to the secessionist movements in the north. As a result, the various rebel groups operating in the north – Tuareg rebels, Islamist groups and diverse criminal factions – have gained significant ground, capturing major cities in the north. While ECOWAS has been discussing military intervention since the onset of the crisis, the lack of political unity in the capital makes that prospect unlikely, and potentially more destabilizing than helpful. Without legitimate, strong and organized political and military leadership, the situation in Mali may get worse before it gets better.

Over the course of the last few months, the crisis has displaced over 365,000 people in the region. Displacement always takes a toll on the health and livelihoods of the displaced, but also on host communities. In the Sahel region, chronic food insecurity is compounded by this new wave of displacement, and with a very difficult climate (extreme heat – temperatures near 50 degrees – and desert-like conditions), communities across the region are bearing the brunt. Doctors Without Borders is one of the main humanitarian agents in the region, and offers this analysis of the situation.

Beyond displacement and the humanitarian crisis, there are serious concerns with regards to the prospect of restoring a legitimate government in Bamako and dealing with rebel groups in the north. ECOWAS is committed to supporting a transition to constitutional rule by March 2013, as well as supporting the Malian army in “crushing” the rebellion in the north.

Meanwhile, Dioncounda Traore, the interim president and former president of the national assembly, was recently attacked in the presidential mansion by junta supporters who do not consider him to be legitimate. He has been in Paris, France, for over a month, since. As a result, ECOWAS and the interim government have agreed to create a special force to protect the interim president. While this may be necessary in order to ensure that another coup doesn’t take place, it also underscores just how precarious Traore’s government is. ECOWAS has now given him until July 31st to come up with a more representative government, failing which Traore may lose ECOWAS’ support.

Negotiated solutions to end the crisis in the north of the country are not completely off the table, though. The current dominant faction in Timbuktu is Ansar al-Dine, a Salafist group that wants to impose Sharia law in Mali and has close links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Their islamist agenda, however, does not sit well with locals, as well as Tuareg groups, who have been fighting for independence in the north for years. This lack of support – popular and among other rebel groups – isolates Ansar al-Dine, and leveraging the Tuareg animosity toward them, even though it may mean giving in to some of their demands, is one of the possible avenues to begin talks. However, negotiations can only happen once some kind of legitimacy has been restored to the government in Bamako – and this should be the utmost priority for all the national, regional and international stakeholders involved.