Following almost daily coups de théâtre after the Malian junior officers’ coup d’etat of March 22 led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, indications of the political evolution of the shaken West African country and of the possible military repercussions of the past weeks’ events are being voiced in Bamako.
Information is spotty, often contradictory, and foreign journalists, including this correspondent, are relying on opportunities, themselves limited by power shortages in the country, to reach contacts by electronic mail and telephone.
There is virtual unanimity that the population of Mali on both banks of the Niger river has been the first victim of the breakdown of civil order caused by the Tuareg insurrection – responsibility for which the Tuareg national movement rejects, blaming the failure of the Bamako government to respect past peace accords. While the ICRC estimates persons displaced by the crisis between 100,000 125,000, the governments of the region warn of serious food and water shortages throughout the Sahelian region.
This warning had been sounded already last year when, in view of the expulsion of Sahelian Africans from Libya as a consequence of the civil war in that country, political and civil authorities from Chad to Mali, passing by Niger and Burkina Faso, realized they would be under tremendous pressure from their nationals, often escaping pogroms with only the shirts on their backs. Foreign ministers from several of the region’s governments made trips to Paris to warn of the fallout from Libya, but they appear to have been dismissed, as the Western powers saw an opportunity to pursue the global war on terrorism by replacing the anti-al Qaeda Qaddafi regime with Salafists in Benghazi and Tripoli. Libyan state authority at present is minimal and the country appears to be headed toward partition between east and west, or Somalization.
Considering the role intellectuals are reputed to have played in the Libyan operation, in both France and the U.S., one is reminded of William F. Buckley’s remark about the advantages of being governed by a random selection of citizens compared to members the Harvard faculty.
The U.S. and France suspended aid to Mali as a consequence of the March 22 coup, in keeping with doctrines enunciated by the African Union and the ECOWAS (the West African union) designed to isolate regimes coming to power by force. Pressure paid off quickly, however, and in the past week the putschists agreed to turn executive authority over to the speaker of the assembly, as provided by the constitution, following the formal resignation of the overthrown president Amadou Toumani Toure, who is still in hiding.
The speaker, Diacounda Traore, has 40 days to organize elections in which, according to legal sources in Bamako, he may not stand. He did not hesitate, however, in the speech accompanying his oath of office this week, to refer to the northern rebels as “armed bandits” allied to “fanatical islamists” and warned that they would be crushed.
There appears to be popular support in Bamako and southern Mali for this tough line. It was primarily in opposition to the constitutional government’s putative soft line on this issue that the soldiers struck against the incumbent, President Toure, who was in the last weeks of his second and final term. Only afterwards were questions of corruption and wholesale stealing of public funds raised—these have not, to this correspondent’s knowledge, been documented—the coup leaders claim to have found incriminating evidence in the presidential offices.
On April 4, the group that instigated the armed insurrection on January 17, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) proclaimed the independence of the region, of which the Mali government effectively has lost control. The region, savannah and desert, forms a large triangle, about the size of North Dakota, whose main towns are Timbuctu, Gao, Kidal, and Tessalit. The latter, scarcely more than a large village but containing a strategic airstrip important for patrolling the southern Sahara, was the scene of fierce fighting in February and March, with Tuareg rebels and government forces, led by the legendary Col. Elhaji Ag Gamou – himself a Tuareg – battling forth and back for control. U.S. spokesmen confirm that at least one USAF airdrop was made to resupply the government’s forces, in mid-February.
Making an orderly retreat from Tessalit, Ag Gamou saved his forces and many civilians from a massacre that might have replicated a terrible outrage in the town of Aguelhoc in January, where disarmed MDF troops were slaughtered by rebels whose identity and affiliation remain uncertain. Ag Gamou was then reported to have defected to the MNLA, even as this organization was declaring its unequivocal opposition to the jihadists. These are composed, reportedly, on one side by the largely Algerian and non-Maghrebian fighters of AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and by the forces of Ansar Edine (or Dine, according to the transliteration, meaning roughly sons or defenders of Islam), led by the legendary – or notorious – Iyad Ag Ghaly, who led Tuareg revolts in the early 1990s and reportedly converted to extreme Islamism in recent years.
Ansar Edine is more interested in a sharia state in Mali than in Tuareg independence. Both movements – and offshoots that already have appeared – are reported by American and Malian sources as being deeply seeped in the criminal activities that have characterized the southern Sahara for many years. Ag Ghaly himself is believed to have made a fortune as a “kidnap broker.”
On the other side, sources close to the MNLA leadership insist on its secular nature and its value as a Western asset in combating the advance of jihadism in the region. At present, the de facto tactical alliance between MNLA and Ansar Edine against MDF forces reportedly has broken down and, as one source in Bamako put it, “les bandits armes et les terros s’entretuent,” which translates roughly as, “the thieves are falling out among themselves.”
However, these are rumors and no one knows what the “relation of forces” will be in the coming days and weeks. The West African Union’s defense and foreign ministers have been in discussions in recent days regarding the composition and strategy of a regional military force assigned the task of restoring order in the north of Mali, reportedly with promises of logistical support from Paris and diplomatic support, but no specific promises, from Washington.
Meanwhile, the allegedly defecting Col. Alhaji Ag Gamou reportedly resurfaced in Niamey, the capital of Niger – whose government has taken a hard line against both the MNLA and the Ansar Edine throughout the crisis, in contrast to the somewhat more nuanced positions of Algiers and Nouakchott, inclined toward deal-cutting negotiations – and explained that he was ready to return to the front at the head of his loyal troops. For a dose of Wild West and Great Game combined, get your ticket to Bamako when the airports (and the visa sections in the embassies) reopen, but bring some help to the people there, who certainly do not deserve all this trouble.