Over the past two months, Mali has faced its worst crisis since its independence as violent rebel uprisings in the north and a coup in March have thrown the West African country into disarray. Since the violence first erupted, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people have been displaced. Humanitarian organizations and agencies are warning of a severe humanitarian crisis in the region as food shortages have become a serious problem and as abuses against civilians have abounded in the lawless northern area.
After years of relative peace, in January a group of Tuareg fighters led a rebellion against the Malian government demanding independence for the northern Azawad region. The Tuaregs have fought for independence of the north, particularly the state of Azawad, since 1958, citing misrule and marginalization by the south. Malian security forces were deployed to the region, resulting in frequent clashes throughout the north and the consequent displacement of thousands of Malian citizens who fled to neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Algeria for refuge.
The situation was further complicated on March 21st, when discontented soldiers, frustrated with the government’s lack of material support to tackle the Tuareg rebellion, mutinied and launched a coup that toppled former president Amadou Toumani Toure. The international community and especially the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately responded by condemning the coup, levying sanctions, and demanding the restoration of democracy in Mali.
On April 6th, under intense international pressure, including a shortage of fuel due to tough sanctions, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanog, the leader of the coup, signed an accord agreeing to return the country to constitutional rule. On April 13th, in accordance with Mali’s constitution, the head of parliament, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in as interim president for 40 days until elections can be held. This transition was described by the U.S. State Department as “not ideal” but “a very important restoration of civilian rule.”
As the coup was unfolding, however, the Tuareg fighters, taking advantage of the disarray in the country’s capital, seized several towns in the north, including Timbuktu, and declared independence. The interim president has rejected the rebels’ declaration of independence, and instead vowed to wage a relentless war in order to restore peace to the country. ECOWAS is preparing a possible intervention force of up to 3,000 troops.
It remains to be seen whether the interim government will be successful in restoring peace to Mali, but as elections near without a resolution to the rebellion in the north, it is likely that violence will continue to erupt.