An unexpected military coup could plunge Mali in a spiral of instability

Although fighting between Tuareg rebels and government troops had been ongoing since mid-January, the military coup in Mail that took place last week was unexpected and threatens to plunge a country that has enjoyed relative stability since the 1990s into a spiral of instability.

Junior officers, calling themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (known under the French acronym, CNRDR), toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure for failing to provide the army with the weapons and ammunition needed to fight a Tuareg insurgency in the north—led by rebels recently returned from Libya, where they served as Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces.

If Tuareg rebels decide to capitalize on the power vacuum in Bamako and escalate attacks on government strongholds in the north, then the country could be headed towards a civil war.  In fact, the Tuaregs have capitalized on the political instability to advance to the gates of the strategic northern town of Kidal. They are also headed for the northern city of Gao, which serves as the military base point for operations against Tuareg separatists.

The military had legitimate grievances with the government after suffering humiliating defeats at the hands of the rebels. But the decision to opt for a coup rather than wait for the upcoming presidential elections due to take place at the end of next month, appears to be misguided at best because the outgoing president had made it clear that he would step down at the end of his second-term.

Analysts have argued that President Toure’s decision to choose political dialogue rather than military confrontation—a stance perceived as soft by military officers—was actually rooted in the financial and economic difficulties that led to a reduction in the national defense budget, affecting the army and security forces. The regional grouping of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), offered their military support to the national army to end the rebellion in order to give a chance for the presidential elections to take place.

The coup leaders promise to hand over authority to an elected government once the country has been reunified and security has been restored. The former appears uncertain now that Mali has adopted a new constitution. The new measures include the creation of a military-led council, headed by Capt. Amadou Sanogo. The military junta may struggle to unite Mali for their cause. Bamako’s populace appears to be divided over the military takeover. Some demanded a return to democratic governance on Monday but today several thousands people took to the street to express their support for Capt. Sanogo.

There are doubts as to whether the military junta can deliver on their promise of restoring security. Capt. Sanogo says that he is willing to hold peace talks with Tuareg rebels but a political solution to address the resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion appears unlikely if the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) continues to oppose any political dialogue that excludes the independence of Azawad—a state they intend to create in northern Mali on the basis that citizens in the area have nothing in common with Malians living in the south.

Analysts are also concerned that the coup might lead Mali into a spiral of instability as the junta does not have control over the whole country and unanimity does not exist among all army officers and various units of the security forces. Contrary to remarks made by Capt. Sanogo, the coup chiefs have been unable to control the soldiers under their command, judging by the pillaging and wild shooting in the streets. Internal factions within the army raise doubts on the junta’s effectiveness to quell the northern insurgency.

It also appears that the junta may not have the adequate means and resources to fight the Tuareg insurgents. The United States joined the international community in condemning the military coup and took effective action by suspending as much as $60 million in non-humanitarian assistance, earmarked for helping the army fight Tuareg insurgents and al-Qaeda militants in the Islamic Maghreb.

Furthermore, coup leaders are increasingly isolated now that ECOWAS has suspended Mali’s membership in the group and is sending a team of heads of state to the country. The African Union has already suspended Mali from the organization until constitutional order is restored, while the European Union and the World Bank have suspended its development aid and operations. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council demanded constitutional order to be restored and elections to be held in late April.

In the backdrop of the military coup and fighting in the north, tens of thousands of people have been uprooted since clashes erupted in mid-January. The overall number of people who have crossed from Mali into neighboring countries now stands at close to 80,000, and the number of internally displaced persons has been revised upward to 81,000 according to government officials and humanitarian organizations operating in the north.

So what’s next? Without adequate resources, fractured support, and increasing regional and international pressure, the military junta appears unprepared to wage a war on Tuareg rebels. Coup leaders should follow in the footsteps of Senegal and revert back to democratic governance. A democratically elected government is better equipped to address security and humanitarian issues and would receive the backing of the international community. Otherwise, Capt. Sanogo is leading Mali towards further instability and potentially a civil war.

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