The Coup in Mali Is Only the Beginning

Bamako's Democratic Reputation Goes Bam

On March 21, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré scrambled down the Koulouba hillside into the Bamako neighborhood of Dar es Salaam. He was fleeing the Presidential Palace, which was under siege by troops declaring themselves the country's new rulers. Like his tumble down the hill, his fall from grace was rapid, especially for a leader who was once hailed as a "soldier of democracy" -- a hero who had helped ensure Mali's successful transition to democracy, just two decades before.

As shocking as the sudden coup was, however, it was soon overshadowed by conflicts in Mali's long-contested northern region. In the months before the coup, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an ethnic Tuareg nationalist group, had been making considerable gains against the government. In early April, taking advantage of the confusion surrounding the coup, the MNLA declared independence for Azawad (the Tuareg homeland) in three of Mali's northern regions. By April 2, Ansar Dine, the fundamentalist Islamist group, made sharia the official law of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, three major cities in northern Mali. 

For now, Bamako seems to have calmed. Concerned about an impending crisis, ECOWAS, the West African regional trading bloc, moved quickly to put sanctions on the regime and negotiate agreements with Touré and the junta leader, Amadou Sanogo, to step aside and cede power to an interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, who had been president of the National Assembly. In exchange for amnesty for the coup leaders, ECOWAS got assurances that the constitution of the Third Republic would be respected. In a nod to Mali's democratic institutions, the power transfer will be held in accordance with Article 36 of the 1992 Malian constitution, which states that, in the case of a vacancy in power, the president of the National Assembly becomes interim president.

But conditions in Mali's north remain uncertain. The MNLA, which is backed by thousands of well-armed and trained fighters, is the most effective rebellion in Mali in over half a century. And Ansar Dine's push for sharia threatens Mali's tradition of tolerant Islam and opens the way for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to solidify its presence in the region.

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