A Malian junta soldier stands guard outside Bamako. (Luc Gnago / Courtesy Reuters)
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.
Although the coup was unexpected in one sense, in another it was a long time coming. Many Malians say that there had been rumblings in Bamako for months and that Touré had simply ignored them. For one, government corruption was endemic and citizens had grown increasingly frustrated with an elite that seemed to feed off of the people. The celebrated institutions of democracy and transparency appeared to them as nothing more than smoke screens.
More, al Qaeda activity in the north had increased over the last year, leading to a sharp drop in tourism revenues, the lifeblood of many Malians. In 2010, after a series of kidnappings in Mali, the French government even warned its citizens away from the country. This was devastating; travelers from France made up a large share of the tourist trade.
Finally, the battle against the MNLA had reached a fever pitch. The conflict had been drawing on for years and had been exacerbated by successive governments' failures to live up to agreements with the Tuareg. For example, in 1958, the Tuareg agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for their own separate territory in the Sahara, but Mali's independence, in 1960, cut that dream short. Their rebellion lived on from the 1960s to the 2000s, with little definitive progress one way or the other.
In 1991, the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels signed the Tamanrasset Accords, which created a "special status" for the north that was never implemented. Plans for decentralization, intended to ensure the effective and fair devolution of power and resources to municipal governments across the country, were similarly never fully realized --decentralization took place on paper but the resources were never there to make it function. In the 1990s, in order to stop military officers stationed in the north from harassing Tuareg civilians, the Malian government made moves to integrate the army and place Tuareg officers and soldiers in Tuareg regions. But that was ineffective, and the conflict wore on.
Then, following the gruesome killing on January 24 of soldiers in Aguelhok by rebel forces, soldiers' wives marched to the Presidential Palace to demand that government better equip the military. Their pleas apparently fell on deaf ears. It was clear that the Malian military was being humiliated by the MNLA and that the government was not being forthcoming about the casualties, so the soldiers led the March 21 mutiny. Affirming that the different ethnicities never truly meshed within the armed forces, as the rebellion unfolded one Malian commander encouraged his 300 Tuareg troops to desert the army and join the MNLA. Another 200 Songhai soldiers fled to Niger. Integration had failed.