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. 

In the wake of the coup, several questions remain. The first is whether the Tuareg's new Azawad state will last. Unlikely. Divisions in the north are a serious challenge. Mali's Tuareg population is composed of several distinct clans and castes, and is nomadic; it is hard to know how the majority of its population perceives current events. In addition, the divide between the secular and separatist MNLA and the Islamist Ansar Dine will make the area even harder to hold together. The MNLA recognizes that Ansar Dine's links to AQIM and its intention to spread sharia make it deeply unpopular with many citizens in Mali's north and south and the outside world. Finally, numerous Fulani, Songhai, and Moors live in northern Mali as well. Around 200,000 refugees from these ethnic groups have already fled southward or to countries on Mali's borders. 

Neighboring states with Tuareg populations of their own are also resistant to the creation of Azawad. Once Traoré takes office, regional leaders will press him to address MNLA's annexation of the north. ECOWAS, which has 3000 troops on standby, might be called in to intervene. Large-scale conflict, if it ensues, will engulf the region and complicate the country's return to democracy. 

The second question is what will happen to Mali as a regional example of democracy. If the political class ignores the needs of Malian citizens, unrest in Bamako will re-emerge. If it takes this opportunity to begin a democratic dialogue across the country -- one resulting in concrete steps toward reducing poverty, corruption, and insurgency -- then stability and democracy will have a chance to take root. Indeed, the new administration must address the ways in which democracy has failed Mali's citizens. In past conflicts, the country relied on dialogue to face countrywide challenges. Forums to debate the rebellion in the north took place across the country in the mid-1990s and contributed to plans for decentralization. These failed not because dialogue was ineffective but because decentralization was never fully and effectively implemented. Mali could avoid that outcome this time. In the face of a looming international military intervention, a durable resolution to the current crises demands that the country rely on its rich history of negotiation and democratic dialogue.

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  • SUSANNA WING is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and the author of Constructing Democracy in Africa: Mali in Transition.
  • More By Susanna Wing