The ongoing struggle between the nomadic Tuareg population in the north of Mali and the army of the country's central government has produced an unexpected result: The end of Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure's rule.
President Toure, whose government has been trying to contain a rebellion by Tuareg fighters seeking an independent homeland in the north, seems to have been ousted by his own armed forces. Last night, a group of relatively junior soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Bamako, the Malian capital, and took over the headquarters of the state broadcaster, where they announced that they had seized power.
The mutineers, who have styled themselves as the National Committee for the Restoraion of Democracy and State (CNRDR) appeared on state TV early Thursday morning. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who has emerged as the group's apparent leader - and whose statements were apparently hampered by poor sound quality - declared a military curfew.
The whereabouts of President Toure are unknown, but a government official has apparently told the BBC that he is not in the custody of the mutineers and is safe.
The mutinous soldiers say they have been forced to act in order to save Mali from the Toure regime's bungled handling the Tuareg rebellion. The army has repeatedly said that it lacks the resources to properly fight the Tuareg insurrection, and that the government's incompetence is responsible for its inability to control the north of the country.
The state's seeming inability to contain rebel forces has been a source of anger among the armed forces, as well as on the streets of Bamako, where there have been several protests. The capital lies in the southern part of the vast, central African country, while the ethnically distinct Tuareg's are seeking control of their traditional homelands in the north. While there have been attempts by the Tuareg to regain control of their territory since at least the 1960s, recent months have seen significant increase of rebel activity.
The apparent spark for Thursday's coup was a visit by the defence minister to an army barracks north of Bamako, intended to reassure soldiers that the government would support continued efforts against the Tuaregs. The attempt seems to have failed, as the meeting ended with soldiers throwing rocks at the minister and seizing weapons from the armory. Hours later, the mutinous soldiers - who included no one with a rank higher than captain - had seized the capital.
"The CNRDR ... has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure," spokesman Amadou Konare later said."We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened."
Mali has been considered one of Africa's more stable democracies, although President Toure himself came to power in a military coup in 1991, though guided a transition to democracy in 2002.
The government, however, has faced ongoing efforts by Tuareg groups to reclaim their territory from Bamako's control. The latest umbrella group of rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), was formed from various factions at the end of 2011. According to Al Jazeera, statements on the group's website say its aim is "to protect and progressively re-occupy the Azawad territory", citing the Tuareg name for the northern part of Mali.
The current instability in Mali comes amid concerns that the Sahel region of Africa - which includes Mali and several other states along the southern edge of the Saharan desert - is facing a serious food shortage, due to poor harvests and a series of other circumstances. There are worries that the region is headed toward a a full-blown food crisis on a par with the situation in the Horn of Africa last summer, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Related Stories on Strombo.com: