Mali coup highlights African country's divisions

The military coup in Mali has brought international condemnation, emboldened northern rebels looking to separate from the west African nation and possibly strengthened the position of Al Qaeda in the region.
Military captain Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup in the west African country of Mali on March 21, has faced international condemnation for suspending the country's consitution. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent military coup in the west African country of Mali has gained international attention, not only because the junta unseated a democratically elected president, but because it seems to have emboldened rebels in the northern region.

While a spokesman for the main Tuareg rebel faction declared a ceasefire on April 5, claiming they had reached their goal, questions still swirl about the group's links to Islamic fundamentalism.

Why did the coup happen?

On March 21, a group of junior soldiers seized the presidential palace in the capital, Bamako. They dissolved the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré and suspended the Malian constitution.

The putsch was led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, a mid-ranking Malian army officer in his 30s who claimed that his fellow soldiers were ill-equipped to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north. In an interview with the BBC, Sanogo lamented "a lack of equipment, a lack of training and our comrades are dying all the time."

According to Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane's Defence Weekly, "It seems to have been a very spontaneous mutiny, with very junior officers fronting it."

What is the international community’s reaction to the coup?

Most countries around the world have condemned the coup, largely because Mali had previously been seen as a success story of African democracy — President Amadou Toumani Touré had been governing since 2002.

The United Nations Security Council condemned the forcible seizure of power and urged the coup leaders to restore the constitution. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "This is an unacceptable situation where democracy is being undermined in Africa, and it's got to be restored."

Both the U.S. and Canada have frozen aid to the African nation. On April 2, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed an embargo on Mali, closing their borders with the land-locked country. Mali imports its fuel from Ivory Coast and Senegal, so these restrictions are likely to hobble the country’s electrical grid during one of Mali's hottest months.

Meanwhile, the African Union has put a travel ban on Mali's coup leaders and ordered their assets frozen.

In response to international pressure, coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo has said he will reinstate Mali’s existing constitution.

Who are the Tuareg?

The Tuareg are Berber nomads that live in the Sahel desert region of western Africa and regularly cross national borders. While a large Tuareg contingent is located in northern Mali, they can also found in neighbouring Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.

For many years, the Tuareg have agitated for an independent state called Azawad. After France divested itself of its colonies in western Africa in 1960, the Tuareg launched an unsuccessful uprising against the newly formed Mali government. The north witnessed a rebellion in 1990, peace treaties in the mid-'90s and another flare-up in 2007 before the Tuareg uprising that began in January 2012.

The most prominent Tuareg rebel group in the current conflict is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which in recent weeks has secured the northern Malian towns of Gao, Kidal and, most symbolically, the historic city of Timbuktu.

Many Tuareg soldiers took part in the Libyan conflict last year, though not all with the Libyan opposition – a good many fought on the side of loyalists to the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

"Tuareg rebellions happen every few years or so, but this is by far the most successful," says Binnie, who attributes their accomplishments to returning Libyan war veterans and the weapons they brought back with them, as well as the distraction created by the military coup in Mali’s south.

"The only thing the MNLA is a bit embarrassed about is allegations that a lot of the guys that are fighting with them were fighting to keep an oppressive Gadhafi regime in power," says Binnie.

What are the divisions between northern and southern Mali?

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has a population of 14.5 million and a land mass of more than 1.2 million square kilometres. Mali straddles the border zone between northern Africa, which is made up mostly of Arab and Berber populations and is predominantly Muslim, and sub-Saharan Africa, or "Black Africa," which is mostly Christian.

More than 90 per cent of the population lives in the southern region, which is where the capital, Bamako, is located. The predominant ethnic group in the south is the Bambara, which is also the name of their language. Because of the desert landscape and the nomadic nature of the Tuareg, the north is much less developed than the south.

"There’s a strong sense of social exclusion [in the north] and for some, this can translate into separatist sympathies," says Stephen Brown, a professor of African history at the University of Ottawa.

What role do Islamic fundamentalists play in all this?

On April 2, media sources reported that Tuareg members had planted a black flag in a prominent military camp in Timbuktu. The flag belongs to the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which sparked concern about an Islamist element in the Tuareg uprising.

Ansar Dine is thought to be affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Saharan offshoot of the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden.

In his memoir A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al-Qaeda, former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler writes, "AQIM operates primarily in northern coastal areas of Algeria and in parts of desert regions of southern Algeria and northern Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Its principal sources of funding are extortion, kidnapping, donations, and trafficking of narcotics, people and weapons."

Binnie says, "the MLNA had denied to me and other journalists that there weren’t any Islamists fighting within the insurgency, and that clearly isn’t the case."

Ansar Dine is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, an influential leader in Mali’s northern Kidal region who was involved with previous Tuareg uprisings. While it is difficult to say anything definitive about Ansar Dine’s intent, some media have reported that the group is looking to impose Sharia law, which would include compelling women to wear veils.

Stephen Brown at the University of Ottawa feels the Islamist element in the Tuareg uprising is "more a marriage of convenience than a fundamental meeting of the minds." He says that Islamist elements could help the cause of independence, but cautions that "not all people who want independence or greater autonomy are Islamist. And not all Islamists would necessarily support the rebellion."