The Crisis in Mali
In a vivid illustration of Mali’s present instability, on May 21 protesters stormed the presidential palace in the capital city Bamako and beat the country’s interim civilian President, Dioncounda Traoré, into unconsciousness. As Traoré flew to France for treatment, war continued in northern Mali, where ethnic separatists, armed Islamists and reactionary militias are vying to control a vast Saharan territory. Mali’s interlinked crises—political turmoil in the south, conflict in the north—are alarming West African governments, raising fears that al-Qaeda affiliates will benefit from the chaos, and prompting talk of American support for an armed intervention by regional powers.
Few anticipated this level of turmoil as Mali headed into 2012. Indeed the country boasted a democratic record relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa: the presidential elections set for April would have marked the second consecutive peaceful transfer of power from one civilian president to another. Then-President Amadou Toumani Touré, serving his second and final term, had refrained from anointing a successor and hoped to earn a legacy as a great African statesman.
All that changed when rebellion broke out in northern Mali on January 17. The rebellion, initially dominated by the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (“The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad”, or MNLA), tapped into long-term grievances and recent events. The MNLA’s Tuareg leaders decry what they see as decades of domination and under-development by successive regimes headquartered in southern Mali, from the French colonial administration up to Touré’s government. The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic, pastoralist set of communities linked by shared languages and cultures, have launched three previous rebellions in Mali and in neighboring Niger since independence in 1960. The “Azawad” in the MNLA’s name refers to northern Mali, specifically the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.