Mali imploded at hands of putschists, jihadists in 2012
In 2012 Mali went from a stable democracy to a country facing a war with jihadists occupying over half its territory, backed by Western powers who fear the arid zone may become a new haven for terrorism.
While considered one of west Africa’s flagship democracies, the tinder to spark Mali’s implosion has long been at the ready: a vast, restive desert north inhabited by disgruntled Tuareg nomads and used as a playground by Al-Qaeda operatives.
Several hundred kilometres south of its desert towns, Bamako has long ignored rumblings of discontent from marginalised northern communities, and its poorly-equipped army was no match for an uprising which began in January.
Tuareg rebels calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched a fresh revolt, following several in recent decades, this time bolstered by an arsenal brought back from Libya, where many of them had fought for slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
Simmering anger amongst soldiers over the pounding they were experiencing at the hands of the rebels prompted a March 22 coup by a group of officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo who accused ousted leader Amadou Toumani Toure of “incompetence” in handling the rebellion.
Two weeks later he handed power to an interim government, but political paralysis and bickering continued as did the Tuareg juggernaut, aided by armed Islamist groups who appeared fighting on their flanks in an unclear alliance.
Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith in Arabic) — one of three armed Islamist groups now controlling northern Mali — was led by kaleidoscopic desert master Iyad Ag Ghaly.
He had led a Tuareg rebellion in 1990, later becoming a government mediator with Al-Qaeda hostage takers and serving as a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia.
Having become radicalised over the years, Ag Ghaly declared as fighting waged: “I am not for independence, I want sharia (Islamic law) for my people.”
Together the fighters seized the key towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, where they were joined by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) offshoot the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
It later emerged that the Islamists were closely tied to AQIM, whose top leaders were seen at Ag Ghaly’s side. The north African Al-Qaeda franchise has long been involved in drug trafficking, attacks and kidnapping foreigners for ransom in the Sahel and were known to have bases in northern Mali.
With the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation under the fighters’ control, the MNLA declared independence for Azawad, but conflicting views on what would become of the occupied zone created divisions between the Tuareg and the Islamists.
By the end of June the jihadists had chased the secular MNLA from all its key positions and imposed their brutal version of sharia law on the populations.
Transgressors were flogged, stoned to death or had their hands amputated and the Islamists set about destroying ancient religious monuments in the fabled city of Timbuktu which were seen as “idolatrous”, prompting outrage around the world.
In the meantime some 400,000 people had been displaced from their homes in the midst of the fighting, creating a humanitarian crisis compounded by one of the worst droughts in years as they fled to neighbouring towns and countries.
In Bamako, authorities remained deadlocked and powerless.
Alarmed by the growing threat of having “terrorist groups” occupying an area larger than France, western powers’ interest in driving out the Islamists grew.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) proposed a force of 3,300 regional troops to intervene, and European countries as well as the United States offered logistical support and training.
The United Nations approved the plan in principle, but remains lukewarm amid misgivings over the risks of such an intervention force, its capabilities, financing of the mission and its start date.
Many of Mali’s neighbours favour negotiation, and regional mediator Burkina Faso has begun talks with the Islamist groups, but ECOWAS is pushing hard for the mission to go ahead.
UN experts warn that any deployment is unlikely for another nine months.
Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno recently described the planned mission as being in “total confusion”.
This confusion only deepened on Tuesday as still-influential coup leader Sanogo sent soldiers to arrest interim premier Cheick Modibo Diarra, who later announced his resignation in what one analyst described as a “quasi-coup”.
Sanogo is fiercely opposed to the intervention while Diarra has urged the UN to give it the green-light.
Mali’s hastily installed new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, said his priorities are to regain control of the north from the Islamists, hold elections and bring the country together under a government of national unity.
However from north to south Malians stuck in limbo feel a growing sense of desperation, and abandoned by the international community.
Mali is a “patchwork of religious crazies, crazies in uniform and those crazy for power,” one citizen said on a social network recently.