This is a long story that started back in 1994 when the Italian navy, following a tip off from the British, seized an arsenal of weapons off the Italian coast. 400 missiles, 30,000 AK47’s, 5,000 Katuscha rockets, 11,000 anti-tank rockets and 32million rounds were part of the catch on freighter Jadran Express. The government later ordered the weapons to be destroyed; however they were shipped to a secret naval bunker in Sardinia. Come last year and the weapons disappeared again. Italy, which officially did not intervene in the Libyan civil war, offered the weapons to Libyan rebels. The rebels did distribute the weapons to their fighters, but also spotted the chance of doing a little bit of business. Much of the cache was diverted inland, to groups of Tuareg fighters who wish to establish an independent state between Mali and Niger.
There is nothing new in the aspirations of the Tuareg for self-determination. They have been asking for self rule since independence from France. In 1992, a National Pact was signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg, calling for decentralization, reconciliation and bringing resources and development to some of the country’s most isolated regions. Two decades later, the Tuareg are still waiting for the central government to act on those promises. This is why they organized in the National movement for the liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym). After receiving weapons from the Libyan rebels, the MNLA opened the hostilities with an attack on Ménaka in the far east of the country on 17 January, and a series of strikes on small towns in the north: Léré, Niafunké, Aguel-hoc, Tessalit.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, signatory of the 1992 National Pact, sent the army to recover the lost territory. The army did partially recover the lost ground, but says it is helpless in fighting a volatile group, also because of the lack of weaponry and modern system of aerial control. On February 1st, the widows of soldiers killed in the north demonstrated in the garrison town of Kati, 15km outside the capital, marching with the clear support of sections of the military. This should have been a clear warning for Touré that things were not working properly.
The political crisis precipitated when Sadio Gassama, Minister of Defence, went to visit the barrack at Kati, on March 21st. He addressed the soldiers there, only to be rebuked and become the target of stone throwing. The minister fled for his life, the soldiers organized a march on Bamako, the capital, to air their frustration. The war in the north was not going well, and they were not given the tools to fight for the unity of Mali, they said. Once in Bamako, the soldiers went to the presidential palace.
It is not clear if there was a pre-arranged plan to stage a coup d’état, but it seems that events overtook the mutineers. After looting the palace, and other government’s buildings, the soldiers occupied the national television studios and announced that they had taken over the government of the country. After a night of sporadic shooting and looting, a military junta emerged styled as the National Committee for the Establishment of Democracy. Leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said their move was prompted by government’s “inability” to put down a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north, ordered all borders closed, and promised to hand over power to a democratic government elected freely by the people as soon as it will be possible to organize such exercise. So far the population has shown support for the coup, with people in Bamako declaring to journalists they were tired of Touré’s incompetent government.
MNLA political leader Hamma Ag Mahmoud declared his pleasure for the coup. “It’s always best for the corrupt government to be toppled”, he said. He also declared that the MNLA will not stop fighting and will instead advance southwards to continue to liberate the Azawad. “We’re not interested in Bamako, but Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. These mutineers will not have the firepower to resist against us. They will have to sign a peace agreement at some point”.
Mali has a long history of peaceful coexistence, which is now under strain. People in the south are afraid of northerners mainly because the north is now perceived as administered by a flourishing illicit economy strongly linked to the Islamic terror network of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The mainly Christian south fears the revival of the inter-ethnic fighting that characterized the mid 1990s when a self-defence militia – Ganda Koye – took up arms, targeting Tuaregs and Arabs. Today the danger is even stronger as the Tuareg and Arab communities in the capital have expanded significantly in recent years. Only time will say if this latest attack to the unity of the nation will be solved and democracy put back on course.