On the 21st of March the world was confronted with an all too familiar image: African leaders dressed in military uniforms rather than the tie-wearing garb of civil servants. The Western world came to the same conclusion yet again, namely that here was yet another African nation denouncing the Western values of democracy and freedom. However, while many may write-off the military coup in Mali as just another example of unstable African democracy, such an interpretation lacks a comprehensive understanding of this significant incident and its surrounding events. Current events in the developing continent of Africa are frequently misrepresented in the media, which fails to convey the accurate context and interconnectivity of various African political, social, and economic episodes. Mali’s military coup serves as a prime example of this.
Since the crisis in Libya, the international community, along with the African Union, has failed to consider the ways in which Gadhafi’s fall may have impacted Mali and Niger, two countries vulnerable to civil war and political instability. Both nations have had problems stabilizing their northern regions since they became the targets of the North African al-Qaeda operations. Furthermore, in Mali, Amadou Sanogo stormed the presidential palace with a group of soldiers after accusing President Toure of not giving the army enough support to fight the NMLA rebels in the north. However, Mali has felt the most severe impact of the Libyan revolution with regards to the nation’s Tuareg community. When Gadhafi tried to hold up the joint NATO and rebel forces in Libya, he employed many Tuareg mercenaries from Mali and Niger, equipping them with heavy arms to counter NATO attacks. As defeat became more and more inevitable, the Tuareg returned to Mali and formed an alliance with the North African al-Qaeda, joining forces to fight for the independence of northern Mali and the ultimate dream of a single, Tuareg nation.
The fall of Gadhafi did not only mark the end of an authoritarian leader’s rule (and life), but also the creation of a power vacuum in the Sahel region. Abdul Aziz Kebe, a specialist in Arab-African relations at the University of Dakar, told the BBC, “Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gadhafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.” Although Gadhafi is more known for his recent mistakes in his own nation, his position as a key figure within the African Union, which allowed him to voice his strong belief in the potential stability of Pan-Africanism, was important to North African stability. Since the late 1980s, he ensured that the Tuareg population would not threaten to overthrow the governments of either Niger or Mali through several negotiations between the two parties.
The international community, the African Union, and mainly ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) failed to fill that diplomatic power vacuum left by Gadhafi. The reincorporation of the Tuaregs into Libya’s society should have been essential to NATO’s plan to rehabilitate the nation. Instead many of them were driven out of the country, an action that was counter-productive to the peaceful rebuilding of the nation, as many of the Tuaregs wanted to be a part of Libya’s new democratic movement.
The role played by the African Union and ECOWAS was just as disappointing. Last year, the African Union failed to deliver much needed aid to the Ivory Coast during their post-election drama (a failure attributable to the international community, as well) Such ambivalence left the country alone to struggle and resulted in many casualties. In Mali, the African Union has failed to send out troops yet again. What Mali needs right now is intervention more along the lines of the effort of the African Union against the al-Shahab in Somalia, for, although it is too little, such an effort at least promotes some sense of stability.
In the aftermath of its recent military coup, Mali faces a challenging dilemma. The public is torn between supporting Sanogo’s movement and its focus on defeating the northern rebels, and President Toure’s elected government that failed to do so. As the country is in even less of a unified position to fight rebels, the Tuareg are gaining ground in the north and are on the brink of forcing independence. In addition, the Malian budget is made up largely of foreign aid and revenues from gold production. This precarious economy has recently felt further strains by the U.S.’s and France’s – Mali’s former colonial power – threats to cut all aid in protest of the coup. Such threats only compound the drastic setbacks of gold production that are the result of the country’s instability. Mali is now left lacking the means to finance a war in the north, such as funds for the military equipment needed to fight the joint forces of the Tuaregs and al-Qaeda.
Mali is a perfect example of the consequences of Western powers interfering in regions without understanding the pre-existing ethnic conflicts. The results are ineffective aid and a lack of follow up. Mali also portrays the remaining impact of colonialism in Africa and the ways in which the systematic neglect of ethnic groups can lead to failure when rebuilding nations. Malians take pride in their democracy, which has lasted for 20 years and has served for years as an example of democratic success in the region. To say that Mali has regressed to the political and economic situation of 20 years past would be a misconception. It would be unfair to judge the Malian people without considering the depth and complexity of the issues their country faces. One has to hope that the international community, or at least the African Union with its limited means, will help Mali in its struggle for peace and cease to condemn the country’s political development.
– George Bauer