From flagship democracy to Islamist battleground

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 5:44am


In 2012 Mali went from a stable democracy to a country facing a war with jihadists occupying more than 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 for Mali's implosion was long 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, the capital 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 had fought for slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Simmering anger among 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 which appeared fighting on their flanks in an unclear alliance.

Ansar Dine - 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: "I am not for independence, I want sharia [the Islamic legal code] for my people."

Together the fighters seized the key towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. It later emerged that the Islamists were closely tied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose top leaders were seen at Ag Ghaly's side.

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.

In Bamako, authorities were deadlocked and powerless.

Alarmed by the growing threat of "terrorist groups" occupying an area larger than France, western powers' interest in driving out the Islamists grew. The Economic Community of West African States 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, and financing. Chad's President Idriss Deby described the planned mission as being in "total confusion".

This confusion only deepened on Tuesday when still-influential coup leader Sanogo sent soldiers to arrest interim premier Cheick Modibo Diarra, who later resigned. 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 were to regain control of the north from the Islamists, hold elections and bring the country together under a government of national unity.