Conflict in Northern Mali
Since the toppling of President Amadou Toumani Touré in late March, Mali appears trapped in a hopeless political crisis: While a band of soldiers staged a mutiny in the capital Bamako, within a few days rebel Tuaregs and Islamist groups seized control of the north of the country in a bid to declare an independent state. This unlikely alliance has since faltered, threatening to further exacerbate the conflict in this West African nation. Texts: Annett Hellwig
On 22 March 2012, a group of NCOs provoked a mutiny against the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, complaining that the army was ill-equipped to deal with an ongoing Tuareg rebellion. The news took people completely by surprise, and not just in the capital Bamako. Captain Amadou Sanogo then seized power, primarily due to a lack of resistance from the Malian government.
Members of the Tuareg Berber people are especially concentrated in the desert regions of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso. Tuareg rebellions against the government in Bamako took place as early as the 1990s, in protest at insufficient political and economic participation. The Tuareg also accused the last government of neglecting northern Mali.
Following this year's coup Malian Tuaregs demanded the establishment of an independent state on the territory of Azawad in Northern Mali. They now feel strong enough to do this because many former Tuareg mercenaries have returned to Mali from Libya bringing large amounts of weaponry with them. A transitional government was in the meantime installed in Bamako, but continues to be largely ineffectual and with no real means to counter the uprising.
The territory Azawad claimed by the Tuareg is for the most part desert scattered with oases. Some 1.5 million people live in the region, which is more than twice the size of Germany with a population of about 80 million.
The area inhabited by the Tuareg also includes Timbuktu, the "pearl of the desert". For centuries this oasis city, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a main hub on the Saharan caravan trading route. The historic cityscape is characterized by mosques and libraries built out of clay. Recently though, militant Islamists set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu, saying that worshipping a saint, a human being contradicted their view of Islam.
Mopti in central Mali is situated at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers, and was once built on several islands. After the start of the uprising the "Venice of Mali" became a refuge for many people fleeing disputed regions in the North. The city is now however under Islamist control.
Members of the rebel Islamist group Ansar Dine maintain contacts with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and other militant Islamist groups in the region. In the early stages of the uprising they joined forces with the Tuareg, but now both parties are fighting against each other, with the Islamists apparently gaining the upper hand.
At a demonstration against the transitional government in Bamako, these young Malians ask: "Which army is providing security for us in the North?" The situation threatens to spiral out of control as Ansar Dine has in the meantime begun to pursue its own agenda. The Islamists are no longer calling for the North to secede, but want Mali to be transformed into an Islamic theocracy.
Most women in Mali do not traditionally wear a veil; the Tuareg have a generally very relaxed approach to Islam and reject a strict interpretation of Islamic laws. As a result, Malians are accustomed to tolerance and diversity. But Ansar Dine has already introduced Sharia law in the regions it controls. Women are obliged to completely cover their bodies, bars and nightclubs were closed or demolished; soccer, television and music are also banned.
Saharan nations are viewed as world's largest marketplace for weapons, hostages and drugs. The militia known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has long been active in the drugs trade and derives an income from the trafficking of narcotics from South America. Criminal activity of this nature is likely to flourish in view of the power vacuum in northern Mali.
More than 320,000 people are currently displaced by political instability in Mali and seeking protection in neighbouring countries. The UN refugee agency is warning of a humanitarian catastrophe and calling for a huge increase in aid to Mali. The refugees' situation is being further exacerbated by a major drought across the entire Sahel region.