The demise of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has sent shock waves through the Sahel and Mali has been hit the worst. The roar of the Arab Spring still rumbles through many African countries.
A date for a presidential election had been fixed, but the band of Malian soldiers was not prepared to wait. At the end of March 2012, four weeks before the ballot, President Amadou Toumani Toure was toppled in a military coup. The coup plotters alleged that he was incapable of running the country or of defeating the rebels in the north. Since the beginning of the year, the rebel Tuaregs and their allies had been notching up territorial gains in their campaign against the government in Bamako. Their ranks had been filled by mercenaries, who just months beforehand had been fighting for the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This was something the Malian military felt they could tolerate no longer and so they decided to seize power.
After the coup, the chaos deepened. The constitution was suspended, the presidential election cancelled and all state institutions were dissolved. Unwittingly, the soldiers who mounted the coup had strengthened the hand of the rebels they wished to defeat. The rebels exploited this to their full advantage. They overran not only the whole of northern Mali, but Timbuktu in the west as well. On April 6 2012, they declared an independent north Malian state, naming it Azawad. It encompassed mostly traditional Tuareg territory, the Tuaregs believing that the government in Bamako had neglected them for far too long.
Once a model African state
Northern Mali is now controlled by the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its allies, which include the Islamist group Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM).
"There was a time when the Sahel states were relatively stable democracies, at least when compared to the dictatorships of Mubarak and Gadhafi," says Marco Scholze, an expert on Mali from the University of Frankfurt. Mali was considered a model African state. It had a constitution, a multiparty system, a national assembly and over the last few decades had made the transition from one-party rule to a more or less properly functioning democracy.
Not much of that seems to have survived. On the contrary, the negative consequences of the Arab Spring are being felt very keenly. Most of the African mercenaries, including many Tuaregs, who earned their living by fighting for the late Colonel Gadhafi, have returned to their home countries, to Mauretania, Niger, Chad and Mali.
Clashes between allies
They took their weapons with them. "The arsenals and munitions dumps were looted," says Marco Scholze. Those weapons are now circulating throughout the whole region. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Tuaregs have acquired new-found firepower. Judith Vorrath from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs observes that there have been Tuareg rebellions in the past and the political situation in Mali has been tense for some time. "But because of the situation in Libya, the weapons and the mercenaries," she explains, "the whole business boiled over."
The separatists may have been denied international recognition but they have little to fear, either from the demoralized Malian government troops or their allied militia. The African Union appears reluctant to get involved. Only ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, is picking up the challenge, negotiating with coup leaders and separatists. ECOWAS is also mulling over the deployment of 3,000 troops to Mali. The greatest threat to the young state of Azawad comes from within. MNLA rebels and the Islamist group Ansar Dine have quite different aims. Whereas Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) want to found a state based on sharia law, most of the people in the region would prefer to live in a more secular environment. Meanwhile there have been reports of armed skirmishes between the MNLA and their Islamist militant allies.
A new terror breeding ground
Clashes of this sort in the region are nothing new. Instability began to descend on the Sahel states in the 1990s and was made worse by the civil war in Algeria. A minority of the Islamists, who had been deprived of their election victory there, regrouped in terrorist organisations which were subsumed into AQIM in 2006. AQIM has influence in Niger and Mauretania as well as in Mali. It has close ties to local criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade and people smuggling in Europe. There are also first indications that AQIM is supporting the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram in Nigeria and the al-Shabab militants in Somalia, triggering alarm bells in the United States.
The fall of Gadhafi poured oil on the flames. A sprawling army of mercenaries returned home, armed but without work. "Northern Mali is mostly desert," Judith Vorrat says. "The borders that are marked on the maps aren't patrolled." Some observers fear that this ungoverned, or ungovernable, space could turn into a breeding ground for a new terrorist threat.