Mali, once hailed as a beacon of democracy, has been plummeting ever deeper into crisis since a coup in late March. As rebels in the north advance, the government in the south is reluctant to assert itself.
Timbuktu – Mali's most famous city – is now firmly in rebel hands. So are other rather less well-known places like Gao and Kidal. Tuareg rebels and Islamists are on the outskirts of Mopti, once a popular tourist attraction known as the "Venice" of Mali because of its many waterways. In areas occupied by the rebels, the inhabitants are already feeling the impact of sharia law. Bars and live music have been prohibited, women are forced to wear veils and thieves can expect to have their right hand cut off. There are fears that Mali is turning into an African "Afghanistan" and has passed the point of no return.
Such worries might be premature. Sharia law is causing disagreement between the Tuareg rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and the militant Islamist Ansar Dine. The NMLA, which is not religion-driven, rejects the implementation of sharia law. Last week negotiations between the NMLA and Ansar Dine on how the two groups would merge broke down, but resumed over the weekend.
Colonel Ag Bouna, a NMLA commander, denies that the talks ever broke down in the first place. In an interview with DW he referred to "a protocol to which the NMLA could not agree."
He also said that "the NMLA wanted a democratic state, whereas Ansar Dine was intent on an Islamic state." Both movements are trying to come to agreement" he added.
The Tuareg are fighting for autonomy in northern Mali and want their own state, which they call Azawad. There are some 1.5 million Tuaregs spread across several West African countries. Yet they are not the only ethnic group in northern Mali. There are also the Puelh, the Songhai and others, who do not necessarily share the same goals or ultimate aims as the Tuaregs. This is why the NMLA needs the support of Ansar Dine. The militant Islamists need the NMLA because they wish to avoid being categorized as just an offshoot of Al Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM)
Who is running the country?
The two groups were able to pursue their negotiations more or less free of interruption, because the Mali government is largely preoccupied with itself and interim President Dioncounda Traore is still recovering from an assault in a military hospital in Paris. Since the coup on March 22, in which President Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted, nobody knows who is really running country. Is it coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo, or the interim government with prime minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and the absent interim president?
Charlotte Heyl is an expert on Mali with GIGA, the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. She describes the situation in the country as dramatic. "Mali is in a very deep crisis, the deepest since the transition to democracy." She adds: "I find it very worrying that no roadmap has come out of Bamako yet." Heyl is convinced that the government should seek talks with the insurgents in the north as a possible way out of the crisis, irrespective of any plans ECOWAS may have for a military intervention.
Comparison with Somalia premature
Alassane Diara, a journalist with Malian newspaper L'Independent, believes the government ought to negotiate with Ansar Dine. "Unlike the NMLA, Ansar Dine doesn't want to split the country in two and whereas the NMLA hoists its own flag when battle is done, Ansar Dine raises the Malian flag."
Vehicles like this one, without number plates, are used for smuggling drugs and weapons in the Sahel
Diara believes that the NMLA's separatism could lead to a crisis extending way beyond Mali's borders. "The NMLA wants independence for the people of the region they call Azawad. This region, though, is not just limited to Mali, it includes Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Diara sees disaster in the making. He fears that if Mali, a once stable state, were to implode and the crisis spread further afield, criminals and terrorists would have more and more opportunities to pursue their undesirable activities such as drugs trafficking, arms smuggling and kidnapping.
Nonetheless Charlotte Heyl believes it would be wrong at this stage to claim that Mali is about to develop into another Somalia. "Mali had twenty years of stability, democratic institutions. Certain practices, routines, were established and they won't disappear over night," she predicts.
Author: Dirke Köpp / mc
Editor: Asumpta Lattus