A year ago, Mali experienced a coup. Then Islamist rebels overran the north of the country. In January 2013 French troops intervened. What does the future hold for the West African state after 12 turbulent months?
The aim at first was simply to organise a protest march. The soldiers stationed in the town of Kati were unhappy with the government and with their generals. The latter were criticised for not properly equipping the army for the battle against rebels in northern Mali. But then the situation escalated.
On March 21, 2012 soldiers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo hurled stones at a general who tried to persuade them to abandon their protest, seized six light-wheeled tanks and set off for the presidential palace in the capital Bamako, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away.
The protest march had turned into a coup. Within a few hours the mutineers had seized control of the presidential palace. President Amadou Toure disappeared. Captain Sanogo, a junior officer, was suddenly in charge.
Northerners return home
For Mali the coup marked the start of descent into chaos. Islamists and Tuareg rebels exploited the weakness of the Malian army and the political uncertainty in Bamako to seize control of the northern part of the country. The Tuareg rebels wanted to establish an autonomous state, however Islamist groups won the upper hand and imposed a reign of violence based on their interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Hundreds of thousands of Malians fled to neighboring countries or to Bamako in the south. They arrived in packed buses, in search of peace.
One year later, the Binke bus station in Bamako is again crowded. People wait patiently in line, this time queuing up to buy tickets back to the north. "Yes, there's great demand," confirms Ismael Maiga who sells tickets for the journey to Gao, the largest town in northern Mali. "Everyone wants to go back home," Maiga told DW. "We've been here for too long," chips in a man in the queue who didn't want to give his name. "We don't feel at home in the south. We need to go back home now that peace has returned."
The Islamists are no longer in control in the north since the French army, together with soldiers from Chad and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), intervened. This came after months of wrangling between the United Nations, ECOWAS and the African Union over the deployment of African troops. In January 2013 French helicopters and fighter planes began to bombard Islamist positions to halt their advance on Bamako. Since then, rebels have been expelled from all major towns in the north.
The German airforce, the Luftwaffe, is also supporting the mission. Three transport planes are being used to convey troops from neighboring ECOWAS states to Mali. Another plane is based in West Africa to refuel the French jets in the air. In this way Germany is making a relevant contribution to the international operation, said Jörg Bartl, a lieutenant colonel with the Luftwaffe command. "Both air transport and midair refueling are important elements of the overall operation," Bartl told DW.
Mission could last longer
Another useful contribution will be Germany's participation in the European training mission that is due to start in April 2013. This was underlined by German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière on a visit to Mali on Monday March 18, 2013.
A team from Germany will train and equip Malian soldiers and medical officers will set up a field hospital. The lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag, has given the green light for the Bundeswehr to send 330 soldiers to Mali for a year to complete this assignment.
While in Mali, de Maizière said he made no secret of the fact that patience would be required, a reference to the likelihood that the presence of European soldiers in Mali could last longer than originally planned. Critics warn that the dimensions of the conflict and the fragilie political situation in Bamako speak against the Bundeswehr leaving again after just one year. They fear a situation could develop similar to Afghanistan where German soldiers have been stationed since 2002. However Lieutenant Colonel Bartl sees only one similarity with the war in Afghanistan. "The current strategy of the rebels in Mali is to avoid direct confrontation." Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, sections of the Islamist rebels have pulled back to areas difficult to access, such as the Ifhogas mountains in northeast Mali.
Elections in July
In the capital Bamako interim president Dioncounda Traore is attempting to restore political stability. The former president of Mali's National Assembly took over from Captain Sanogo in April 2012 following pressure from neighboring countries. European governments in particular have been pressing for the reintroduction of democratic structures so that Traore's position can be legitimized through elections. To add weight to these demands, Germany suspended development aid to Mali. In the meantime President Traore has announced that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in July 2013.
Not everyone is convinced this will actually happen. Professor Djeneba Traore (no relation to the interim president) is the Malian head of the West Africa Institute in Praia, capital of Cape Verde.
"If we want people in the north to take part in the elections, then tthe poll must be prepared with great care," Traore told DW. "In my opinion it is impossible to prepare elections in such a short time."
Djeneba Traore hopes the next 12 months in Mali will be less turbulent. At least there appear to be no major obstacles in the way of a return to democracy and peace. Although Captain Sanogo continued to play a role in Malian politics after handing over power to the interim president, he has told DW that he does not intend to stand in the elections. In his words, what is important now is to make good use of the opportunity for a new beginning.