BAMAKO (Reuters) - Spillover from the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi last year has been stirring a toxic cocktail of rebels, weapons, refugees, drought, smugglers and violent Islamic militants in Africa’s turbulent Sahel region.
Now this backwash of instability from one field of the Arab Spring has now claimed its first government south of the Sahara - with this week’s coup in Mali, where renegade low-ranking officers in the West African state toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure.
They overthrew him early on Thursday because they said his government had not adequately supported the Malian army’s fight against an advancing Tuareg-led rebellion in the north that was swelled by arms and former pro-Gaddafi fighters from Libya.
“It was a cascade effect,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer in African politics at the University of East Anglia, speaking to Reuters from the Malian capital Bamako where the mutinous soldiers have been stealing vehicles and looting petrol stations and businesses. But despite frequent bouts of gunfire, there appears to have been relatively little bloodshed so far.
Mali, Africa’s third largest gold miner and a major local cotton grower, was viewed on the continent and in the wider world as a relatively stable democratic state in a permanently restless region dogged for decades by coups and mutinies.
It was an ally of regional and Western governments in their efforts to stop attacks and kidnappings by al Qaeda-associated Islamic militants from spreading southwards down through the Sahara. Such violence is already causing bloodshed in Africa’s top oil producer Nigeria, in the form of the Boko Haram sect.
“It’s clearly unfortunate for Mali ... This is plunging one of the most stable countries in West Africa into instability,” Gilles Yabi, the Dakar-based West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told Reuters.
“Disputes should not be resolved by arms. It’s a bad sign for other countries which are in the process of consolidating their democracies,” said Nadia Nata, political governance officer at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
The United States had been providing counter-terrorism training to Mali’s army. One of the coup leaders, Captain Amadou Sanogo, president of the newly formed National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), said he received training from U.S. Marines and intelligence.
But the overnight coup, carried out apparently by mid-level and junior officers, will put an end to such support for the moment. The World Bank, the African Development Bank and European Commission have all suspended aid funding to Mali.
The coup leaders of the CNRDR have promised to hand power back to a democratically-elected president “as soon as the country is reunified”.
But the Tuareg rebels in the north, whose recent battlefield humiliations of the Malian army triggered the putsch in Bamako, are already pushing south, taking advantage of the confusion.
The coup chiefs’ seeming inability to control the soldiers under their command, to judge by the pillaging and wild shooting in the streets, bodes ill for the immediate future.
“There is no clear agenda ... what will happen next is very unclear,’ said Guichaoua.
ICG’s Yabi said: “This is giving an impression of chaos”.
The uncertainty was compounded on Friday when the African Union said it was told President Toure was still in Mali, safe and protected by loyalists, not far from Bamako.
Amnesty International said coup leaders had arrested several members of Toure’s government. It demanded their release.
Despite Toure’s public image as a steadfast “Soldier of Democracy”, analysts said Western backers like France and the United States had been less than happy recently with his government’s efforts in countering the threat of al Qaeda and its allies in Mali’s vast and remote desert north.
“There was the view that he was using the counter-terrorism argument as a prop for himself in office,” Guichaoua said, and he cited concerns too about corruption in the Malian government.
Toure, who had initially won his democratic credentials by quickly handing over power to civilian rule after seizing it in a 1991 coup, was planning to leave office following elections in April, after serving two consecutive elected terms.
But analysts said that with swathes of the north effectively outside government control, and with thousands displaced by the spreading insurgency there, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to hold credible elections next month.
Suspicions existed that some members of Toure’s administration secretly tolerated rebel and al Qaeda networks in the north to be able to benefit from lucrative drug smuggling and other illegal businesses that thrive in the desert area.
The Tuareg-led rebels now thrusting south have said they want to set up an independent area across the northern region.
Bourema Dicko, a member of parliament in charge of the defence and security commission in Mali’s parliament, told Reuters before the coup the rebels had no real clear political agenda. “They just want to be able to smuggle weapons and drugs through the north. They don’t really want security,” he said.
However, one diplomat gave a more nuanced view of the latest Tuareg insurgency, saying that while the desert rebels sought a homeland, pragmatism meant that they had to work with Islamists and smuggling cartels in the lawless north.
“This is a hybrid operation - liberation and sharia law. Deals will be done. Palms will be greased,” the diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.
Guichaoua said there was still hope that the coup leaders might prove capable of forging some kind consensus with the country’s political forces, perhaps even agreeing a peace with the northern rebels, to be able to hold credible elections.
But as Bamako residents watched soldiers, some seemingly drunk, roaming the streets and looting, many wondered just what kind of new rule they were in for.
“They said the reason for the coup was the problem in the north. So let them tell us what solutions they have for the problem in the north. Let them tell us the way they want to run the country,” said Bamako resident Fouseyni Diarra.
OSIWA’s Nata said the coup could exacerbate already worsening security and criminality in the wider Sahel.
“This opens (a) Pandora’s box,” she said.