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PV Vivekanand: Fallout of Libyan conflict
March 29, 2012
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The military coup in Mali could be easily seen as one of the direct consequences of the rebellion next door in Libya that overthrew the regime of Muammar Qadhafi late last year.

The Qadhafi regime had recruited thousands of Tuareg fighters who were involved in the Libyan revolt trying to fight off the opposition. When Qadhafi met a violent end and his regime collapsed, they had no option but to cross the border to Mali where they faced bleak prospects of rehabilitation and employment.

Waging an insurgency in the north of Mali was the easy way out for the battle-hardened fighters who had brought home heavy weapons given to them by the Qadhafi regime or taken from Libyan military warehouses. Their cause, as represented by their Azawad National Liberation Movement: independence of what they consider as their traditional homeland.

It was the Tuareg insurgency that led to the ouster of the regime of Amadou Toumani Toure in Mali last week. The military commander who led the coup had been complaining that Toure insufficiently supported the military in the fight against the Tuaregs.

The result of the coup is that the Malians now stand to lose their democratic rights. The rebellious military has imposed a national curfew, suspended the constitution, arrested political opponents, and taken control of the state media.

Toure himself came to power through a military coup in 1991, but he opted to be democratic. He handed power to a civilian government and was elected president in 2002. He had established a credible record of democracy that is rare in Africa and was rewarded well by the US itself. He is still considered a hero and had been due to step down in mid-2012 after serving two terms. Elections were scheduled to be held in April.

Under the leadership of Toure, Mali had received millions of dollars in economic and military aid from the US, particularly because of the perception that the Tuaregs were aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

A report filed by Andrew Harding of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in mid-March 2012 said that the extent and nature of Al Qaeda’s links to the Tuareg movement is hotly disputed, with “some Tuareg groups appear to be close, financially if not ideologically,” to the militants.

“But Al Qaeda’s presence and its growing appetite for kidnapping foreigners for ransom have left the region even more isolated,” said the report, adding that Al Qaeda’s “influence can now be seen in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.”

No wonder Washington provided almost $138 million in foreign assistance for Mali under Toure. The amount was expected to rise to over $170 million in 2012, according to the US State Department.

Junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has come under international pressure to reinstate the Toure government. However, the pressure does not seem to be much because of the perception that Al Qaeda elements are linked to the Tuaregs and it needs a man stronger than Toure to fight them.

Sanogo, who attended extensive military training in the US from 2004 to 2010, could be seen as that leader. And the declared reason of the coup – Toure’s counter-terrorism measures were weak – jells with the US-led Western demands for improved regional security.

That could perhaps explain why the US says that it has not yet made a formal decision whether a military coup has taken place in Mali. It has opted to call it a “mutiny with uncertain results.”

If the decision is that a coup has taken place, then it would require a total suspension of all US aid to the country. For the moment, the US has suspended up to $70 million in aid, but its food and humanitarian assistance would continue.

Washington has said it wants “to see the elected government restored as quickly as possible,” but seeing a “weak” leader deemed to be lacking in his fight against “terrorism” might not be a welcome option for the superpower.

The coup leaders of Mali, who also claim Toure was found wanting in his fight against drug smuggling, do have a fight in their hands.

The Tuaregs are making advances in the north and they could soon gain control of the territory where they want to declare a state or an autonomous region. That includes Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao.

They have said they have no interest in taking over the country but claim that they are capable of doing so.

Military support from the West and regional countries will be crucial to the junta leaders if they would want to regain the lost territory. Of course, they have the option of entering negotiations with the Tuaregs, but the latter is unlikely to agree to anything short of an independent Azawad. It is secondary to them whether such an independent state is feasible. However, under pressure they could also opt for Azawad being declared as a fully autonomous territory.

Northern Mali is believed to hold rich gold, oil and uranium deposits.

A group of West African heads of state planned to visit Mali in an attempt to reverse the coup and restore the Toure government. They have affirmed that they are not ruling out a military option.

“Dialogue and conversation will be our primary instruments in the search for a solution but we shall not hesitate to use any other option dictated by circumstances,” according to Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, speaking for the Economic Community of West African States. Others on the delegation will include Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou and Benin’s Yayi Boni.

While it cannot be said that the US played a direct role in the coup in Mali, it is clear that the Western involvement in the revolt in Libya is closely linked to it.

The UN predicted it in a report released in February: “While the impact of the  (Libyan) crisis reverberated across the world, such neighbouring countries as Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger and Tunisia bore the brunt of the challenges that emerged as a result of the crisis.”

“In a relatively short period of time, the governments of these countries, especially those in the Sahel region, had to contend with the influx of hundreds of thousands of traumatised and impoverished returnees as well as the inflow of unspecified and unquantifiable numbers of arms and ammunition from the Libyan arsenal,” said the report. “Although the volume and the impact of the returnee population differs from one country to the other, the influx clearly has the potential to further exacerbate an already precarious and tenuous situation.”

The US will intervene in its own fashion, and that will determine the future of Mali. Any decision that it takes will be with a close eye on the “Al Qaeda threat” in the Sahel region.

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