In spite of last week’s inauguration of Dioncounda Traoré as interim President, Mali’s military junta is still calling the shots, as evidenced by the arrests of several members of Mali’s political and military elite earlier this week. I won’t go into too much detail on the civilian transition and these arrests, as such analysis has been offered elsewhere. However, I would like to posit that this incident is an indication of how, under the status quo, the junta could potentially stonewall the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international partners to address the Tuareg rebellion in the north.
In the aftermath of last month’s coup in Mali, ECOWAS was faced with two competing, but related problems: 1) how to restore civilian rule, and 2) how to resolve the Tuareg rebellion in the north. In the context of the rapid post-coup expulsion of Malian government and military authorities from the northern part of the country, it was clear that resolving the country’s political crisis was a necessary precursor to restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. Accordingly, ECOWAS acted with haste to coerce the military into accepting a transition to constitutional rule, which was understandable considering the multiple crises that the regional organization had on its plate in Mali alone (i.e., the de facto partition of the Malian state, resultant surge of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, the emergence of Islamist armed groups in northern Mali, and the food crisis in the Sahel). For better or worse, a solid political transition was sacrificed to facilitate the resolution of the situation in the north – which arguably has broader regional and international implications. Thus, a quick political transition in which Mali could operate under the guise of civilian rule allowed ECOWAS to refine its mission there. Specifically, rather than simultaneously focusing on the political crisis AND the Tuareg rebellion, the regional organization could now concentrate on its response to the rebellion.
Clearly, negotiation with Tuareg rebel groups is an option on the table, but this may be difficult, due to the Malian authorities’ relatively weak status and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’s (MNLA) aspiration for independence. ECOWAS’ Mediation and Security Council is also considering the deployment of a regional force intended to assist Mali in securing its territorial integrity. However, coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo is opposed to the use of foreign military forces. In lieu of an ECOWAS force, Sanogo has said that Mali will accept equipment and logistical assistance. I suspect that this may be an issue of pride, given that the original stated goal of the coup leaders had been to more effectively wage the war in the north. (This was, of course, thwarted by international condemnation of the coup, cuts in security assistance, and the chaos and lack of cohesion within the military that allowed the rebels to conquer the north in a matter of days). I suspect that it is more likely, however, that Sanogo wants fewer eyes watching how he manipulates the reins of power and continues to undermine the political transition.
It is possible that the junta will continue its ongoing machinations to undermine civilian authority. However, any efforts to obstruct an effective solution to the crises in the north might be a step too far for the various regional and international stakeholders who have an interest in containing the potential fallout from these crises.