Soldiers dominate Bamako’s political scene but they are no match for the few hundred Arab secessionist rebels in the north.
Negotiations seem to be the only viable route back to Mali’s national reunification – despite the bluster about a reconquest of the north from some putschist soldiers. Mali’s fractious army – whose troops have spent more time arresting their superiors than training for a new campaign – is in no condition to recover the north on its own. Even a contingent of well-equipped soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would struggle in a confrontation with the secessionists.
Officials from the United States advise that any such venture would be foolhardy, given the lack of air cover, the length of the supply lines required and ECOWAS soldiers’ inexperience in desert warfare.
Bamako might be able to restore authority in the north through a negotiated deal with some rebel factions. The Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) has a secular agenda and political leaders who seem willing to compromise.
Within days of taking office in early April, interim President Dioncounda Traoré contacted the MNLA. Ansar Dine, which is led by local Tuareg notable Iyad Ag Ghali, has also signalled a readiness to talk.
A government deal with his force and the MNLA might shift the balance of northern forces against Algerian-led Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose hardline edicts are increasingly resented by locals in Timbuktu. The Tuareg aspiration for an independent secular state of Azawad differs radically from jihadist aspirations of a society governed by sharia law, but the two rebel strands have been in talks.
Haunted by this prospect, elected politicians from communities across the north – where Songhais, Peuls and others account for much of a population that is not majority Tuareg – have been pressing Bamako for action. Rebels will be reluctant to engage with Traoré if he remains politically weak. Traoré’s negotiating position has been rapidly undermined by the reluctance of putschist Captain Amadou Sanogo to relinquish power.
Sanogo is pushing hard for a decisive political role in the run-up to elections. Despite formally relinquishing control to Traoré in early April, the military remains the dominant player in Bamako. Its arbitrary arrests have intimidated activists and hampered presidential hopefuls such as Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Soumaïla Cissé.
Sanogo’s men became still more aggressive after crushing an uprising on 30 April and 1 May by soldiers loyal to deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré. The weakness of Mali’s civilian politicians leaves the initiative with ECOWAS. Its current chairman, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, is determined to mobilise a strong response to nudge Mali back to constitutional order.
Having imposed an economic blockade in early April, ECOWAS has played a more patient hand. It is determined to block Sanogo’s plan to convert himself into a civilian ruler, but it reassures the putschists that it would only send an intervention force with consent.
In early May, ECOWAS officials disgracefully said they had yet to secure foreign funding to pay for a peacekeeping force in Mali. They cannot be sure that France’s President François Hollande would confirm the provisional offer of logistical support made by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.