An ethnic Touareg uprising in Mali, driven by armed fighters returning from Libya, prompted soldiers to overthrow the government that tasked them with quashing the rebellion.
The Azawad National Liberation Movement began a revolt in January, opening fire on military targets in northwest Africa where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has attacked troops and kidnapped foreigners in recent years. Before its ouster yesterday, Mali’s government accused the Touareg group, known by its French acronym MNLA, of working with al-Qaeda and regional drug traffickers.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, moving to other areas of Mali and to neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger to escape the violence between the MNLA and the army and in fear of reprisal attacks, according to the International Red Cross. Their plight is worsening a food-security crisis that threatens 15 million people in seven countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Unlike previous rebellions, the current Touareg uprising has been difficult to put down because of the influx of weapons and war-hardened fighters from Libya,” Robert Borthwick, senior analyst at Bath, U.K.-based risk-analysis group Maplecroft, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “The soldiers clearly feel that improved military planning and spending is necessary to prevent the Touareg rebellion further escalating and taking the lives of more of their colleagues.”
The mutinous soldiers, who announced they were seizing power on state-owned television, began firing shots earlier in the day as they were due to meet with the country’s defense minister about the northern uprising. They blocked roads leading to the presidential palace and took over the country’s airport and broadcaster.
“Facing our duty to safeguard the constitution, we decided to take our responsibilities in ending the incompetent regime” of President Amadou Toure, said Lieutenant Amadou Konare, a spokesman for the soldiers, on state television early yesterday. The constitution had been suspended, he said.
Mali vies with Tanzania to be Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. Companies including AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. (ANG), the world’s third-largest producer of the metal, and Randgold Resources Ltd. (RRS), have operations in the country. Randgold’s shares closed 13 percent lower at 5,765 pence in London yesterday. Chief Executive Officer Mark Bristow said the company’s mines are unaffected. Mali produced about 44 metric tons of gold in 2011.
The Taoudeni basin, where the MNLA is seeking autonomy, is thought to contain reserves of crude oil, according to Lassana Guindo, the national director of geology and mining. Petroplus Africa Ltd. and Simba Energy Inc. (SMB) are among the companies that have signed deals to search for crude in Mali. The basin has 25 oil blocks, with 13 under exploration, Guindo said on March 13.
Traditionally nomadic camel herders, Touaregs have staged similar battles for autonomy in Mali and neighboring Niger in the five decades since the countries became independent from colonial ruler France. The current uprising is bolstered by Touaregs who returned from Libya after the October death of leader Muammar Qaddafi, according to the UN.
The Libyan crisis has “exacerbated an already precarious security situation in the Sahel region,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a Jan. 18 report to the Security Council, referring to the area south of the Sahara desert. Weapons and ammunition from Libyan stockpiles, including anti-aircraft artillery and explosives, were smuggled into Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, according to the report.
Some of the estimated 2,000 Touareg rebels who have returned from Libya had been high-ranking officers in the Libyan army, Lynn Pascoe, UN under-secretary for political affairs, told reporters yesterday in New York. By joining forces with the rebellion in Mali, they “added much more firepower and drive to this operation,” Pascoe said.
Mali was due to hold a presidential election on April 29, with Toure set to step down after serving two terms in office. The leader had vowed to quash the Touareg rebellion before next month’s vote.
The MNLA denied that it has any connection with al-Qaeda’s northwest African unit, according to its website. AQIM has taken responsibility for a rise in kidnappings in the vast region, including attacks in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania.
“According to some reports, there are family ties between some members of the Touareg rebellion and those involved in al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” said Benjamin Soares, a Mali expert who lectures at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. He said estimates have put AQIM membership at just 300. “Most involved in AQIM are probably from Algeria but some are said to have married locally into Malian families,” he said.
The coup was condemned by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union, which a day earlier held a Peace and Security Council meeting on the issue in Bamako and called for a cessation of fighting.
The fighting has “aggravated an already precarious situation, created a humanitarian crisis, including the displacement of populations within Mali and to neighboring countries, and undermined development efforts,” the council said in the March 20 statement.
In parts of landlocked Mali, especially in the north, as much as 70 percent of the population is facing “acute food insecurity” with a lack of drinking water and animal feed, said Souleymane Sana, assistant country director for Oxfam Novib, by phone from Bamako yesterday. “The food crisis has been exacerbated by the growing insecurity in the region, first with kidnappings by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and now by the Touareg uprising.”
Oxfam Novib’s program to distribute staple foods including sorghum and cooking oil has been suspended and staff have been told to stay at home, Sana said.
Mali’s “dependence on international donors and foreign investors will create pressure for polls to be held relatively rapidly,” said Maplecroft’s Borthwick. “If the coup leaders are able to secure effective power, they would be likely to increase military spending to combat the heavily armed Touareg rebels.”
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