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Explainer: What's happening in Mali?

Your guide to the Malian military coup and the ensuing separatist rebels’ push for independence.

LATE LAST MONTH, soldiers in Mali stormed state television and announced that they had seized control of the country.

The presidential compound was overrun and the elected president disappeared.

Within days, coup leaders were calling on civilians to remain calm as they struggled to restore order.

However, shortly after the coup, a group of rebels and Islamic extremists took advantage of the post-coup disarray and confusion by declaring independence in a north Malian state.

Here’s our explainer on what’s happening in the impoverished west African state.

What’s going on in Mali?

A military coup was mounted by low-ranking officers on 21 March 2012. The soldiers involved said that they made their move over the government’s weak response to a rebellion in the north which flared up in January.

(Video uploaded by AlJazeeraEnglish)

In a statement read on state television, a group of soldiers identifying themselves as the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR) claimed to represent all elements of the armed forces, defence forces and security forces in ending “the incompetent and disavowed regime of [President] Amadou Toumani Toure”.

“All the institutions of the republic are dissolved until further notice,” they said, adding: “The objective of the CNRDR does not in any way aim to confiscate power, and we solemnly swear to return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are established.”

The coup d’état toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure and prompted the EU and US to suspend development aid to Mali. Thousands of Malians took to the streets of capital Bamako to support the coup; there have also been big rallies against the coup:

People rally to protest against the recent military coup and call for a return to constitutional order, in Bamako, Mali on 29 March. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell/PA)

Coup supporters cheer as they wait for coup leader Capt Amadou Haya Sanogo to make an appearance at the office of the Prime Minister in Bamako, Mali on 28 March, 2012. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Hadn’t Toure himself mounted a coup way back in the day?

Yes. The former French colony gained its independence in 1960 and was ruled by a dictatorship until a military coup in 1991. The country’s first democratic elections were held the following year and army officer Amadou Toure oversaw that transition period between the coup and the election.

In 2002, Amadou Toure was elected president and he was reelected five years later in a vote considered free and fair.

Toure has fled to neighbouring Senegal. On 8 April, Toure resigned (although he was due to leave office anyway this month at the end of his term) as part of an agreement to get the military to hand power over to civilians. Several of his former cabinet ministers and the former prime minister were recently arrested by the military, the BBC reported, prompting the EU and African Union to call for their immediate release:

The military did not clarify why the arrests were made, but Reuters reported on Friday that the military had released the senior officials, easing tensions:

Microsoft Corp official and former NASA scientist Cheick Modibo Diarra has been named by the junta as the interim prime minister to oversee the return of civilian rule.

What’s the situation on the ground like now?

Malians were already suffering from a food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa sparked by poor rainfall last year, but the problems are being compounded because of the violence in the north and uncertainty over post-coup security.

Over 200,000 people are believed to be internally displaced within Mali and around 140,000 are estimated to have fled over the borders, according to the EU’s Catherine Ashton.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Thursday that the number of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania has escalated:

The organisation says that an average of 1,000 people a day are arriving in Mauritania from Mali, and that already-challenging living conditions are expected to further deteriorate.

The presence of armed groups and political uncertainty in Mali is generating fear and panic among the people,” Elisabetta Maria Faga, MSF’s field coordinator, said.

MSF’s medical coordinator Jean-Paul Jemmy spoke about the health conditions among the families arriving at Mbera in Mauritania for assistance:

A great number of people are suffering from respiratory infections and diarrhoea due to a lack of access to water, exposure to extreme temperatures and frequent sand storms.

We are still expecting several thousand refugees in the coming weeks. With this constant influx of refugees, we have to act quickly and efficiently to provide emergency services; we must provide sufficient shelter, water and sanitary facilities and reinforce overall emergency medical assistance.

The EU and US have cut off all but their emergency humanitarian funding for the country, meaning that development aid which supported a range of projects had been blocked.

A European Commission spokesperson on development, confirmed to that projects in northern Mali had already been on hold over unsafe security conditions in the area. Development aid will resume in line with progress towards the full restoration of constitution order, they added. In the meantime, direct support to the population will continue as will humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Mali’s neighbours in the Economic Community of West African States suspended Mali’s membership of the group and imposed a range of sanctions after the coup. On 8 April, ECOWAS announced sanctions would be lifted after reaching an agreement with coup leaders for the restoration of constitutional order.

The UN has urged “all concerned Malian stakeholders to implement this agreement immediately”.

EU Development Commissioner Andris Biebalgs met the current ECOWAS president Alassane Outtara (president of Ivory Coast). At these talks, Outtara announced that an ECOWAS summit next week will finalise the group’s operational response to the Malian crisis, and in particular peace plans relating to the north, where rebels are claiming an independent state.

So, who are the rebels?

The rebels in question are an alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamists, and is called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA).

The NMLA declared independence over the northern desert region which includes the ancient city of Timbuktu, where a Swiss woman was kidnapped by gunman a week ago.

Rebels have been pushing for independence for several months, but saw the coup as an opportunity to make a break for independence.

Tuareg separatist rebels from the NMLA stand by a truck-mounted gun at a checkpoint near the airport in Timbuktu.  (AP Photo)

Pre-coup, the Malian government had accused the NMLA of links with al-Qaida; post-coup, world leaders have expressed concern that al-Qaida could build a stronghold in the power vacuum that follows the coup.

Under US presidency of the UN Security Council, the council issued a statement expressing concern over the al-Qaida element in Mali:

The members of the Security Council express deep concern at the increased terrorist threat in the north of Mali due to the presence among the rebels of members of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and extremist elements.

They call for the immediate release of all abductees and the immediate cessation of all violence and renew their call to all parties in Mali to seek a peaceful solution through appropriate political dialogue.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has said that the EU’s Sahil strategy contains an allocation of €50m to contribute to supporting Mali’s security policy.

“Where the Government is strong, that works well,” she said. “But the military Coup in Mali undermined the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the government, as well as threatening the sovereignty of the country.”

“As soon as the interim Government is up and running, we will discuss how best the EU can support the transition, including the holding of elections.”

Members of the rebel group held their first meeting with the Malian authorities last week which reportedly went well, suggesting that the two sides could come to a peaceful agreement. However, the rebels insist they will not back down on their claims of independence, the AFP reported.

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