Is Mali's coup doomed?

A man wearing a traditional hat arrives at a rally in support of the ruling military junta, attended by roughly 1,000 people in a stadium with a capacity of 50,000, in Bamako, Mali The Malian rebels are moving forward rapidly

The Tuareg rebels in the north of Mali had warned that they were going to take advantage of instability caused by a coup d'etat in the capital, Bamako, to move forward rapidly.

And that is just what they have now done.

On Friday, they attacked the town of Kidal. It is the first regional capital they have taken control of and a much bigger town than all the other localities the rebels have held since their attacks began in mid-January. The forces which had been fighting with the Malian army in Kidal either deserted or retreated.

On Saturday, the advance continued, and the town of Gao, another regional capital, also fell. Gao is an even bigger town than Kidal and it is where the headquarters of the Malian army for all its operations in the north are based.

The irony is that the reason for the coup d'etat was that many of the rank and file in the Malian army felt that the war in the north was being badly handled by ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure.

The army was being humiliated by Tuareg forces time and again. The army complained that the government was not equipping them well enough, not sending reinforcements when needed and keeping the population in the dark about the deaths of government troops.

So a week and a half ago, a spontaneous mutiny in a military camp near Bamako evolved into a full-blown coup. Soldiers took over the presidential palace and the state broadcaster.

Independent state

Coup leader Capt Amadou Haya Sanogo addresses the press at junta headquarters in Kati, outside Bamako on 30 March Ecowas wants coup leader Capt Amadou Sanogo to step down

Rebel forces are also surrounding the town of Timbuktu, the last town in the area that they call the Azawad, which some Tuaregs would like to see as the territory of their independent state.

Other Tuareg fighters, however, are not interested in independence from Bamako. Instead they say they are fighting so that Sharia law can be imposed in Mali. The leader of this faction is said to have close ties with an al-Qaeda-linked group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM has been active in northern Mali for some years. They have bases from where they have been carrying out kidnappings and attacks across the region. The link between a Tuareg faction and AQIM is worrying many.

Sanctions threat

Now that the military are in charge in Bamako, however, not only are they having to deal with the critical situation in the north, but also with the fact that the heads of state of Mali's neighbours have decided to make an example of the current situation to try and make sure that a military coup never happens to them.

The regional grouping Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) says sanctions will be imposed on Mali from Monday if Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup leader, does not step down. The sanctions are similar to those which put so much pressure on Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast when he refused to hand over power last year.

Mali map

Ecowas members say they will block Mali's access to cash from the West African central bank and will also close all their land borders with Mali.

Mali imports all its petroleum products. If sanctions were imposed, transportation would grind to a halt. Electricity and running water would start running out without fuel to power turbines.

Capt Sanogo does not really seem to have understood the Ecowas message and instead of discussing how he can hand power back to a civilian government, he has been calling on the regional heads of state to help him sort out the rebellion in the north.

Capt Sanogo is also asking Ecowas to take more time to understand the situation in Mali and the reasons for his coup.

Although he has a point that the man he deposed was looking like he did not have a solution to the crisis in the north, and although Capt Sanogo does have some real support among the population, his request is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Ecowas wants Capt Sanogo gone and he cannot hold out forever if all his neighbours are against him. If he does not step aside in the next couple of days, he will probably be gone in the next couple of weeks.

The problem that will remain once the junta is gone, however, is Mali's north.

Any new regime in Bamako is going to have to deal with a zone where all sorts of interests - dreams of independence by some Tuaregs, calls for the imposition of Sharia by others and a thriving drug-smuggling trade - collide and where the Malian state has very little presence.

Any government in Bamako that wants to regain control of the north is going to face a task that is going to take months, if not years.

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