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Mali coup: Arab Spring spreads to Africa

March 26, 2012 at 3:55 PM   |   Comments

BAMAKO, Mali, March 26 (UPI) -- Last week's military coup in Mali, triggered by a Tuareg rebellion and ignited by fighters and weapons from Libya, underlines how deeply the fallout from the year-old string of Arab uprisings is spreading from North Africa to non-Arab West Africa.

"The current crisis … has the potential to create further destabilization in the wider Sahara and Sahel regions beyond the current chaos in Mali," observed analyst Derek Henry Flood, who witnessed the 2011 Libyan conflict at close quarters.

"In simplest terms, the Arab Spring has now bled into Africa. And the mercurial, egomaniacal (Moammar) Gadhafi is no longer available to mediate such deadly disputes."

The coup by disgruntled soldiers of Mali's 7,000-man army overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure, an ex-soldier.

He went into hiding with loyalist troops, including his old 33rd Parachute Regiment, leaving open the possibility of a counter-coup in the nation of 15.4 million.

The irony is that while the Arab leaders targeted by the popular uprisings against them throughout 2011 were dictators and despots like Gadhafi, Mali's Toure wasn't one of the autocratic "Big Men" of Africa like the late Sese Seko Mobuto of the Congo or the murderous Charles Taylor of Sierra Leone, but a democratically elected leader.

Indeed, the U.S.-supported Toure had been instrumental in moving Mali, a vast landlocked desert state south of Algeria, from a military dictatorship to a passably democratic state over the last two decades.

Toure "was on the cusp of stepping down at the end of his first term in what should have been a peaceful transition" in presidential elections scheduled to begin April 29, Flood observed.

These aren't likely to happen now since troops led by mid-level officers seized power Thursday.

Led by a U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, they apparently struck because of discontent in the military that Toure wasn't doing enough to support them in fighting a rebellion in the long under-governed north along the Algerian border.

The nomadic Tuareg have been a problem for centuries. Their secessionist insurrection had been stiffened by heavily armed tribal fighters who fought for Gadhafi's regime and had long battled the Bamako government in the non-Tuareg south for independence under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.

In recent months thousands of tribesmen have returned to Mali, armed with missiles and mortars that left the Malian army badly outgunned. In January, they rekindled the MNLA's revolt.

The coup itself seems to have been touched off by a mutiny among troops in the north reeling under an MNLA onslaught led by Gadhafi's Tuareg veterans.

Now the MNLA, having seized most of the north and with the military in disarray, is apparently moving south toward the capital, with government troops reportedly fleeing in the Tuareg path.

Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, is increasingly concerned that Mali will become a haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This group has been extending its operations across North Africa and into the Sahel states of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

Other countries, particularly impoverished Niger with vast uranium deposits, are seen as increasingly vulnerable to AQIM and its allies, which have in recent years included Tuaregs across the region.

Many Nigerien Tuaregs also fought in Gadhafi's forces and they're going home armed with heavy weapons.

Niger had a coup of its own in 2010 and struggled with a Tuareg revolt in 2007-09.

The MNLA has overrun towns and military bases along Mali's border with Niger, Algeria and Mauritania.

Algeria, which has ducked the worst of the Arab Spring, is to have elections in May amid widespread discontent. The last thing Algiers wants is more trouble from the southern desert while it battles AQIM.

Links between the jihadists of AQIM and the Tuareg are patchy but they may yet find common cause.

The March 20 arrest in Mauritania of Gadhafi's infamous and fugitive intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, after he flew in from Morocco on a forged Malian passport "illustrates that the effects of regime change in Libya will be felt across Africa for some time to come," Flood noted.

"It's now clear that the consequences of the Western-backed Libyan campaign have now unequivocally traveled from North Africa to what is distinctly West Africa."

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