Mali's dilemma: Democracy or unity?

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Media captionThe BBC's Andrew Harding says fighter from places such as Pakistan are flooding into the region.

Which comes first - democracy or unity? Today, the West African state of Mali is grappling with that dilemma, as it flounders in the aftermath of two dizzyingly quick and unexpected disasters.

In the space of a few months, this famously tolerant and seemingly stable democracy has seen half its territory seized by a feuding assortment of Islamist militants and Tuareg separatists, and its elected government overthrown by a military coup.

The men who led that coup - and who remain a powerful force here despite the formation of a shaky interim government - insist that the re-conquest of northern Mali is the clear priority.

Appetite for military action

"War in the north," said the junta's spokesman, Mariko Bakary, unequivocally.

"Logistical preparations are now under way. The Malian army is ready, preparing to confront the situation… and chase the smugglers, terrorists and armed groups occupying the north."

It's always hard to judge the mood in any country, but on the streets of the capital, Bamako - a place that, for now, is trying hard to seem normal - the appetite for military action seems keen.

"I don't think we have a choice. We've tried negotiations but now I think the only solution we have is the military solution," said Ousmane Diadie Toure, a prominent film-maker who is part of Defenders of the Republic, an activist movement led by artists and professionals.

The group - which has released some catchy rap songs about the need for something like an Arab Spring here - opposes the coup, but seems more concerned by the alleged corruption and bad governance that it blames for provoking it.

"We need to solve the northern issue before we talk about democracy and elections," Mr Toure said.

Balancing act

But Mali's neighbours, and the broader international community, appear to be seeking a more nuanced approach.

They are looking for ways to shore up state institutions in Bamako, marginalise the coup leaders and facilitate negotiations with moderate rebel groups in the north, while also worrying about the significant regional threat posed by militant Islamist groups.

"It is a risk that we have foreign fighters now in Mali, but the main risk we have is of the collapse of the Malian state itself. Preserving the state… is the real way to preserve the country from becoming… a beacon for terrorism that would threaten the world," says Gilles Yabbi, a regional analyst for the International Crisis Group.

But nudging Mali back towards democracy could be a tricky process.

West Africa's regional body Ecowas wants to send troops in to stabilise the south and to help with a military offensive in the north. That strategy is gaining diplomatic momentum.

Peter Barlerin, the deputy US ambassador in Bamako, sees that as the right path.

"Mali doesn't have the military capacity to handle this on their own. They need to accept a helping hand from Ecowas, the African Union and its neighbours," he said.

But the junta - no doubt nervous about its own position - vehemently rejects the need for any outside forces.

"We don't need foreigners on our soil. We need logistical support and advice - nothing more," Mr Bakary said.

Foreign jihadists

In the meantime, the BBC has obtained video footage showing a man being publicly flogged in Timbuktu for drinking alcohol - an unthinkable scene a few months ago in a country known for its tolerant and moderate brand of Islam.

The famously remote city on the edge of the Sahara is now controlled by Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with links to a regional al-Qaeda affiliate - Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

"It's very difficult here - we have no freedom. We're not used to this. Women have to wear a veil. If you smoke a cigarette, they arrest you," said a local inhabitant - someone I know from an earlier visit to the town - who didn't want his name used.

Estimates of the number of foreign jihadists - from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere - now flooding into the north of Mali vary, but a figure of about 1,000 is often mentioned.

Privately, some diplomats concede that the numbers may be exaggerated by regional officials who have business contracts in the lucrative and booming security sector in countries like Nigeria.

Still, there's a general consensus that, left unchallenged, the jihadists present a significant threat to the region and beyond.

Almost ignored amid the confusion in Bamako and the fears of Islamists in the north are the MNLA - the separatist Tuareg rebels who launched the initial offensive with reinforcements from post-revolutionary Libya.

Although they have since been sidelined militarily by Ansar Dine and AQIM, they are the only group in the north with both popular legitimacy - and a realistic chance of cutting a deal with any government in Bamako.

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