Mali's dilemma: Democracy or unity?


The 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.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Gilles Yabbi International Crisis Group

"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.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Timbuktu resident

"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.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    When the majority of African States were Liberated in 1963 the issue of Borders among states was settled where the Colonizers have Left.Now the tendency is to break Nations on Tribal Line & the issue of Democracy due to the lack of Institution & the Rule of Law. When Leaders Rule & not Dictate Democracy will be served & Unity will hold strong among Nations. This is where Africa should Focus

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Why the United Nations, African Union and Malian government have refused to negotiate with the MNLA after it proclaimed independence of the Azawad? Civil negotiations could take place to achieve some degree of 'regional autonomy' to avoid another large scale conflict. Is the issue of terrorism really preventing negotiations to take place? Whose political will really counts? Who profits from war?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Until 'Islam' and it's moderate followers totally reject the notion of jihad and the term 'deleted' ie anti-other beliefs then extremism will spread further and further and plunge the world into a long period of anti islam attacks....muslims of all branches must get together and sort out their theological differences ......

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Negotiation is the way to go for Mali. Militairy intervention besides surgical strikes to attack known terrorists camps will be counterproductive and bloody. Time is needed for constitutional democracy to flourish once again. Mali's militairy was ineffective in controlling and keeping the north, international troops should not prop them up and reward them by fighting in the north for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Err... isn't Islam the religion of peace?
    And aren't the borders of Mali relics of the colonial era, made in utter indifference to the human reality on the ground? Given that, quite how do Malians justify the need to 'rescue the north'? Different signals...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Hope the US can help by provision of drones to assist AU ground forces. Hit these Islamists hard & wipe them out before they get a chance to bring the kind of devastation Boko Haram have visited on Nigeria. Showing them no mercy is the best policy for Mali.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    France will support military intervention if UNSC approved. 6 French citizens are being held hostage by AQIM, probably in Mali’s north. W. African leaders warn jihadi fighters from Afghanistan & Pakistan are helping train Islamists. Even Nigerian Boko Haram is said to have presence.
    Mali received more than $100M annually from Canada - Cdn mining companies were heavily involved in Mali.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The Malian government can follow a simple strategy: disregard the empty, sandy north for a while. Consolidate democracy and the economy in the south; Sooner or later, the people in the north will see the need to join their southern compatriots and would kick out the Islamists and separatists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    France & US are concerned about Islamist groups that helped capture north. US is using unmarked airplanes to spy on activities of Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). US planes, with hidden sensors & surveillance technology, are searching for AQIM from bases Mauritania & Burkina Faso. US spent millions on anti-terrorism training in Mali – only to have some trainees become leaders of Mali Coup.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Military action in Mali - danger, complexity, risk of worsening crisis. House-to-house fighting in Timbuktu or other northern cities would be a logistical nightmare, could cause heavy damage to historic treasures. W. African troops do not even have proper vehicles for the rugged desert terrain of northern Mali. UNSC said that it would “examine” AU's proposal for intervention in Mali.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    W. African troops plan entry to Mali to:
    - protect fragile democratic institutions (badly weakened by an army coup in March).
    - bolster Mali’s army & assist in dislodging of rebels who have captured northern 2/3s of Mali, turning it into a vast haven for Islamist terrorists.
    W. African military chiefs say they have commitments from Nigeria, Senegal & Niger. AU asking UNSC for support.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    West African leaders are planning for military intervention in Mali, mobilizing a force of @ 3,500 soldiers to lead mission. Senior military officers are expected to arrive in Mali this week to begin detailed military intervention. One of their goals, according to Ivory Coast’s army chief, is the “re-conquest of the north” – where Islamists & separatist rebels have seized power.



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