In less than two weeks, the West African nation of Mali has gone from being a rare oasis of democracy and stability to a near failed state whose troubles threaten to ripple across the Sahel where the security situation, always delicate even in the best of times, is especially stressed in the wake of the flow of refugees, fighters, and arms from the Libyan conflict last year. Moreover, the coup d’état by junior army officers not only overthrew an elected government but also threatened to undo a decade’s worth of patient effort by the United States and its European allies while creating a significant opening for al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate and other extremists. 

Ironically, the president toppled by the coup which took place overnight between March 21 and March 22, Amadou Toumani Touré, popularly known as “ATT,” himself first came to power at the point of a gun when, in 1991, the then-paratroop commander tossed out longtime dictator Moussa Traoré after the latter’s security forces opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing more than one hundred. However, ATT did not hold on to power. Instead, he convened a national conference to write a democratic constitution, organized elections, and turned over the government of the country to the man elected the following year, Alpha Oumar Konaré, who later went on to serve as the first chairperson of the African Union Commission. Having earned himself the sobriquet “the Soldier of Democracy,” ATT went back to the barracks, finished his military service, and retired to an elder statesman’s role—among other accomplishments, he established a children’s foundation, campaigned to wipe out Guinea worm, and mediated an end to a rebellion in the Central African Republic. When Konaré left office in 2002 after serving the constitutional limit of two terms, ATT was elected president. He was subsequently reelected with an even larger majority in 2007. 

The president’s second term was perhaps not as happy as his first. The vibrant media that is one of the hallmarks of the Malian democracy he helped to foster—the population of 14.5 million, less than half of whom are literate, supports remarkable dozen-and-a-half French-language newspapers, a half-dozen or so indigenous-language news publications, three television and two national radio networks, and around 150 privately-owned community radio stations—has hounded the administration with allegations of corruption or at least questionable business deals involving presidential associates. Journalists and civil society activists also criticized the government for costly renovations carried out on the presidential palace even as the country consistently ranked near the bottom of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (Mali placed 175th out of the 187 countries and territories surveyed in 2011). In recent months, ATT appeared visibly tired and, by most accounts, was eagerly awaiting the election of his successor, scheduled for April 29, to quit office.  

Another reason that ATT might have been eager to shed the burdens of the presidency was that since last summer, the country has faced a rebellion by Tuareg nomads who seek to create their own state, which they dub “Azawad,” with Mali’s three northernmost provinces—Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu—as well as slices carved from the territories of neighboring countries. The rebels’ Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) is composed of longtime Tuareg dissidents reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who returned last year from Libya, bringing with them heavy armaments looted from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals. In fact, the MNLA’s military commander, Muhammad ag Najim, was a colonel in the Libyan army who had served Gaddafi since the 1980s in various nefarious enterprises across the Sahel. As a result of the fighting, almost 200,000 people have fled their homes in northern Mali since the beginning of the year.  

Meanwhile, the 7,000-strong Malian army has been faring poorly against the rebels, sparking complaints from soldiers that the government was sending them into battle in the harsh Saharan regions without adequate weapons and supplies. The press took up the criticism—editorials in several newspapers even called for the use of nuclear weapons against the rebels—and stirred up demonstrations, some violent, in the streets of Bamako against what was alleged to be the government’s ineffective response. While the president rejected the MNLA’s demand for independence, he was open to negotiating some sort of a compromise with Tuareg leaders—a reasonable enough stance, albeit one that provoked widespread resentment among the Bambara and other Mande groups who make up the majority of the Malian population.  

The coup apparently began when the new defense minister tried to calm down restive troops at the Kati barracks outside Bamako. By all accounts, the lecture went rather badly: voices were raised, stones thrown, and shots were fired into the air. Before long, the defense minister and his entourage were in full flight back to the capital with angry troops in pursuit. What began as frustration turned into a farce, which then quickly degenerated into a full-fledged mutiny; in less than twenty-four hours, Mali’s hard-won democratic credentials were in tatters as ATT was chased out Bamako (he is rumored to be hiding out with loyalists at the camp of his old paratroop battalion, the 33rd) and many of his ministers under arrest. A hitherto unknown captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, who had previously benefited from US-sponsored training as part of America’s efforts to build up the capacity of local militaries to counter the terrorist threat in the region, installed himself as head of junta that promised to “restore power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and the integrity of our territory is re-established.” 

The international community’s reaction to the putsch was swift and, for once, unequivocal. The UN Security Council “strongly condemn[ed] the forcible seizure of power” and demanded “the restoration of constitutional order and the holding of elections as previously scheduled.” The African Union likewise condemned the coup and, lamenting the “significant setback for Mali,” suspended the country from membership in the organization. Mali’s biggest aid donors—the United States, France, and the European Union—suspended all but humanitarian assistance to the country. The World Bank and other multilateral institutions likewise halted their programs. Perhaps moving with the most alacrity was the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which set last night as the deadline for its members to close their borders with Mali, the regional central bank to freeze the country’s accounts, and its standby forces to be put on alert for possible intervention. ECOWAS heads of state and other leaders are expected to confer today in Dakar on the margins of the inauguration of Senegal’s President Macky Sall; tellingly, General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is included as member of the official U.S. diplomatic delegation to the event. 

Meanwhile, the MNLA rebels took advantage of the situation in southern Mali to score impressive gains. Last Friday, after forty-eight hours of intense fighting, MNLA forces took control of Kidal, the capital of the eponymous northeastern region. The following day, MNLA—ominously joined by fighters from Ansar e-Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”), a local Islamist militant group with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg chieftain whose principal objective is the imposition of shari’a, rather than self-determination—took Gao, capital of the neighboring region and site of the Malian army’s chief garrison in the north. Completing the trifecta on Sunday, Tuareg and Islamist fighters took the historic desert town of Timbuktu after Malian forces apparently abandoned their positions. In effect, Mali has been cut into two parts. And while the MNLA denies that it has connections to any Islamist movements, a number of reports indicate that not only Ansar e-Dine fighters, but also militants from the AQIM splinter group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. Reuters reports that the black flags of the extremist groups are now flying in Kidal and Gao and that music and Western clothes are already being banned in those towns, while the Associated Press reports that the same dark banners were raised over fabled Timbuktu early Monday morning.  

All of this leaves Mali’s international partners, both in Africa and beyond, in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, irrespective of the frustrations keenly felt by many Malians, both civilians and military, over the government’s handling of the growing rebellion in the north, the overthrow of constitutional order—and just six weeks before elections at that—is a terrible precedent that, quite correctly, has to be condemned and the putschist regime shunned. On the other hand, unless decisive action is undertaken quickly to dislodge them, the Tuareg rebels and their Islamists allies are likely to consolidate their hold on the north—and, in the process, create a safe haven for terrorists, extremists, criminals, and other agents of destabilization. During a visit to the Atlantic Council last November, Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga—who is currently being held prisoner by the junta—expressed concern that thespillover effects of the Libyan crisis, by sending an increased flow of arms and fighters across borders and heightening security risks across a region already threatened by terrorist groups as well as plagued by trafficking flows would undo not only the decade-long effort by the U.S. and European governments to strengthen the governance capacities of the Sahelian states, but undermine their very foundations. In short, the international community will need to carefully balance its principled refusal to accept the unconstitutional seizure of power with its interests in maintaining the territorial integrity of Mali and securing the strategically vital bridge between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa against the forces of extremism. 

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center.