Mali's Crisis, Obama's Opportunity

The West African country has been divided by northern rebels with ties to an al-Qaeda offshoot. Is this a moment for the U.S. to step up?

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Malian soldiers walk in a rally in the capital. Reuters

The violence began in the West African country of Mali when junior officers overthrew Amadou Toumani Toure, the elected president. The coup leaders, once in power, said that Toure had to go because he had failed to effectively respond to the rebellion of the Tuareg peoples, who dominate the country's vast but sparsely populated northern region. In response, Tuareg fighters, some of whom had served as part of Qaddafi's private army in his waning months as Libya's dictator, seized provincial towns in the north, including Timbuktu, the center of Mali's legendary ancient civilization. On Friday, the Tuaregs declared an independent state, which they call Azawad.

The world is struggling to find the right response. France, the former colonial master, insisted it would not take unilateral military action to prevent the partition between Mali's north and south, Meanwhile, the coup leaders forced President Toure to "officially" resign, claiming that they would transition the country back to electoral democracy under the leadership of the parliamentary speaker (who had fled to neighboring Burkina Faso).

Mali is mainly desert. In the long period of French rule, stretching from before World War I into the 1960s, Mali was an integral part of a West African zone that included both the ports of Dakar and Abijan. In addition to supplying food and resources to the Francophone cities on the western coast, Mali also supplied labor. Even today, many Malians seek work not only in Dakar and Abijan but in France. Remittances have long kept Malian living standards, if not buoyant, than basic.

As an independent nation, Mali has endured structural disadvantages, not the least of which has been lack of direct access to large cities and ocean transport. The interior Saharan region -- with its now rising security risks and its sheer vastness -- must be supported by a nation with a rather small population (about 14 million people) and a miniscule national budget. In colonial times, French West Africa could essentially subsidize the costs of maintaining Niger, northern Burkina, and the far north of Mali. No longer.

Self-reliance for Mali has largely been a fool's game as a result. With one of lowest percentages of arable land of any country in the world, Mali has long been among the poorest places on the planet . But that's changing, and Mali is becoming more important in the world.

Mali is a second-tier producer of gold and one of a group of West African countries who together export significant amount of cotton. Both gold and cotton are trading at historic highs. In February, two exploration companies, one Canadian and the other Algerian, signed an agreement to begin prospecting for oil in northern Mali.

It's also a geographic bridge between Muslim North Africa and the more Christian sub-Saharan, In recent years, Mali has quietly been enlisted in U.S. efforts to undermine Islamic fundamentalists who seem, rather unexpectedly, to have formed an alliance with the Tuareg.

In the vast deserts of the Sahara, the Tuareg long have resisted rule from Bamako, where the ruling political elite maintain deeper and more durable ties with Paris, the old master, than they do with the Tuareg. In the 1990s, a series of settlements appeared to resolve the long-running, low-level violence between the Tuareg and the Malian army. The war officially ended in 1996, but the underlying conflict apparently did not. Perhaps because of the blowback from the overthrow of Qaddafi, the terms of Tuareg political aspirations have altered.

France, which gave up its official colonial status but kept much of the influence, could help end the conflict. If it were willing to commit troops, it could semi-permanently partitioning the country in the same manner of Ivory Coast, where the intervention of French troops froze a political stalemate between Muslim north and Christian south. In Mali, virtually everyone is Muslim, so the cleavages divide along ethnic and geographic lines. Southern Mali, running along the Savannah rim of the West African interior, is vastly different from the empty arid northeastern part of the country, which mostly borders the North African countries of Algeria and Mauritania.

Presented by

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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