Landlocked and desperately poor, Mali has faced no shortage of obstacles. Now the vast west African nation – once heralded as a democratic success story – is facing down a three-headed crisis that threatens to destabilise an entire region. Years of corrupt, ineffectual governance, blowback from the Arab spring, and emboldened extremists have threatened to tear the country in two.
As regional partners and foreign powers meet today in Bamako to weigh the possibility of military intervention, here's what you need to know about the crisis.
A model democracy
For two decades Mali has been held up as a regional model: a poor, landlocked nation successfully transitioning from a one-party dictatorship to representative democracy amid the post-colonial tumult and violence of its west African neighbours. Since a protest-fuelled coup in 1991, successive Malian governments have transitioned power democratically and peacefully. A long-fought insurgency by Tuareg rebels in the north died down, press freedoms increased, tourism returned.
But running parallel to that positive narrative of "African nation reborn" were a number of darker trends. When a hero of the 1991 coup, Amadou Toumani Toure, took the presidency in 2002, election observers cited flaws: about one-quarter of the votes cast in the first round of elections were annulled. The Toure government solicited aid money from foreign donors without building the infrastructure to effectively use it. And it withdrew the army from parts of the restive north, ceding ground to smugglers, Tuareg separatists and networks of militant Islamists operating across the Sahel region. In Mali and neighbouring Mauritania, tourists and foreign workers were kidnapped by jihadis purporting to belong to North African al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In the summer of 2011, as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi's regime collapsed in Libya, Tuaregs allied with the deposed "brother leader" began to return to Mali's vast northern desert. They came battle hardened and well-armed, thanks to unguarded weapons caches that dotted Libya during the Nato intervention. Joining with various Islamist groups – like Ansar Dine, led by local Tuaregs, as well as foreign jihadis – they quickly took the country's north.
Outside of the capital, Bamako, in south-west Mali, mid-ranking officers, alarmed by the insurgents' march and furious over Toure's weak-kneed response, grew mutinous. In March, armed officers entered the presidential palace. It's still unclear whether they intended to petition for more military support or take power, but either way the government collapsed. Former colonial master France led a chorus of condemnation, but little has been done to remedy the tension. An interim president was named in April, but it's unclear whether he or the military holds genuine authority.
All the while, the more radical elements of the northern insurgency have asserted more control over nearly two-thirds of the country. An extremist version of Sharia law has been imposed, adulterers have been stoned to death, and world heritage shrines have been destroyed in the ancient town of Timbuktu. Northerners including Tuaregs who supported the revolt and who dream of an independent homeland have fled to neighbouring countries, and the unwelcoming south.
What kind of intervention?
In addition to the largely undocumented suffering of millions of Malians, one worrying scenario is that the country's instability will bleed across its borders. The extremist sanctuary in the north is believed to harbour foreign jihadis from across the region, including members of AQIM, Somalia's al-Shabaab and Nigeria's Boko Haram. And the threat of regional destabilisation is very real: northern neighbour Algeria experienced years of violent civil war, as did Ivory Coast to the south. Add to that AQIM's active presence in Mauritania to the west – a country whose president was shot under extremely suspicious circumstances last weekend.
It's no surprise that the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), French authorities and the US-led Africom have all floated the possibility of armed intervention. Last week, the UN security council presented Mali with a 45-day deadline to put together a viable plan to retake the north. The Malian government has promised to do so, perhaps on the back of a 3,000-strong Ecowas force. But even as French and US officials have suggested that intervention is likely, on the ground there remain very legitimate concerns: namely, how and whether the poorly trained and equipped Malian army, with the support of neighbours, can tackle experienced fighters in a desert expanse larger than France.
Mali, with its regional partners, should work to prevent its territory from becoming a haven for the continent's worst extremists. That seems to be the goal of Friday's meeting in Bamako, which will include local leaders and European and UN envoys. But ultimately, the country's only solution is political. Tuaregs and local Islamist groups should be given an opportunity to engage in the political system – one that, with international supervision, must be rebuilt to avoid the gilded corruption and inefficacy of the past.
Learn more: Human Rights Watch has put together a powerful report on the tremendous suffering of the civilian population trapped in Mali's extremist-run north.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Monde Diplomatique, London Review of Books, Avaaz, CNN, PBS, BBC, New York Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Human Rights Watch