Ian Birrell: Accidental coup has undone decades of steady progress in Mali

Two weeks have ripped apart this beautiful country, for two decades such a model democracy

Share

Arriving in Timbuktu after a long, hot journey across the Sahara, you come to a striking monument to peace, with guns embedded in concrete. It was built in 1995 to commemorate the ceremonial burning of 3,000 weapons at the end of the last Tuareg rebellion.

Today, the black flag of Islamist rebels flies over this fabled city and it is once more at the centre of conflict. There are reports that 300 Christians, whose families have lived there for centuries, have fled the city amid the imposition of rigid sharia law. Women have been told to cover up, Western dress banned and looters threatened with beheading.

Yesterday's declaration of independence in the north of Mali marks the culmination of a depressing fortnight that has ripped apart this beautiful nation, for two decades such a model democracy.

It all began on 21 March, when a barracks mutiny turned into an accidental coup. Soldiers, infuriated by lack of supplies and political support to crush a two-month rebellion in the huge northern desert region, ended up in control of the capital under an army captain who is out of his depth.

Given the troops' complaints, there is savage irony to the speed with which the rebels exploited the chaos to sweep through key Saharan towns. The question, however, is precisely who is in control? The most prominent rebel group is the MNLA, who take a relaxed approach to religion. Tuareg women tend to go uncovered while men drink, smoke and dance – exemplified by the famous Festival in the Desert.

But there are fears they are being sidelined by Ansar Dine, a smaller Islamist group that returned well-armed and battle-hardened from the fighting in Libya. Lurking in the background is al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, an autonomous terror group behind a spate of kidnaps and killings.

It all adds up to a bleak outlook for Mali, with aid stopped, sanctions imposed, a political void in the south and rising threat of a full-blown civil war, theocracy and a refugee crisis in the north. This is not just a nation with a glorious heritage, but the strategic hub of a highly volatile region. The world needs to wake up to what is happening.

twitter: @ianbirrell

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz