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

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?