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On March 22nd 2012 a rag-tag group of officers from the Malian army led by captain Amadou Sanogo left their barracks and marched to the presidential palace. Without meeting any opposition and in a matter of hours they deposed president elect Amadou Toumani Toure' (ATT), dissolved Parliament and erased almost 20 years of democratic rule. Sanogo and his companions protested against the lack of government support in the fight against the Tuareg rebellions that have menaced on and off Mali's north-eastern regions and neighboring countries.

A few hours after ATT's overthrow those same rebel movements that the soldiers wanted to annihilate attacked Mali's main northern cities: Gao, Kidal and the mythological Timbuktu. Thanks to the arsenals coming from Libya and to the lack of resistance from Mali's army, the operations went just smoothly. In less than two weeks Mali has been erased from the geographical map: the Tuareg movement and the islamists from Ansar Dine have declared independence and created a new nation, Azawad.


The Cedeao, the organization of the West African states, has put the new junta under embargo forcing the coup plotters to hand over power and call for new elections in May. But as a matter of fact the situation is already compromised and the Cedeao - with France at the window - has already stated it is ready to send in a military contingent to mark - just like with Ivory Coast in 2002 - the division in two of Mali.

One could say: it is another African story. Another military coup, another rebel movement and another State just drawn on paper by the former European colonial masters, but whose institutions and government over their territory never saw the light. What is happening in Mali - considered an example of democratic rule whose measure in Africa is the number of former presidents alive and on the loose - should open our eyes on the frailty of African States that, 60 years on independence, are still sand castles, ready to dissolve after the first rain.

The question-marks also involve African civil society - never capable of contrasting military coups nor rebel armies - its presumably democratic parties - too often ridden with ethnic or clan division to be really relevant at a national level - and on the very same existence of institutions - defined as the architecture of a State including the public administration, the army and the police forces - who succumb every time weapons impress their will.

One of the cradles of African culture

If there is a country in Africa blessed with millenary cultural heritage - as in the case of the Mandingue Empire of Soundiata Keita - this is Mali. It is not by chance that in these lands crossed by the river Niger in 1235 twelve Mandingue tribal chiefs gave birth to the Kouroukan Fouga, probably Africa's first constitution. In the 44 edicts of the text the 12 tribes announced they would unite under a single reign, the Mande'. They also decided to give up war and chose instead the word. At the empire's head - whose territorial extension span from Mali to Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania - was the Keita family and its valorous offspring, Soudiata Keita, who was named Mansa, king of kings.

The emperor was mainly an administrator. His dominion relied on the support of 30 clans, five of which were marabouts (at the same time wizards and preachers of Islam), five of artisans, four of warriors, four of griots (storytellers) and twelve clans of freemen. Soundiata put an end to slavery and favored commerce making his empire flourish. Social life aimed at the pursuit of peace, security and harmony. The space where power was exercised was the Mansaya, where secular and religious power were united in the name of justice.

This enlightened empire that would last until the 17th century was also based on the so called Mande' Charter, considered to be Africa's first declaration of human rights. The text, written down by the hunters' fraternity in 1222, stated that "the Mande' is founded on openness and concordance, on freedom and brotherhood. This means that there will not be any more ethnic or racial discriminations in the Mande'".

Soundiata Keita's and the Mandingue empire's heritage has survived in Mali and elsewhere across Africa thanks to the griots, the storytellers, who, for centuries, have passed on this oral tradition. Toumani Diabate', kora player and Grammy award winner, is one of their most important contemporary representatives.

Azawad and terrorism

All right, centuries have gone by since the end of the Mandingue empire. In between there have been tribal wars, French colonization, two world wars, independence in 1960, a series of military coup d'etat and a return to democracy in 1991. The elections scheduled for April 2012 were to mark another step forward, since the incumbent president ATT had dropped the idea of meddling with Mali's Constitution to allow himself a third term in office. Why then did everything collapse?

The Tuareg - one of those people in the world without a State of their own such as the Roma, the Saharawi, the Kurds or the Palestinians - have rebelled regularly over the last decades of Mali's recent history. The first time was actually in 1914 against the then French occupiers when they asked for an independent State for the Sahel region. They are a nation without borders of five million people inhabited by the Kel Tamasheq (those who speak Tamasheq as the Tuareg call themselves)  spread across Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. Over the last 60 years the Tuareg have risen up against central governments denying them the right to be a nomadic people free to roam across the desert regardless of national borders.

Rebels on TV after the March coup

Today, even though several peace deals have been signed, it is these same young Tuaregs from Mali to Burkina Faso who have joined the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. After having spent years in liberation movements asking the international community to grant a "special status" to the Azawad, the land of the blue men, in order to guarantee to its people the "preservation of their identity", they have now chosen the path of terrorism financed by the kidnapping industry. Yet, it is once again from the Tuareg that the United States are fishing the special units that are deployed against Al Qaeda in the Maghreb in one of the new fronts of the war on terrorism after 911. You can read one of our previous articles on this specific issue.

Afterall, the recent Tuareg advance in northern Mali has formally seen the clash between two different visions on the future of the African country: on one side the pro-al Qaeda formations of Ansar Dine that want to impose - in a country 100% muslim - sharia law, and, on the other hand, the Movement National pour la Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA, National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) who want and have already declared independence on the portions of "liberated" territory.

Ok, but can a probably legitimate discontent from a minority justify the disintegration of a State? If it has already happened in South Sudan - Africa's last born State that has broken the doctrine on the inviolability of national borders as stated in the Berlin Conference in 1884 - are we looking at a new phase of Balkanization of the continent? And which criteria would apply in this new scramble?

Geopolitics of resources

Until a few years ago Mali was one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. Then, starting in 2008, came the hunt for oil, uranium, diamonds... After all, West Africa is at the center of an economic conflict for the control of its extractive resources. Starting from the Gulf of Guinea, where the United States plan to import 25% of their oil by 2015, to the offshore platforms spanning from Mauritania to Angola the entire region is under pressure from corporations. The Exxon pipeline that today channels oil from Chad to Cameroon tomorrow will probably be linked up with South Sudan (currently still dependent on the north for its oil exports). There are key uranium deposits in Niger, bauxite in Guinea, diamonds in Sierra Leone and Liberia and gold in Mali and Ghana. These are all billions worth of good reasons to make of West Africa a "national security" issue.

The U.S. are obviously not the only ones playing in the Sahel. China has been investing in Africa and is ready to put up to 30 billion dollars over the next few years in the continent's extractive industries. The Chinese have landed in Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan with one major difference with the West: they never meddle in the countries political affairs and never play with ethno-centrism. Beijing is not interested on who is in power as long as they are ready to do business according to the scheme: mineral resources in exchange for public works.

There is then the European Union, for once united in the name of its common interests. The project everyone agrees upon is the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline that should cross for four thousand kilometers the Sahara desert from Nigeria to Algeria's shores. The pipeline would then link up with the networks supplying Europe and Italy, thus providing an alternative to the increasingly unreliable supplies from Russia (see article on Gas Wars). The project is worth 13 billion dollars and has attracted the interest of corporations such as French TotalElf,  Anglo-Dutch Shell, Russian Gazprom and the Italian Eni. Gas should start pumping 500 billion cubic meters per year to Europe by 2016. If rebels in the Delta of Niger, Tuareg and fundamentalists will allow so, that is.

A new scramble for Africa?

If during the Cold War national borders marked the respective spheres of influence and guaranteed the status quo, today those criteria are worthless. It seems as if we have taken a leap backwards towards a colonial past where the scramble for resources is used to re-define African national borders. If this were true, we should expect new countries to emerge all over the continent everywhere there is a large mineral deposit or a huge oil reserve.

If South Sudan and its rich oil fields were the appetizer, we should then expect two Nigerias, one for Boko Haram and Sharia law in the north and another with Christian oil drills in the south. The same will happen with the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose militias and future micro-states will be as numerous and scandalous as are its geologic and mineral resources. Or with Libya, who could be partitioned as it was in pre-colonial times in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. We could continue with Somalia, without a central government for the last 20 years and where a new State is founded every week, and with Ethiopia, once the outpost of Christianity for the West, but now a country with a Muslim majority. We could finish off with Ivory Coast, the country with two presidents: Alassane Outtara, defeated and re-installed by the international community and Laurent Gbagbo, elected and extradited to the Hague.

These scenarios could all simply be lucubrations and political fantasies. Or they could be a modern version of the old divide and rule motto where marginalized minorities are manipulated by external actors. Let us only hope that what is happening in Mali is not the beginning of a new and painful phase of conflict in Africa.  We also would expect that the African elites - its civil society, its ruling class and its regional and continental institutions - take this opportunity to think over the solidity of the national institutions and what it means to be a country and a people, regardless of your ethnic group, clan or creed.