West African group mulls intervention in Mali

ECOWAS, a West African regional group, reimposes sanctions and considers military intervention after Mali's coup leaders renege on promise to cede power to civilian rulers. 

Harouna Traore/AP
Civilians look on as soldiers loyal to junta chief Capt. Amadou Sanogo load trucks with supplies including halal military rations, a cot, and a mattress, outside the parachutists camp after taking control in fighting against anti-junta forces, in Bamako, Mali, Tuesday, May 1.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS is talking tough once more with coup leaders in Mali who had promised to hand over power to civilian rulers but seem to be reneging on that vow.

On Wednesday, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a statement saying that ECOWAS would reimpose sanctions lifted after coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo pledged to return to the barracks after handing power to designated interim president Djouncounda Traore. Sanogo now says he wants to replace Mr. Traore after his term expires May 22, ahead of planned elections.

ECOWAS is now exploring other options, including military intervention.

"Failure on the part of the [junta] and their civilian allies to clearly reaffirm their commitment to the transitional arrangement in the next few days will be met with the immediate reinstatement of the targeted sanctions," the bloc said in a statement.

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS Commission, says ECOWAS is just waiting for authorization from the United Nations to order the intervention.

“A strategic plan has been drawn up, and if the ECOWAS force has to be deployed, we need a go-ahead from the UN Security Council,” Mr. Ouedraogo said.

The US is ready to support an ECOWAS intervention with logistics and military planners, says US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.

"The US fully supports Ecowas's mediation efforts to help Mali return to democratic rule," Mr. Carson said in a conference call with reporters. “We have been willing to provide logisticians and planners" to an ECOWAS operation, if the Malian military does not cede power, Carson added. "But the mission and role must be defined before we make any kind of commitment."

Coming at a time when much of the West African semi-arid region known as the Sahel was already experiencing food shortages due to low rainfall, the coup and conflict in Mali has contributed to what aid workers and human rights activists are calling Mali’s worst crisis in 50 years. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance estimates that some 3.5 million people in Mali are affected by the food crisis, driven by weather conditions and conflict, and nearly 175,000 of these are children suffering severe malnutrition. Nearly 190,000 Malians have fled war at home to neighboring countries.

Mali’s soldiers consider their coup to be an internal matter, a dispute with a corrupt government that failed to provide them with enough ammunition and food to take on restive Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the vast, uncontrolled deserts of Mali’s north. Many of those Tuareg rebels were much better armed than Mali's Army, since they had received weapons and training from former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and with Qaddafi's fall, they returned to Mali ready for war.

But if the coup had been intended to strengthen the Malian Army's hand, it backfired. With the coup came a kind of anarchy that the Tuareg rebels used to their advantage in taking over the north of the country, including the historical university town of Timbuktu, a situation that Mali’s neighbors consider intolerable.  

Mali’s coup leaders may have lost control of the north – a staggering worst-case scenario for Mali’s erstwhile allies, the US Africa Command, which has cut off relations since the coup – but at home, Sanogo and his men appear to have retained direct control over Bamako and the political process. Amnesty International says that the coup may have dealt a profound blow to democratization efforts.

"Mali is facing, since the beginning of the year, the worst crisis that the country has known since its independence in 1960," Amnesty International said in a report. "The entire north of the country has been taken over by armed groups. Ten of thousands of people have fled the region, creating a humanitarian crisis in southern Mali and in neighboring countries.

"Moreover, the military coup of March 2012 in Bamako has set back almost 20 years of peaceful political changes through elections and has isolated the country internationally."

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