By Max Watkins
On March 21st, rebellious Malian soldiers attacked the capital city Bamako and overthrew the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, in a coup d’état. The rebels were able to quickly convey their actions and message to the country by seizing the main radio broadcast station in the city. They have carried their initial momentum through the past several weeks, consolidating their power and control of the country. The primary reason stated by the rebels for their coup is that the government was not supporting the military in putting down the Tuareg rebellion in the northern part of Mali. Ironically, the Tuareg rebels have used this internal Malian struggle as a distraction as they have now declared their own state, Azawad. Overall, this coup is remarkable in its lack of violence and bloodshed.
Regardless of the quality of the Malian government led by former President Toure and the intentions of the rebels, the international community quickly condemned the coup and the rebel soldiers. Withdrawing diplomatic relations and issuing sanctions against the rebel government has been the standard approach to the coup. The African Union also expelled Mali and supports the former government and president. Even though the government was overthrown, the international community should not be so quick in condemning the coup; this is not simply another power struggle. Something deeper and more fundamental is occurring.
To understand the Tuareg rebellion and the government’s difficulty in governing the country, we must consider geographical and colonial influences. As with many other African countries, Mali’s borders were decided by colonialists, with little regard to preexisting cultural, ethnic, religious, and economic areas and borders. Essentially, colonialists drew straight lines wherever they desired, dividing and combining regions and peoples that should not have been. Mali is a landlocked country with two main areas connected by a small and thin area of land. The northern region is primarily in the Sahara desert, while the southern region is primarily forested. Thus, we see that Mali as a country is simply an artificial construct that should never have existed in the first place. The Tuaregs in the north do not want to listen to the Mali government in Bamako, deep in the southern region. So what we are really seeing in this coup and the Tuareg declaration of a new independent state of Azawad is the revealing of the natural borders of Mali. This is a fundamentally good development and the international community should embrace this, not denounce it. Conflict will occur whenever two or more groups, which historically do not get along, are forced to live together. This situation can be found throughout Africa. If both African governments and the international community adopted a more nuanced and far-sighted perspective, we could see the elimination of many artificially constructed states, reduction in internal unrest and civil war, and the promotion of peace in Africa. The future of the Malian coup and the nascent state of Azawad are uncertain, but if the situation continues to remain peaceful and both Mali and Azawad can coexist, we will very likely see a model for the rest of Africa.
Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on International Conflicts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.