Tuareg rebels are fighting the government in Mali, the military has staged a coup and the people are facing food shortages. DW spoke to German expert Henner Papendieck about the complicated situation in the country.
For 17 years, Henner Papendieck led the North of Mali Program of the Society for International Cooperation (GIZ, formerly GTZ). Now he works as a freelance development policy consultant.
Deutsche Welle: Many people were surprised by the military coup, because Mali would have elected a new president in five weeks' time anyway. So why did it happen now?
Henner Papendieck: As far as the rebellion is concerned, we need to distinguish its root causes, the circumstances that led to it, and the immediate trigger. The coup on Wednesday, March 21, was triggered by the visit of the defense minister to Kati. He was supposed to make it clear to the soldiers then that troops would move towards the north. For the soldiers, however, that was the last straw, because the Malian army has no chance against Tuareg rebels in the north. The soldiers did not want to go there because they do not understand why they are supposed to risk their lives.
The root cause is that the whole system under President Amadou Toumani Toure was breaking down, because after the overthrow of the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the influx of money into Mali stopped. Admittedly, the elections were announced - but they would not take place in the north because of the crisis in that part of the country. The parties would have protested against that after the first election round, there would have been riots, and that would have led to an impasse. So, for many the coup seemed more like a way out. But that it happened within a few hours was something of a surprise.
Even the military is partly acting surprised that their action lead to a coup d'état. They sometimes seem unprofessional.
Indeed. One thing is clear: This coup was not prepared in advance. You could tell that from the way rebels acted in their public appearances. This is evident even in the complicated name of their committee, which their spokesman can barely pronounce: "The National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and Restoration of the State" (CNRDR).
The coup was almost a product of chance: the mutineers had already protested the day before, and their demonstration was dispersed by the president with the help of the National Guard and tear gas. On Wednesday, they came back - and when they realized that they were encountering no resistance, they marched through to the presidential palace. Fighting took place only once they reached the palace. And now, one has the impression that the rebels do not quite know how to deal with the power that they so suddenly acquired.
What chances do you give them now, considering they are practically isolated after the African and international communities condemned the coup?
Mali's democracy has always been an arrangement. I think this will be the case with the rebels as well.
The rebels accuse the president of not resolving the conflict in the north, of being incompetent and cowardly...
He acted consistently but wrongly. The conflict in the north had been unresolved for years, even under Toure's predecessor Alpha Oumar Konare. But while Konare tried to reach a compromise with the Tuareg, Toumani Toure put up obstacles to these negotiations. This backfired.
What is the background of the Tuareg rebellion in the north?
The north is a very difficult region with poor prospects for development. Additionally, the colonial demarcation left the Tuareg dispersed in many different states. They had hoped to get their own state. But the negotiations failed. Throughout the two great Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and early 1980s, the living conditions of the Tuareg were severely limited. Before those events, you could have pasture lands 150 km (90 miles) away from the river and raise camels or sheep. After the drought, everything focused on the river itself and you could only make a living within 30 km away from it. This destroyed their livelihood and their social structure. In addition to cattle breeders, there were also blacksmiths and craftsmen. The whole system crumbled.
Then came the first US attack on Gadhafi, who had tied many young Tuareg fighters to himself. Because of the strong international pressure, Gadhafi dismissed many of these fighters - and when they returned to their homeland and found that the state had done nothing for the north, they launched their rebellion (1989). With the fall of Gadhafi, we are currently seeing a new version of this story, but one in which the fighters are now equipped with money, weapons and vehicles, which makes it possible for them to wage a war against the state at a much higher level.
So are they better equipped than the government army?
Much better. Otherwise they would have never been able to take the large military base of Tessalit, a base with proper barracks and a four-kilometer-long runway for large military aircraft. That was the ultimate bastion of the state. Without it, the Malian government can't fight a war in the north. And other cities will fall into the hands of the rebels.
How do you assess the situation for the population in the disputed territories in the north?
The latest UNHCR statistics speak of about 200,000 refugees, of whom at least 100,000 have fled across the border to Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger. The situation is desperate: a very bad harvest year led to a hunger crisis. People already had nothing left to eat - and from now on it will only get harder: The hot months of April, May and June are coming, the rainy season begins in July, and the first harvest comes only in October. The next few months would have been difficult in any case. Should there now be a negotiated settlement, there is still some chance that people could come back before the rain. Then they could still grow something which they could provide the basis of their subsistence for the coming winter.
What can Germany do?
The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) should continue its work in the inland delta of the Niger. And a negotiated solution should be reached as soon as possible. Both sides must agree on a ceasefire and then seriously think about how to proceed. The deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure has lost the confidence of the people and for the rebels, he was not a negotiating partner because he was unreliable: promises were broken, contracts not honored, people said one thing and did something else. Tuareg leaders would not accept that. And we have seen what that led to.
Author: Dirke Köpp / tt
Editor: Ben Knight