x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Mali's problems spill over into the wider region

An apparent second coup has crippled stability in western Africa and threatened moves against extremists in northern Mali.

Events are unfolding quickly in Mali. On Monday night, as a plane bound for Paris awaited him on the airport tarmac, Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra was arrested by soldiers and taken to the Kati army base in Bamako. Before dawn yesterday, Mr Diarra - a US-trained astrophysicist - had appeared on television and announced his resignation, and that of his entire government.

The world's eyes have been uncharacteristically fixed on this north-west African country for the past year. The same military officers toppled the 70-year-old president Dioncounda Traore in March, assaulting Mr Traore in the process. Those officers justified the coup by saying they would fight a separatist movement in the north of the country, which has since broken away from federal control.

This latest coup in Bamako is grim news, not only because of its further destabilising effect on an impoverished country. Mali's problems have consequences far beyond its internal power struggle.

For neighbouring Algeria, Mauritania and Niger - and many of the North African states undergoing periods of relative instability - the breakdown in order poses wider security concerns. After the first coup, Tuareg separatists seized near-total control of northern Mali, and declared an independent state of Azawad. But since then, their hardline Islamist allies have shunted the Tuareg nationalist groups aside.

The Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Eddine has imposed strict Sharia law, destroyed ancient historical sites in Timbuktu and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee into neighbouring countries. Ansar Eddine has set up training bases in the region; another group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, has used it as a base to conduct kidnappings for ransom. The refugee crisis and increasing power of these terrorist groups has put the entire region on edge.

In the last two months, there had been greater support for 3,300-strong intervention force, sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States in cooperation with the United Nations. Given the political mire in Bamako, however, that force is now seriously in doubt - any military operation would have to be followed by a Bamako-led political compromise.

The military's apparent second coup is crippling to stability. West Africa and the international community will remain focused on terrorist groups in northern Mali, but these military officers have seriously undercut their options.