The very existence of the West African country of Mali is currently under threat. The whole of the north of the country is in the hands of a Tuareg rebellion, which nothing seems able to stop.

President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted on March 22 by a junta of captains calling themselves the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE). Taking advantage of the ensuing power vacuum in the capital Bamako, the rebels have gained possession of northern Mali at lightning speed.

The rebels, the majority of whom are members of the nomadic Tuareg people, refuse to be called Malian, and they want to establish an independent Tuareg state called Azawad.

Currently the rebels only hold the northern part of Mali, but with potential reinforcements arriving from other areas of the Sahel, a transition zone between the Sahara in the north and the savannahs to the south, and in particular from neighboring Niger, that could all change. In the meantime, the Malian army is falling apart.

The captains who overthrew the president justified their actions by claiming to be working to end the decline of Mali. However, the coup has had precisely the opposite outcome. Despite the fall of city after city in the north over the past few days, the CNRDRE has not sent any troops north to defend the country from the rebels.

Quick response, deep concerns

West African leaders are responding quickly to try and avoid an outright collapse of the Malian state, and they have reacted with commendable promptness. At the impetus of, in particular, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, a diplomatic emergency committee has been formed that is threatening the junta with heavy sanctions if it does not relinquish power.

However, none of the heads of states involved is entirely blameless. Some, like Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, have faced mutinies in their own countries. The desire of the presidents of the region to return constitutional order to Bamako is therefore influenced by a certain degree of self-preservation. Who can blame them? Only recently emerging from the Ivorian crisis, with Guinea still fragile and Senegal only just managing to avoid serious upheaval following its electoral turmoil, West Africa could do without the collapse of Mali.

In Bamako, regional pressures run counter to public opinion; Mali has developed a strong dislike for its neighbors' interference. But at this stage the only options left are likely to be hard to implement, not least the junta stepping down as Sanago, president of CNRDRE, holds tight to power.

The West African heads of state will need plenty more energy to achieve their joint objectives: firstly, getting the Malian military back to their barracks; and secondly, helping them to launch a counter-attack. If this doesn't happen, the North will quickly be lost and the division of the country becomes an ever-growing threat.

Until now, West Africa's efforts have met with relative indifference from the international community. It is imperative that the outside world offers its support and realizes that the situation in Mali will have significant consequences for the whole of the Sahel region.

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Photo – Garrondo