Three weeks after the coup d’etat that brought down Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), the political crisis in Mali is easing. Today, a new civilian head of state – Dioncounda Traore, the speaker of the parliamentary assembly – is being sworn in. The swearing in of the interim president signals a return to constitutional rule, at least temporarily, at the highest levels of power.  The disorganized nature of the coup, and the junta’s failure to quell a threatening rebellion in the north of the country, gave ECOWAS negotiators the window of opportunity they needed to broker this deal. Part of the deal negotiated includes amnesty for coup leaders and the lifting of sanctions that were imposed immediately after the junta took over power last month.

Mr. Traore, who was in the running for the presidential election that was supposed to be held later this month, has vowed that elections will be held in the next 40 days, as stipulated by the constitution, noting that “Malians remain eager to vote to choose their own leaders in “a credibly organized election.”” As much as this transition of power is a significant step towards restoring democratic rule in Mali, the security situation in the country has worsened, as the rebellion in the north is far from under control.

Two groups in northern Mali are fighting regular Malian forces.  The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg armed group, is seeking independence for a region called “Azawad”, while another Islamist group – with unclear connections to MNLA – is hoping to make Shari’a the law of the land in Azawad. In spite of the fact that the March 21 coup was in part fueled by growing discontent about ATT’s management of this crisis and his perceived failure to deploy Mali’s military to constrain rebels in the north, the junta effectively lost more ground to the rebels in the last few weeks. Indeed, while confusion and uncertainty dominated in the south, with the Malian army’s internal divisions as sharp as ever, rebel groups annexed cities in the north, and declared independence last week, effectively cutting off these towns from the rest of the country.

ECOWAS negotiators have been pondering the possibility of sending troops to Mali to support efforts against these separatist groups, though this has been welcomed with lukewarm enthusiasm by Malian political leaders, who argue that the Malian army needs to be provided with weapons and equipment, rather than foreign soldiers fighting on their behalf. The new head of state today threatened “total war” against the separatist groups, unless they relent from their campaign.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the north is worsening. Already, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, with a growing number of refugees crossing borders into neighboring countries. Utilities like water and electricity have been shut off in rebel-controlled towns, and basic supplies are running out. Due to the chaotic and uncertain nature of the situation, aid groups are having a difficult time planning and implementing their activities. In fact, according to IRIN, most aid agencies have suspended their work in northern Mali for now. The European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Kristalina Georgieva, has warned of a “major humanitarian disaster” unless humanitarian corridors are created to allow the delivery of aid.

The coup in Mali was a real blow to democracy. The International Crisis Group’s analysis is spot on: “The coup is a disaster for Mali and for all West Africa. It is a dramatic regression for one of the region’s most advanced countries in terms of the consolidation of electoral democracy and the resolution of conflict through political dialogue.” The return to constitutional rule is merely the first step. Indeed, Mali’s political leaders need to restore trust and confidence and will need to show courage and leadership in dealing with the rebellion in the north. In the coming weeks, we’ll be watching how this multilayered, complex crisis unfolds.

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