The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are opposed to the overthrow of legitimately constituted governments, especially by military coup. According to the press, ECOWAS army chiefs have been meeting in Abidjan to discuss possible intervention in Mali by a regional force. The AU and ECOWAS in principle are also unsympathetic to the breakup of countries, not least because once started, it is hard to see where it might end in a region with many ethnic and other divisions. Accordingly, the AU has denounced the “secession” of the Tuareg-dominated northern part of the country as proclaimed by a Tuareg spokesman in France in a “declaration of independence.” Both the French Minister of Defense and the AU have said that Tuareg protestations have no validity because they are recognized by no one.
ECOWAS failed to dislodge military governments in Guinea (2008) and in Niger (2010), and it is likely to be challenged in Mali. Sanctions such as closing borders and imposing trade restrictions are usually part of the international armory against a coup and played a positive role in dislodging Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire. But the Sahel as a whole faces drought, and there were UN warnings of possible famine even before the Mali coup occurred. Now, a spokesman for Oxfam observes that closing borders or restricting trade could have a devastating impact on the people of Mali, making emergency food deliveries to starving populations even more difficult.
The AU and ECOWAS really have two Mali problems — they are related, but different. The first is how to restore the legitimate government of Toure and return the military to the barracks. Here, diplomatic pressure could play an important role, and the press is already reporting that the Malian military head of state may in fact step aside. But the second problem is how to respond to the Tuareg insurgency, with its calls (by some) for a separate state. Regional organizations may find they have less leverage in such circumstances. And, as Oxfam reminds us, famine could become the context.