After staging a coup more than a week ago, the military in Mali is losing more ground to Tuareg rebels, who now control nearly all of northern Mali, as they step up their fight for their own homeland.
"This is a historical moment for all Tuareg on the African continent. They can say 'Yes we made it at last after 55 years of marginalisation, suffering, refugees and statelessness'. Now the Tuareg have their own state ...."
- Akli Sh'kka, a Tuareg spokesperson
And with pressure growing from neighbouring countries, the military says it will hand back power to a civilian government.
On Sunday Amadou Sanogo, the coup leader, pledged to re-establish the country's 1992 constitution and its state institutions, and to organise a transfer of power back to civilians, saying:
"As of today we are committed to restore the 1992 constitution and all the institutions of the republic. However given the multi-dimensional crisis we face, we'll need a transition period to preserve the national unity. We will start talks with all political entities to put into place a transitional body that will oversee free and transparent elections in which we won't take part."
But the question now is whether the military can continue to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), founded in 1975, is considered the region's top decision-making body.
Armies from ECOWAS nations have never intervened to resolve a conflict in a member state, but the commission has suspended Mali's membership and kept its peacekeeping forces on standby to intervene.
It has asked the soldiers to hand power to a civilian government or face diplomatic and financial sanctions. It has also urged members to back Mali with military equipment and logistics in its fight against the northern rebels, and plans to launch mediation efforts within days.
"Who assured them [the rebels] that all the population in the north shared their view? Have they carried out a referendum to know if they want to be independent of Mali?"
- Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of ECOWAS
In a statement, the ECOWAS commission said: "We strongly condemn the misguided actions of the mutineers and warn that we will not condone any recourse to violence as a means of seeking redress. We remind the military of its responsibility under the constitution and reiterate ECOWAS' policy of 'Zero Tolerance' for any attempt to obtain or maintain power by unconstitutional means."
Can the coup leaders fulfill their promise to hand the country back to civilians? What will that mean for the rebellion in the north? And what does it all mean for the people of Mali?
Joining Hazem Sika on Inside Story to discuss these questions and more are guests: Akli Sh'kka, a spokesperson for the Imuhagh Organization for Justice and Equality; Alessandra Giuffrida, an anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies; and Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of ECOWAS.
"There is a slight chance that the Azawad could claim its right to unilateral secession from the state of Mali. This will put the ball back in the state of Mali's court … it will up to the state to decide how to solve the question."
Alessandra Giuffrida, an anthropologist
WHAT DO THE TUAREG WANT?
- Mali's Tuareg tribe, part of the nomadic community of the Sahara, live in the area of Azawad, which refers to the Tuareg-speaking zone that covers the country's north. Azawad consists of three regions: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
- The Tuareg make up roughly seven per cent of Mali's population. The Tuareg's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) is calling for the independence of the country's north. They have long complained about being marginalised by the government in the south.
- The post-colonial history of the Tuareg in Mali has been characterised by a series of rebellions which started in 1962. But following last week's coup, Tuareg rebels are taking advantage of the country's instability, seizing both Kidal and Gao in recent days.
- On Sunday, the Tuareg rebels took control of Timbuktu. This had been the only remaining town in the Azawad region under the control of the Malian army. Its capture by rebels deals a massive blow to Mali's army and signals a loss of authority over the northern region.