BAMAKO: Within weeks, Mali has plunged from being a sovereign democracy to a fractured territory without a state, occupied by competing rebel groups in the north while politicians and coup leaders in the south jostle for control of the capital Bamako.
There is no sign the broken nation can be put back together soon - raising concerns among neighbours and Western powers of the emergence of a lawless "rogue state" exploited by al-Qaeda and criminals.
"We have never been in such a dire situation at any other time in our history," said Mahmoud Dicko, influential head of the Islamic High Council in the poor former French colony once seen as a poster child for electoral democracy in West Africa.
"There is no state and two-thirds of the country is out of control," he said of the seizure by a mix of Islamists and Tuareg-led separatists of the northern desert territory one-and-a-half-times the size of France.
Ask Malians in the street what they think of the crisis and most will say they are "depassé" - a French term for being overwhelmed by events that go beyond comprehension.
Even before March 22's coup and ensuing rebel advance, Maliwas struggling to deal with this year's drought on the southern rim of the Sahara. Over 270,000 Malians have fled their homes as the violence makes bringing aid to hunger victims even harder. But while Mali is now firmly on world radar screens as a serious security threat in the making, neither Western powers nor its neighbours can agree on how to come to its rescue.
A deal struck between the junta and negotiators from the 15-state West African ECOWAS group was meant to see the army hand back the reins of power to civilians in return for neighbours giving military help to regain the north. The naming of an interim president has nominally shifted the seat of power from a dusty out-of-town barracks back to there paired presidential palace. But mid-ranking coup-leading officers still hold sway, last week arresting top politicians and military brass.
A personality cult has sprung up around Captain Amadou Sanogo, the hitherto obscure US-trained officer turned junta chief whose face is now emblazoned on badges pinned to the chests of soldiers and civilians.
"You cannot push aside a military committee that has led a coup," he told reporters in Bambara, one of Mali's national languages. "You can say you don't want soldiers in power but nowhere in the world are they pushed aside."
Unless new elections are held by May 23 - an all but impossible task given the situation in the north, Sanogo will, under the ECOWAS accord, have a say in shaping the transition body due to run Mali until polls can be held. But a glimpse at what led to the coup shows that even when elections are held, they offer no easy fix to Mali's woes.
By mid-March, the national mood had been strained for weeks as Mali's army struggled to contain a push by Tuareg-led rebels in the north. Morale-sapping defeats, including one that led to the slaughter of dozens of soldiers, sparked protests in the south, both among civilians and soldiers. It was one such army protest on March 21 that snowballed faster than anyone expected.
Within hours, it morphed into a coup d'etat against incumbent President Amadou Toumani Toure which, while not too surprising, was largely accidental.
"It was a mutiny that developed into a coup d'etat because they realised there was a vacuum," Said Djinnit, head of the United Nations Office for West Africa, told Reuters. "We all applauded the democratic dispensation in Mali but we now realise that democratic dispensation was very fragile."
With his palace under attack from parts of his own army, Toure fled into hiding. Foreign condemnation was swift and harsh as neighbours imposed trade and diplomatic sanctions and even aired the possibility of returning Toure to power by force.
But the reaction of the street to the largely bloodless coup was less clear cut. Hundreds of civilians unhappy with Toure's rule cheered soldiers on as they seized state television, while pro-coup rallies easily outnumbered anti-coup demonstrations in the days that followed.
Toure's consensus politics, based on local traditions of dialogue, had meant Mali was spared the post-election conflictselse where in the region as he forged wide-ranging alliances that co-opted virtually every mainstream politician. But while that kept the peace, critics say Mali was robbed of any effective opposition.
And while most Malians suffered grinding poverty, a minority was getting rich quickly amid allegations of drug-smuggling, money laundering and corruption.
The politicians tasked with organising new elections are Dioncounda Traore, the 70-year-old national parliament speaker who has been named caretaker president, and his prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra - a longtime Nasa astrophysicist whose main qualification is political neutrality.
But even if they succeed, grass roots faith in politics is so low that most Malians would not even know who to vote for. "We don't have any confidence in the politicians. We have accepted Dioncounda to stabilise the country but he is part of this group," said Ibrahim Dumbia said at his market stall selling stationery in the shade of a baobab tree. "We want a new generation."
Forging a generation of politicians takes time - and events in the north show that is something Mali does not have. In a bitter irony, the leaders of the coup emboldened the very northern rebels against whom they promised tougher action.
MNLA separatists declared the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu an independent state they now call Azawad. While the secession bid has been shunned abroad, there is little immediate prospect of Malian authorities winning it back.