As Mali prepares to organize new elections following the swearing in of interim president Dioncounda Traoré on Thursday, crises in the north continue to escalate.

Traoré, who leads Mali's national assembly, will temporarily preside over a country in distress. His ascension follows an unexpected coup by defecting members of the Mali military, who seized power from former president Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22.

The mutinous servicemen had decried Touré's apparent weakness in the face of Tuareg rebellions, especially after 160 Malian soldiers in the town of Aguelhok were killed during a January massacre. But since the military coup, a Tuareg group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has advanced still further into the country. Their territorial gains have swelled to the size of France.

On Saturday, military coup leader Amadou Sanogo stepped down due to international pressure, including condemnations and heavy sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On Sunday, former president Touré officially announced his own resignation, enabling Traoré to take the reins while the government reorients itself. Meanwhile, chaos in the nation's northern areas is quickly worsening.

Out of the Desert

The Tuaregs, a loosely defined ethnic group, have historically lived as nomads in the Sahel, a band of semi-arid land just south of the Sahara Desert. There, ecological problems including drought, soil erosion and desertification have engendered humanitarian crises. Famine and the ensuing competition for resources have worsened conflicts between various groups in the region, which spans across several countries including Mali, Niger and Chad.

For decades, the Tuaregs have sought independent statehood and engaged in conflicts with regional governments across the Sahel. But they enjoyed a strong connection to oil-rich Libya; many Tuaregs settled there to live and work, sending remittances back to their families. Gadhafi himself had a leading role in brokering a shaky peace agreement between Tuaregs and the governments of Niger and Mali in 2009.  

As Gadhafi fought to retain power during the Libyan revolution of 2011, at least 1,500 Tuareg fighters joined his loyalist forces. Upon the dictator's overthrow, many of those trained fighters fled Libya and settled back in the Sahel - now jobless, unmoored and armed with serious weaponry.

Establishing an independent homeland called Azawad has long been a goal of the Tuaregs. Those who returned from Libya, armed and well-trained, have mobilized more effectively now than ever before. The coup in Mali and resulting chaos in Bamako give them clear inroads to advance further into northern areas of the country, where they have already taken possession of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu and declared the sovereignty of Azawad.

But this is a troubled takeover, as religious extremists have fractured the movement. In Timbuktu, for instance, a short two days after the Tuaregs took over, an Islamist group referring to itself as Ansar Dine -- and in some cases, simply mujahedeen -- rolled into the city with tanks and weapons of their own, forcing the MNLA to camp out in a nearby airport.

In efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Timbuktu, the fighters of Ansar Dine have engaged in public dialog and started initiatives to provide power, food and water to the town's residents.

Like the Tuaregs, the Ansar Dine fighters came from isolated regions of the Sahel. But unlike the MNLA, they are not concerned with statehood so much as spreading Islam and enforcing sharia law.

The town of Gao has also seen conflicts between the secular Tuaregs and Islamists. Residents fleeing the city on Sunday told AP that they had witnessed a violent encounter between members of the two groups; an Islamist fighter slit the throat of a Tuareg, shouting God Is Great, after the Tuareg had allegedly attempted to rob a bus full of Malian passengers.

Crises Compounded

The fighting between the two rebel groups, complicated by their shared conflict with the Malian army itself, has led to widespread displacement; the number of people fleeing their homes in northern Mali may now exceed 100,000 according to Haaretz.

On top of existing environmental threats such as drought and soil erosion, this added strain of displacement and disruption has only worsened the scourges of hunger and poverty. And many humanitarian groups, which have worked to address environmental problems since well before the coup, are now unable to operate in Mali.

It is into this chaos that the new interim president of Mali steps. For the moment, he has a governmental transition to oversee in Bamako and may be hard pressed accomplish much in the north, though he asserted on Thursday that he will not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war on rebel fighters. 

Traoré is scheduled to serve 40 days in office while the national assembly arranges elections, but some mediators have predicted that organizational efforts may take longer than that.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS convenes in Ivory Coast today to discuss plans to address Mali's northern rebellion.

The ongoing chaos is particularly discouraging because it takes place in Mali, which had been a standard-bearer for functional democracy in post-colonial Africa. We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing, said Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara in advance of today's meeting.  It's why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal. This position is nonnegotiable.