Little hope for a peaceful solution in North Mali

Tuareg rebels fighting for an independent Azawad. Photo CC-BY from Flickr user Magharebia.

Since my last post on Mali, a lot of things happened. The coup has officially ended (though it may not be over yet) and the situation in the North has … evolved, to put it mildly.

I will concentrate on developments in the North in this post. As Baz Lecocq has pointed out, we actually know little about what is happening in that region. News are sparse and to my knowledge only one journalist, Salima Tlemçani of the Algerian El Watan, is actually on the ground there. All other journalists and press agencies (me included) get their news from members of the various conflict parties, civilian eye witnesses and of course each other (head to my Twitter stream to get the latest).

In the beginning of the Tuareg rebellion, there were reasons for hoping that this would go over relatively peaceful. The Malian government under Touré was either unwilling or unable to resist the rebels, so not much blood was spilled in the first two months of the conflict. This ironically contributed to the coup against Touré, but the junta that took over from him was even less competent in the military quarter and the remaining army strongholds in the North collapsed virtually without a fight. The Tuareg rebels - by then it was clear that at least two groups of them existed which cooperated - quickly pushed the army out of all the "Azawad".

But now things seem to start escalating. The MNLA and Ansar Dine - the two main Tuareg rebel factions in the North - are in an uneasy relationship. The MNLA is mostly described as secular and nationalistic, with an independent Azawad as its main goal. Ansar Dine in turn is a Salafist movement, which wants to introduce Sharia law to the whole of Mali, but is opposed to an independent Azawad.

Ansar Dine also seems to have taken AQIM into the boat, especially in the area around Timbuktu. Leaders of AQIM were seen in the city attending a meeting with the leadership of Ansar Dine. Meanwhile a splinter group of AQIM has appeared in Gao, where it has abducted eight Algerian diplomats from the local consulate.

On monday then reports began surfacing of a new militia, the FLNA. This seems to be a group mainly made up of ethnic Arabs from the Timbuktu area, who may want to use it as a vehicle to secure their economic interests (read: smuggling routes) against possible encroachment from the Tuareg rebels or the foreigners of AQIM.

Into this mix of current interests and agendas of course feeds as well a long history of grievances and unsettled scores, often stemming from the last Taureg insurrections. Apart from political and/or religious motivation, kinship ties and historical relations between ethnic/social groups play an important role.

In this complex situation, large scale violence between the various armed groups can easily erupt and will be hard to contain once it takes place. Some of the deadliest phases of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s did take place only after the conflict with the Malian state was over and the various rebel factions began fighting each other.

Even worse, the political elite in the South seems to be quite willing to attempt a military solution from their side as well. The AFP quoted Malian government and military officials saying that the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram had hundreds of fighters in Gao. This is of course very likely bullshit of the highest order and the AFP should be fined for repeating such abstruse claims without giving the necessary context.

But it shows that the institutions of Mali still bank on painting all Tuareg rebels as fanatic Islamists, thereby trying to delegitimize their demands and grievances and possibly hoping for military hope from Western countries terrified of a "Saharan Afghanistan".

A military involvement of the Malian army (or any other army for that matter) would of course drastically increase the chances for large scale violence in the North, without giving much hope for a quick resolution. And in the face of the upcoming hunger crisis, it is probably time that matters most.

What do you think, how could a degeneration into large-scale violence in the North be avoided?