Since April, when two Tuareg rebel groups drove government forces out of northern Mali, the situation in the sparsely populated region has steadily worsened. The lightning advance of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), which seeks independence for the Tuareg homeland, and Ansar Dine, which has an Islamist agenda, triggered a coup of disgruntled junior officers against President Amadou Toumai Touré, with the resulting political instability in Bamako leaving the army incapacitated and the rebels the effective rulers of roughly half the country’s territory.
Though the two groups worked together to launch the rebellion, Ansar Dine has gradually taken the upper hand. The MNLA suffers from a lack of fighters and weapons, while Ansar Dine benefits from the support of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has formally put all its fighters and resources at the command of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali. The Islamist group has now taken control of most of the rebel-occupied towns and begun to enforce orthodox Sharia law, destroying establishments serving alcohol and Islamic shrines not conforming to orthodox practices. […]
While all eyes are on the coup d’état in Bamako, the situation in the north of Mali remains volatile. Taking advantage of the apparent confusion in the Malian army, Tuareg rebels have captured Anefis, a strategically important military base north of Gao.
This has put them into a prime position to move on Kidal, one of the main cities in the north. The city is reported to be surrounded by forces of the rebel MNLA and Ansar Dine groups, with unconfirmed reports already talking of its capture. […]
The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council met in Bamako on Tuesday to discuss (among other things) the armed uprising in Mali. Just that it isn’t any armed uprising anymore, its now an “Islamist rebellion”.
The ministers cited in the article put great emphasis on the involvement of a group called “Ansar Dine”, which demands that Sharia law is introduced in Mali. To the layperson, it may even look like Ansar Dine is the main faction inside the rebellion against the government. Oh, and “criminal groups” are also linked to the rebellion.
Now, there is of course involvement of Islamist and criminal groups on the rebellion. These groups even overlap to a certain extend. But the main rebel group (which has also the greatest military capacity) is still the MNLA.
This group has cooperated with Ansar Dine on numerous occasions. But it has also distanced itself quite radically from its Islamist demands. So far, there is little reason to suspect that the bulk of the rebels have a religious agenda.
So why does the AU put such an emphasis on Islamist involvement? My best guess is that they (and the government of Mali of course) are looking to delegitimize the political demands of the rebels, which are fed by generations of marginalization of the Tuareg community. Also, claiming to fight against Islamists has never hurt in getting military support from the USA.
I think this is a dangerous strategy. If it succeeds, the rebellion will be suppressed, just to return in a few years time (this has happened repeatedly in the past years). If it fails, it will stylize the Islamist elements of the rebellion as the most successful, making future support for their fundamentalist agenda much more likely. In every case, it closes the door for a negotiated settlement further. With a famine looming in Mali and 160.000 people already displaced by the fighting, this has disastrous consequences for many people on the ground.
The government of Mali should begin to accept the basic demands of the rebels as legitimate. It should take the claims of marginalization seriously and begin in ernest to work on a peaceful solution. Everything else is irresponsible.