World Politics Review: As Crisis Gathers, Northern Mali Needs More Than Just Military Intervention

Mali Azawad rebellion fr
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. […]

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World Politics Review: The Origins and Consequences of Tuareg Nationalism

World Politics Review has brought out a new special on "peoples without borders". They look at Kurdish, Basque and Tuareg minorities in their respective countries, and I am happy to tell you that I contributed a feature article on Tuareg nationalism for the issue:

At the beginning of April, after a loose coalition of Tuareg rebel groups forced the Malian army to abandon Timbuktu, one of the armed factions involved in the fighting didn’t lose much time in announcing its ultimate objective: “We, the people of Azawad declare irrevocably the independence of the state of Azawad,”read the communiqué issued by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad -- known by its French acronym, MNLA -- five days after the ancient city fell.

The bold declaration is of course mostly wishful thinking. No state or international organization has recognized the independence of Azawad, as the Tuareg refer to the border-spanning region they inhabit, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. The situation in northern Mali remains chaotic, with various armed groups, criminal networks and terrorist organizations competing for influence, while the Malian government and army still reel from the effects of a coup d’état that shook the capital of Bamako in March.

But the Tuareg bid for independence does not come from out of thin air, nor does it come at a normal time for the countries of the Sahel region and North Africa. Tuareg minorities in Mali and Niger have fought for self-determination for more than 100 years. And following the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year, regional political dynamics are evolving rapidly, which may yet prove to be either a boon or bane for those Tuareg rebels interested in independence.

Tuareg nationalism as a political ideology is rooted in the effects of colonization. It was sharpened by decades of marginalization and oppression, and has since become a useful tool in the hands of regional powerbrokers. Yet today, even as the MNLA makes the boldest bid yet for Tuareg self-determination, many Tuareg have actually come to accept the countries they live in as legitimate, making the future of Tuareg nationalism as well as its implications increasingly difficult to discern. […]

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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?

Waging Nonviolence: Why democracy prevails in Senegal but fails in Mali

People took to the streets in Dakar, Senegal, yesterday, celebrating what many had feared would never happen: opposition leader Mack Sall gained around two thirds of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections, and incumbent Abdoulaye Wade accepted defeat, personally calling Sall to congratulate him.

Meanwhile in Bamako, the capital of Senegal’s neighbor Mali, people were slowly starting to venture out to the streets again after a sudden coup d’état brought normal life to a standstill for several days.

Why did democracy prevail in Senegal and not in Mali? Why were people in one country able to express the need for change at the ballot box, while in the other weapons had to speak? […]

Read the rest on Waging Nonviolence!

ThinkAfricaPress: Tuareg Rebels Capitalise on Mali’s Coup

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. […]

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Some more thoughts on the coup in Mali


A street scene during the early hours of the coup in Mali. AP photo.

The situation is still very much in flux in Bamako, where a coup dislodged the government of President Touré from power at least temporarily. Here are some thoughts, reflections and questions that I'm stuck with after monitoring this coup for the last few days:

This is a really amateurish coup

ThinkAfricaPress has analysed this quite well. The coup leaders seem to be more surprised than anybody that they are "in power" now (whatever that means, see below). They are all junior officers and there is little indication that they got the support of the top brass of the army or of parts of the political elites.

The first days of the coup were marked by surprisingly little violence but a general breakdown of order, with looting soldiers becoming a familiar picture in Bamako. This will not endear them to the general population and there are already reports that the general sentiment on the street is turning against the junta.

What exactly does "in power" mean?

Capt. Sanogo, the apparent leader of the coup, claims that he currently is "in control of all the country". That can be regarded as wishful thinking, but it of course begs the question, what the mutineers control exactly and if it is justified to talk of them being "in power" like all the media does currently.

What we know for a fact is that the national broadcasting offices are under the control of the junta, as they air regular statements. The presidential palace seems to be taken as well and its fall marks the moment that most people began attributing control to the mutineers.

But it is telling that Capt. Sanogo is conducting his business not from the Palace, the natural seat of power, but from the barracks of Kati, a town 30 km from Bamako were the coup started. There are reports that presidential guard units stationed in the city are still loyal to President Touré and Capt. Sanogo's retreat to known terrain seems to give these reports credit.

President Touré is reported to have gone into hiding close to the capital and to be guarded by loyalist soldiers. There were reports of at least one other mutiny (in the town of Gao) in support of the coup, but there is little indication that the whole army is supporting the junta. I think that currently nobody is really "in power" in Mali and much will depend on who is willing to take it.

Where is President Touré?

There has been no public comment by Touré since the early hours of the coup and he remains in hiding. The African Union has said he is "safe" and close to Bamako, but there are no further details. The junta seems to want to imply in their statements that they know his whereabouts, but that can be doubted. So were is the president and what is his status? More importantly, what are his plans?

The immediate effects of the coup have contradicted its goals

The junta claims that it's main motivation for the coup was the government's handling of the Tuareg rebellion, namely the losses taken by the Malian army. So far though, the coup has only led to even more gains by the Rebels, who are about to take Kidal, an important town in the North of the country.

If Kidal falls into the hands of the MNLA (other reports say that Ansar Dine, a rival movement is threatening the town), this would be a huge setback for the army and would give any future government a much harder time negotiating for the national integrity of Mali.

What do you think? How will the coup develop and is there the risk of a counter-coup?

The coup in Mali: possible ramifications

Capitaine Sanogo, new head of the junta claiming to have deposed of the government. Photo via @BateEtah.

I originally planned to give you a roundup of what has happened in Mali since yesterday. But then I realized that several other people did this already and probably better than I ever could. Check especially here and here and here if you are looking for something like that.

I will instead focus on something different: what are the possible effects of the coup? This is of course a highly speculatory question, as the coup is not even over yet (President Touré is still holed up in Bamako with an elite army unit guarding him). But I think that the coup has several ramifications that are largely unrelated how it will end up exactly.

The junta, which bears the delightful name "National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State" (CNRDR) is primarily motivated by the total disaster of how the government handled the recent fighting with the Tuareg rebels of the NMLA.

In short, the mutineers allege that the government failed to provide the necessary material support (especially ammunitions) for the campaign, which has resulted in the string of embarrassing defeats at the hands of the rebels. In this they can rely on support from the population, which is highly critical of how President Touré has handled the crisis.

As "fighting the Tuareg" is the only political platform of the CNRDR, they will have to follow up their rhetoric with action if they manage to consolidate power. This will lead to an escalation of the conflict in the north, something that is guaranteed also by the fact that the MNLA has said it will try to capitalize on the current confusion within the Malian army.

An escalation of hostilities is the last thing Mali needs now. The country is on the brink of a serious food crisis and already up to 200.000 people were displaced by the Tuareg rebellion.

The CNRDR will soon notice that fighting the Tuareg is pretty hard, even if they manage to secure additional weaponry and implement a better strategy - which is doubtful, given their very junior military ranks and the measure of international isolation that the coup has brought.

As the need for the CNRDR to make visible progress becomes greater they will turn to increasingly unconventional methods of warfare. We have seen this in many countries, from Darfur over Congo to Libya and Mali is itself no stranger to using irregular militias and "inventive" counter-insurgency measures.

Such an escalation of the conflict can easily lead to a regionalization of the fighting, as the Tuareg and the junta will search for partners outside their borders for support.

But what will happen if the coup is struck down by loyalists or a countercoup happens? Well, I would venture out and say much the same. The current coup has made the level of frustration within the rank and file of the army pretty clear. Any successor - even if it is the old government - will have to take care not being seen as "soft" on the Tuareg and will be under enormous pressure to deliver results in the fight against the MNLA.

Based on these assumptions, I think the main priority of everybody involved (including the international community) is to find a way to prevent an escalation like the one described above. If this can't be managed, Mali is very likely to descend into an humanitarian disaster.

If you want to keep up to date on how the coup develops, follow me on Twitter: @PeterDoerrie

Tuareg uprising is now an “Islamist Rebellion”

Tuareg rebels. Al Jazeera photo.

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.


World Politics Review: Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion Puts Region at Risk

As the fighting between the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (MNLA) and the Malian army enters its third month, there are few indications that the conflict will be resolved in the near future.

On a military level, the advantage lies with the well-equipped and experienced Tuareg fighters, many of whom are veterans of earlier rebellions and the Libyan civil war. Using long-range guerrilla tactics, mainly surprise attacks launched over distances of hundreds of miles with four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, they have sacked at least seven Malian garrison towns so far, including one this past weekend.

The human costs of the rebellion are mounting: Up to 160,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to Oxfam, about half of them fleeing into neighboring Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. […]

Read the rest at World Politics Review. [Edit: you can now click through to the full version of the article. No subscription required anymore!]

WarIsBoring: Africa Round-Up

Picture: Bombs and attacks by Boko Haram gunmen have claimed hundreds of lives in Nigeria over last months. photo.

Burkina Faso
Ten people were killed in clashes between neighboring communities in Guenon, a village about 80 kilometers south of the capital Ouagadougou. According to reports by state media, the deaths resulted from a dispute about the position of the local chief, who at the moment is a member of the Akonga ethnic group. This is a longstanding grievance of the Liliou group, who have pleaded for a chief of their own. Tensions escalated over the weekend, when the son of the current chief was killed with nine further people dying and about 100 houses burned down in the ensuing fighting.

Usually Burkina Faso is seen as one of the most stable countries in West Africa, with little tradition of violent inter-communal fighting. But violent mutinies have erupted over the last year, which many observers explained with the dissatisfaction with the current government, headed since over 20 years by President Blaise Campaoré. It remains to be seen how and if this latest outbreak of violence fits into this picture. Watch this space for further information, as I’m in Burkina at the moment and will continue reporting on developments here.

The insurgency of Tuareg fighters in northern Mali continues. Unlike in earlier Tuareg rebellions, the fighters this time are not shying away from attacking and holding bigger towns.

The military tactics have remained largely the same though: groups of fighters mounted on fast four-wheel drives are staging surprise attacks on villages and towns. The local garrisons of the Malian army are usually overwhelmed and forced to retreat soon, as the Tuareg can boast heavy weaponry and the element of surprise. If faced with too great resistance, or with the threat of reinforcements, the rebels retreat quickly into the desert. […]

Read more about Mali and Nigeria over at the full version on!