Niamey, Niger – Until recently, Mali was praised as being a prime example of an African democracy. The same constitution has been in place since 1992 and elections held since have largely been free and fair. This all changed, though, when Gaddafi’s administration began to crumble towards the end of last year. Hundreds of ethnic Tuareg mercenaries, who had fought for both Gaddafi and the NTC rebels, returned home to Northern Mali to restart their own rebellion.
Despite Gaddafi’s fall being a catalyst for the conflict, the Tuareg, under various acronyms, have been fighting – on and off – against the Malian government since 1963.
After the colonial French left in 1960, the nomadic Tuareg suddenly found themselves under the rule of Mali’s southern tribes, with whom they had little affiliation. Feeling marginalised and oppressed by the Malian south and wanting greater autonomy for Tuareg people, a handful of Tuareg men armed with a few rifles and traditional swords began a small rebellion in 1963.
This was soon quashed, and the leaders were imprisoned or forced to flee and hide in the mountains. Grievances remained, however, and rebellions later erupted in 1990, again in 2000, and then again between 2006 and 2009.
Up until the current uprising, the Tuareg rebellions all followed a similar trend. The rebellion started out with unity and strength but quickly ended with negotiations between certain rebel leaders and the southern government. Tempted by cash and positions offered in the state military, the rebellions always crumbled.
Refusing to negotiate with the Malian government, one Tuareg leader, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, fled to Libya after the latest uprising ended in 2009, where he kept quiet until Gaddafi’s regime began to fall. Then, Ag Bahanga, together with hundreds of Tuareg who had fled after the previous rebellion, returned – this time armed with heavy weaponry.
Power vacuum in Bamako
Following months of attacks by the heavily armed Tuareg rebels, mid-ranking officers in the Malian army staged a coup d’etat on March 20. They claimed the Malian president was not doing enough to support the army and the frontline troops were often low on supplies. The coup leaders gained little international support.
The Malian president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was due to step down in elections next month, which were seen by many as an opportunity for the military officers to express their grievances through democratic channels. The power vacuum in Bamako has allowed the “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad” (known by its French acronym MNLA) to sweep across the north. In recent weeks, the MNLA has seized three of the largest and most strategic towns in the north – Gao, Kidal and the fabled Timbuktu.
In response to the coup, the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), placed sanctions on Mali. Finally, after days when Malians were left doubting the coup leaders’ intention to relinquish power, a deal was signed with ECOWAS on April 6. In the agreement, Malian President Toure and the coup leaders both agreed to step down.
The constitution is to be reinstated and Dioncounda Traore, the former speaker of Mali’s National Assembly, will become the new head of state. In return, ECOWAS has said it will lift sanctions and is preparing logistical support to help push back the rebel advance.
ECOWAS has also ordered planners to coordinate the possible intervention of 3,000 regional troops, a move in which France has hinted at its “logistic” support. As history shows, interventions in such complex situations are rarely “quick fixes”.
While the coup has ended and sanctions lifted, the crisis is far from over. The chaos, which has taken over the north, has seemingly just begun.
As the world tried to make sense of the coup, Malian army units basically withdrew from the whole of the north. This allowed the MNLA to sweep across, and on April 6 declare a new country named “Azawad”. With no constitution in place, the MNLA actually have a legal basis to argue that they were right to announce a new state under international law.
While the foreign powers were quick to state their disapproval of the MNLA’s proclamation, and are likely to continue to do so, it does give the MNLA some grounds if the new administration in Bamako and ECOWAS decide to negotiate with the rebels.
Desire for a secular state
At the moment, ECOWAS nations are seemingly undecided and in disagreement over what to do with the rebels. While a military intervention is still a possibility, many of Mali’s neighbours have voiced concerns about putting boots on the ground.
“The solution can only be a political one. It cannot be the result of a military effort, which could instead worsen an already complex and precarious situation,” Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s minister for African affairs, said at a regional meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
If dialogue is sought with the rebels, it is expected that, while they would not be able to achieve full independence, they might be able to gain a high level of autonomy.
Mali’s neighbouring states are, on the whole, reluctant to suggest they are willing to give in to any of MNLA demands. All facing their own ethnic groups who voice similar grievances, they are concerned that the creation of Azawad could spark similar rebellions in their own countries. Another major concern is the growing presence of Islamist “terrorist” groups in the north.
While there are few confirmed reports, leaders of the regional al-Qaeda organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have allegedly been spotted in the region since the conflict started. Another group, which splintered from AQIM due to the marginalisation of black African members, the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Algerian diplomats from Gao.
Members of the armed Nigerian group Boko Haram have also reportedly been seen in Gao, in the northwest of Mali, adding to concerns that the presence of these groups signalled the beginning of a regional haven for al-Qaeda related activities.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the MNLA’s political wing has stressed its desire to establish a secular state. “We do not agree with the ideology of these groups, we are against their extremist desires for Azawad and we will deal with them in due course,” MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane told Al Jazeera.
Making the situation more blurred was the announcement by the Tuareg leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, a former leader in the earlier rebellions, of a new group, named Ansar Dine [“Defenders of faith”], which purportedly aims to establish Sharia in northern Mali.
Creation of Azawad
Despite only having a few hundred men, Iyad’s influence goes far and wide, and extends to various MNLA commanders, drug smugglers and al-Qaeda groups across the region. As one former Tuareg leader said in Niamey: “If they don’t take out Iyad soon, the MNLA are going to have a serious problem, he will single-handedly destroy their movement.”
It might already be too late. The MNLA has so far made no apparent efforts to boot Ansar Dine and other “terrorist groups” out of the conflict areas. According to sources inside the MNLA, the leaders are waiting to stabilise the region before dealing with the Islamist groups.
However, it is unlikely they will be able to overcome the personal alliances some of the Islamist groups have with the MNLA units. And by the time they get round to dealing with the Islamist groups, the Islamists’ military forces in the region may be too strong – and the West might have already bracketed the MNLA in the same group.
To add to the chaos, it is expected that several more militia and splinter groups will emerge in the coming weeks. An armed Arab militia has already announced its formation in Timbuktu, named the Azawad National Liberation Front (FLNA), to create a return to peace and economic activity in the region. And amid all these groups of acronyms, is an array of invisible criminal groups – who have long used the cover of conflict and extremist organisations to raise funds through kidnapping and drug smuggling.
The longer the south takes to return to some degree of political normality, the more time the al-Qaeda linked groups have to set up camp in the north and work out how to keep control. While the MNLA’s leaders clearly aim to distance themselves, it will be increasingly difficult for them to do so, and to control their men on the ground.
While the West might fear working with the North, it needs to develop working relationships with the MNLA leaders to do a better job than Bamako ever could, even with US funds, to expel the AQIM from the region.
Whether ECOWAS decides to negotiate or attack the MNLA could depend on how much effort the MNLA puts in to combat the AQIM activities in the region. In the meantime, aid and trade are unable to reach the north, fuelling concerns that the upcoming May drought could lead to a severe humanitarian crisis.
With so much damage already done, and the potential for so much more, it is difficult to see how Mali could ever go back to the country it once was.
William Lloyd George is a freelance correspondent reporting on under-reported stories around the globe.
Follow him on Twitter: @w_lloydgeorge