Mali and the Tuareg

The military coup in Mali has attracted the attention of the international media and strategic experts, especially after the Tuareg rebellion and proclamation of independence in the north. Analyse these above events will constitute the basis for a more general approach of current African issues. These issues are long-standing illnesses that affect the continent as a whole: military intervention, corruption, poverty, tribal-religious-ethnic violence, neo colonial policy of foreign powers.

All these can be summarised by the following objects of our analysis: Mali and the Tuaregs, South Sudan independence, Nigeria struggle against Boko Haram.



Mali Coup

On 21st March, military seized power in Mali with a coup arising out of a mutiny that erupted at the Kati military camp located about 10km (six miles) from the presidential palace in Bamako. It was led by a mid-ranking army officer, Capt Amadou Sanogo, one of the few officers who did not flee the Kati camp when the rank-and-file soldiers began rioting and then headed for the seat of government.

Capt Sanogo, who is in his late 30s, is from Segou, Mali’s second largest town some 240km (150 miles) north of Bamako, where his father worked as a nurse at Segou’s medical centre.

In the army all his professional life, Capt Sanogo received some of his military training in the US, including intelligence training.

Soon after the coup, a national curfew was imposed, whilst a number of ministers were arrested. President Amadou Toumani Toure, later fled with his family to neighbouring Senegal.

The Malian soldiers who carried out the coup said they did so because the elected government had been incompetent in dealing with the Tuareg rebellion. However, soon after the coup, during the power vacuum that ensued, the rebels took control of an area they call Azawad.

The West African body, Ecowas, has among others, condemned the mutineers’ takeover, imposing economic sanctions and isolating the military junta. The action gave its fruit by achieving a deal for a power transfer to an interim president, Diouncounda Traore, who will be responsible to oversee a timetable for elections. Mr Traore and his prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, have appointed 24 ministers in total, none of whom were part of the old government.

Capt Sanogo has hinted that he may play a future role in Mali’s politics, despite agreeing to hand over power, saying:

“The agreement is clear. Traore will be here for 40 days and after 40 days, my committee and Ecowas will sit together and fix transition organs.”

The interim president of Mali has announced a new government, giving key posts to three military personnel: defence, internal security and the interior. But the leader of the junta, Capt Amadou Sanogo, has insisted his military committee will continue to play a supervisory role until new elections are held.

Dioncounda Traore, 70, has long harboured presidential ambitions, but he had hoped to come to power through the ballot box by contesting elections originally scheduled for April.

He was a founding member in 1990 of the political party Alliance for Democracy in Mali and between 1992-1997 he held various ministerial portfolios including defence and foreign affairs. In 2007, he was elected as speaker of the National Assembly. He was an ally of the deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure, who had become deeply unpopular.

As a result, many Malians are wary of Mr Traore, who is not seen as charismatic, whilst the Malian political parties have united against the coup and indicated they could use their control of the national assembly to pass an amnesty for the putschists if civil rule is soon restored.

No one seems to favour a return to office for the deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure, nicknamed ATT, who was due to retire after the election anyway. ATT’s credibility had already been wrecked by his handling of the northern crisis, particularly when Tuaregs who fought along Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces returned from Libya late last year. Mr Toure also seemed to fail to treat with sufficient gravity the grief and anger of the families of soldiers massacred by rebels at Aguelhok, in the Sahara, in January.

Amadou Toumani Toure, was the army general widely credited with rescuing Mali from military dictatorship and establishing democracy in Mali.

Mr Toure himself first came to power in a coup in 1991, overthrowing military ruler Moussa Traore when security forces killed more than 100 pro-democracy demonstrators. He handed power back to civilian rule the following year, gaining respect and the nickname “soldier of democracy”. He went on to win presidential elections in May 2002, and was re-elected in 2007. But he became deeply unpopular as people became increasingly frustrated with his government for doing little to tackle corruption, the growing insecurity and the rebellion in the north.

The Azawad Declaration of Independence

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamist Ansar Dine are the two major Tuareg groups involved in the takeover of the north of Mali.

Sometimes called the Blue People, because of the indigo used in some traditional robes and turbans dye their skins dark blue, are historically nomadic Berber people who live in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, which they call Azawad.

The Tuareg in Mali say they face discrimination because they are light-skinned and have been neglected by the government in Bamako. They prefer to call themselves the Kel Tamasheq or speakers of Tamasheq, their language which has its own alphabet.

The government has lost control of all the key towns in the region: Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, as well as the desert garrisons.

MNLA launched its armed campaign in January 2012 to free three regions of Mali from the central government’s control and seeking the independence of Azawad. Its fighters attacked Andéramboukane, Menaka, Tessalit, Niafunke and Aguelhoc. They were reported to be in control of parts of northern Mali, such as Menaka already on 1st February. During that time the movement was said to have opened a fifth front in the town of Lere. At the end of January, they claimed to have shot down a Malian Air Force Mig-21 with the surface-to-air missiles acquired from NATO arms drops over Libya. The Armed Forces of Mali have also used helicopter gunships to target the group. On 4th February, the movement’s fighters attacked government forces in Kidal with the aim of taking control of the town and occupying the two military bases there. Further towns were seized and re-seized over the course of February and March. The International Committee of the Red Cross also said that 3,500 people had fled across the border to Mauritania and that 10,000 people had crossed into Niger during the clashes. The ICRC added that there were 30,000 internally displaced persons, while the UN said that over 20,000 people have fled to Burkina Faso, Algeria and Mauritania. The UN also warned of food shortages as a result of the fighting. In total, more than 100,000 refugees were displaced, with at least a quarter of them in Niger. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) planned to send a team to investigate the violence. It also condemned their actions and called for logistical support for Mali. After the March coup d’etat the MNLA, as well as Ansar Dine, took control of several small towns and also the bigger cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. The MNLA announced that by taking Timbuktu it sought to “dislodge Mali’s remaining political and military administration” in the region and said that it would rule the region with Ansar Dine in opposition to the administration in Bamako.

On 6th April, in an interview with France 24, an MNLA spokesman declared the independence of Azawad. In Gao, on the same day, Bilal Ag Acherif, the secretary-general of the movement, signed the Azawadi Declaration of Independence, which also declared the MNLA as the interim administrators of Azawad until a “national authority” is formed. The proclamation has yet to be recognised, and even the MNLA’s claim to have de facto control of the Azawad region is disputed by both the government of Mali and the MNLA’s former co-belligerent, the Islamist group Ansar Dine. ECOWAS and the regional powers have stated they will never recognize it and will forcefully remove any group that attempts to declare independence if negotiation fails. In the same interview, Attaher also promised that Azawad will “respect all the colonial frontiers that separate Azawad from its neighbours” and insisted that Azawad’s declaration of independence has “some international legality.” Two days following the declaration of independence, the Arab-dominated National Liberation Front of Azawad (FLNA) were formed to defend Timbuktu from alleged Tuareg domination.

Azawad, also known as the Independent State of Azawad ( Arabic: دولة أزواد المستقلة‎, Dawlat Azawād al-Mustaqillah; French: État indépendant de l’Azawad), as claimed by the MNLA, comprises the Malian regions of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao, as well as a part of Mopti region, encompassing about 60% of Mali’s total land area. Azawad region borders Burkina Faso to the south, Mauritania to the west and northwest, Algeria to the north and northeast, and Niger to the east and southeast, with the remainder of Mali to its southwest. Gao is its largest city and the temporary capital.

The MNLA in its declaration of independence announced the first political institutions of the state of Azawad. It included:

•An executive committee, directed by Mahmoud Ag Aghaly.

•A revolutionary council, directed by Abdelkrim Ag Tahar.

•A consultative council, directed by Mahamed Ag Tahadou.

•The general staff of the Liberation Army, directed by Mohamed Ag Najem.

MNLA it has acknowledged the presence of rival armed groups, including Islamist fighters under Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The MNLA has yet to establish a formal government, though it has pledged to draft a constitution establishing Azawad as a democracy. The main government building is called the Palace of Azawad by the MNLA. It is a heavily guarded building in central Gao that served as the office of the Gao Region’s governor prior to the rebellion.

The military wing of Ansar Dine rejected the MNLA’s declaration of independence hours after it was issued. Ansar Dine has vowed to establish Islamic sharia law over all of Mali.

The peoples that constitute a major share of the population of northern Mali, like Songhai and Fulani, would consider themselves to be Malian and have no interest in a separate Tuareg-dominated state. On the day of the declaration of independence, about 200 Malian northerners staged a rally in Bamako, declaring their rejection of the partition and their willingness to fight to drive out the rebels. One day later, a new rally against separatism was joined by 2000 protesters.

On 8th April 2012, the National Liberation Front of Azawad (FLNA), a predominantly Arab armed group from Timbuktu, led by a parliamentarian and a defected Malian lieutenant-colonel, announced its formation. They were established to defend Timbuktu against the MNLA advance and reject to be ruled “by a Tuareg from Kidal”.

The Groups Behind the Rebellion

National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or the Azawad National Liberation Movement (Tamasheq: Tankra n Tumast ḍ Aslalu n Azawd, Arabic: الحركة الوطنية لتحرير أزواد‎, French: Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad; MNLA), formerly National Movement of Azawad (French: Mouvement national de l’Azawad; MNA) is a political and military organisation based in Azawad/northern Mali. The movement is made up of Tuareg, and some of them are believed to have previously fought in the Libyan army, during the 2011 Libyan civil war, although other MNLA fighters were also on the side of the National Transitional Council. The movement was founded in October 2011 and had stated that it includes other Saharan peoples. The Malian government has accused the movement of having links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, the MNLA deny the claims. Since 1916 there have been at least five Tuareg rebellions. After the failure of the previous rebellion, Tuareg fighters left for Libya where they were integrated into the Libyan Army. At the end of 2011, following the defeat of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya several Tuareg from the Libyan Army and the rebel National Transitional Council returned to the Azawad regions of northern Mali. Many fighters returned from Libya for either financial reasons, such as losing their savings, or due to the alleged racism of NTC fighters and militias. The group is considered to be secular and have presented themselves as a movement for the liberation of all the peoples of Azawad: Songhai, Arab, Fula and Tuareg. There were also rumours that the group has been supported by battle-hardened Tuaregs from Niger. On the subject of its composition, the MNLA has declared:

The MNLA would like to make it clear that within the MNLA military command there are: old rebels from the uprisings of the 1990s (MFUA – Movements of the united Fronts of Azawad); of 2006 (MTNM – The Tuareg Movement of Northern Mali, which was lead by the late Ibrahim Ag Bahanga); fighters who have returned from Libya; volunteers from the various ethnicities of northern Mali (Tuareg, Songhai, Peul and Moor) and both soldiers and officers who have deserted from the Malian army.

Ansar Dine

Ansar Dine (Arabic: أنصار الدين‎, also transliterated Ançar Dine, Ançar Deen or Ansar ad-Din; meaning “Defenders of Faith“) is an Islamist group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly. Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent figures of a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, is accused of having links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamist groups, a splinter group which is led by his cousin Hamada Ag Hama. Ansar Dine wants the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) across Mali. The group’s first action was in March 2012.

Ansar Dine has its main base among the Ifora tribe from the southern part of the Tuaregs’ homeland. Ag Ghaly was also previously associated with the 1990 Tuareg rebellion. Witnesses have said Ansar Dine fighters wear long beards and fly black flags with the Shahada (Islamic creed) inscribed in white. According to different reports, unlike the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Dine does not seek independence but rather to keep Mali intact and convert it into a rigid theocracy. On 21st March, the group claimed control of Mali’s vast northeast regions. The AFP reported that Ansar Dine claimed to occupy the towns of Tinzaouaten, Tessalit and Aguelhok, all close to the Algerian border, and that they had captured at least 110 civilian and military prisoners. France accused the group of summarily executing 82 soldiers and civilians in capturing Aguelhok, describing the group’s tactics as “Al-Qaeda-style.” On 22nd March, following the military coup, Ansar Dine and MNLA proceeded to take the towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu within the following ten days. However, many consider Ansar Dine’s military contribution as slight if compared to the much larger MNLA, and whilst MNLA take out the military base, Ansar Dine puts up his flag and starts introducing everyone around about sharia law. On 3rd April, the BBC reported that the group had started implementing its version of sharia in Timbuktu. That day, Ag Ghaly gave a radio interview in Timbuktu announcing that Sharia law would be enforced in the city, including the veiling of women, the stoning of adulterers, and the punitive mutilation of thieves. According to Timbuktu’s mayor, the announcement caused nearly all of Timbuktu’s Christian population to flee the city.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or at-tawḥīd wal-jihād fī gharbi ‘afrīqqīyā (Arabic: التوحيد والجهاد في غرب أفريقيا‎, French: Mouvement pour le Tawhîd et du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest), is an active organisation that broke off from the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. It announced its first armed action on video on 12th December 2011 with the intended goal of spreading jihad across a larger section of West Africa, though operations have been limited to southern Algeria and northern Mali.

Some analysts believe that the split of the Black African-led MOJWA is a consequence of the Algerian predominance on AQIM’s leadership. The group released a video speaking of their ideological affinity with figures including al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but making more emphasis on West African historical figures, claiming to be the “ideological descendants” of Cheikhou Amadou, Usman Dan Fodio and El Hadj Umar Tall. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania had been present for at least a decade prior to the group’s founding and escalated further following the 2011 Libyan civil war and the influx of weapons in the desert area. Mauritanian Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou is believed to be the chief of the group. Mauritanian authorities issued an international arrest warrant on December 28th. Other key members are Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, who is defined by Malian authorities as a “drug traficker”. During the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in late March, MOJWA stated that it had taken part in the capture of Gao, along with Ansar Dine, which was confirmed later by residents of the town.

 The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb

The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, (Arabic: تنظيم القاعدة في بلاد المغرب الاسلامي‎ Tanẓīm al-Qā‘idah fī Bilād al-Maghrib al-Islāmī) previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Arabic: الجماعة السلفية للدعوة والقتال‎ al-Jamā‘ah as-Salafiyyah lid-Da‘wah wal-Qiṭāl; French: Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, GSPC; also known as the Group for Call and Combat) is an Islamist militia which aims to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state. To that end, it is currently engaged in an insurgent campaign. The group has declared its intention to attack Algerian, Spanish, French, and American targets. It has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State, and similarly classed as a terrorist organization by the European Union.

The GSPC was founded by Hassan Hattab, a former Armed Islamic Group (GIA) regional commander who broke with the GIA in 1998 in protest over the slaughter of civilians. Estimates of the number of GSPC members vary widely, from a few hundred to as many as 4,000. Algerian officials and authorities from neighbouring countries have speculated that the GSPC may be active outside Algeria. These activities may relate to the GSPC’s alleged long-standing involvement with smuggling, protection rackets, and money laundering across the borders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Chad, possibly to underpin the group’s finances. However, recent developments seem to indicate that a splinter group may have sought refuge in the Tuareg regions of northern Mali and Niger following crackdowns by Algerian government forces in the north and south of the country since 2003.

Analysis and Conclusions

The Malian Military coup is nothing new in African politics and once more demonstrates the persistence of one of African diseases: the fragility of the democratic institutions. Governments, especially in west Africa appear as very weak, were widespread poverty and corruption made them easy targets of dissatisfied officers and soldiers. Mali coup is on this line: intervention to replace an inept government unable to guarantee security, battle corruption, ensures redistribution of resources. Unfortunately, as in the past, often the same military that came to power to resolve these issues ended up in oiling and extending the longevity of the system. ECOWAS was able top struck a deal, but is clear to everyone that this won’t be the last coup as well is only the beginning of major difficulties for the whole west Africa and sub-Saharan area.

As in Mali, many other countries are facing crescent insurgence and rebellions, not only within army ranks, but also from sectors of society disillusioned with the governments’ policies and especially from political groups that wish to overthrow corrupted institutions by religious or ethnic lines. The only aspects that could ensure for Malian military a different treatment, if compared with from past African coups, is that they are right when declaring need to put a stop to the disintegration of the country. On this point, they find convergent interest from ECOWAS, other African countries and foreign powers now threatened from the crescent Islamic pressure.

The paradox in all this is that African Union, ECOWAS and NATO are all responsible for the latest developments: South Sudan independence, war in Libya, and support to rebels from NATO have increased instability in the region. The military in Mali are fighting the consequences of ill-pondered decisions made in diplomacy and we can be sure more will follow.

Tuaregs have been often relegated to second class citizens and, rightly, they denounce governmental refusal in improving their living conditions. Many governments in Africa simply do not have the power, or the willingness, to resolve ethnic and religious disputes, concentrating instead in corruption and divisions as to ensure longevity in power of the rulers. Tuaregs, as per many other ethnic groups, are suffering the consequences of the colonial borders drawn by the colonial powers between 19th and 20th century. That borders cut and divided a map following diplomatic interests and economic patterns, but not taking in account the populations living there. The result has been that same ethnic groups have been split on different countries, in some cases constituting the majority on the other a minority struggling to achieve the same right of the dominant ethnic group. Based on the above, Tuareg claims are not new and will not create surprises in foreign affairs, as similar cases are to be found throughout Africa. However, if the above point can make their struggle less frightening, another point is the real rock against which are sinking all the hopes of a peaceful solution: the radical Islamic infiltration. Islamic religion is widespread in west Africa, and share grounds with Christian and Animist beliefs, but recent issues have altered an already fragile equilibrium shifting the balance toward radical Islamic insurgence. One of the main reasons for this alteration has been the ill-pondered policy of supporting rebels in Libya. The Libyan civil war has altered the status quo and increased ethnic and religious animosity between tribes and groups not only in Libya but also in all sub-Saharan Africa. The main points are: participants belonging to ethnic groups that are dispersed in different countries; the presence of mercenary forces recruited by the late Gaddafi regime, and the huge amount of weaponry available and unaccountable.

Tuaregs for example are spread between Mali, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania; they fought in the Libyan civil war mainly in the Gaddafi’s desert regiments but some were also found on NTC side. The huge amount of weapons available created a support to groups willing to start a similar war of liberation against their own governments. The origins of this arsenal can be traced as follows: Gaddafi’s Army equipment, NATO supply to rebels and black market. During the Libyan civil war, and especially after, a huge amount of heavy weaponry, as well bacteriological a chemical arsenal known to be in possess by Gaddafi went missing or unaccounted for. Many of these have been probably sold and smuggled on the borders, as well carried away by militias and ethnic groups for self-defence. It is not a coincidence that MNLA, for example, admits that its arsenal is mainly coming from the civil war. NATO also supported this supply, by arming rebel groups, but the facto not having control whatsoever of the distribution of weaponry; result: many sophisticated arms are to be found in the hand of the MLNA as well Islamic groups in the area. Many observers and especially diplomatic officials are trying to downplay the Libyan connection, but whatever the reason once fact is clear: the recent explosion of violence in west Africa, with armed groups able to conduct military operations and with an increase fire power is not only coincidence. Example of this are not only the Tuareg rebellion but also the escalated actions of  Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Taking into account the above, the struggle for Mali is not over and is only at start, and could make the coup seen as not dangerous as it is the rebellion in the north. The problem for ECOWAS, Mali military, interim government and future civilian, is that fighting the war won’t be easy. There are not only strategic concerns, as to fight a war in the desert against well prepared fighters, but also a struggle to preserve unity in a war where even the rebels are fighting each other. The other main problem are: the war could easily spread across other Tuareg areas; the disappearance of the secular MNLA, could benefit Islamists; fighting Islamists groups on a conventional basis won’t bear fruit as they employ terrorism tactics for which many African armies are not trained. Another element that could create uneasiness is how to deny Tuareg self-determination, when South Sudan achieved one? The dangerous precedent set by South Sudan independence is starting to show the fruit. AU has always declared colonial borders and countries’ integrity as not negotiable, but this exception could now trigger similar requests from whole Africa, simply based on ethnic and religious grounds.

A final answer to these series of questions are not easy and all options are on the table, but once fact is clear: the Libyan civil war has altered the fragile equilibrium in west and sub-Saharan Africa with violence, uprising and rebellions spreading: Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan, etc. All seems to be empowered by two elements: a war that cancelled a major player in guaranteeing stability and weapons available. Sectarianism, ethnicity and religion came out of the civil war as the main points of concerns, whilst huge amount of weapons are now dispersed in a turbulent area waiting to be inflamed by a leader ready to fight. These rebellions, valid or wrong, can count on the two above points and two great supports: weakness of governments and neo-colonial policy. The two combined together offer legitimacy at the eye of the population as well ensuring their fight can be endless with only one sure victim, the African continent as a whole.


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