Originally Published 2012-04-23 00:00:00 Published on Apr 23, 2012
On April 6, the Tuaregs rebelled against the Mali state, captured large areas in the northern region (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu) and declared autonomy by forming a new "Azawad" state.
Mali: Will it disintegrate?
On April 6, the Tuaregs rebelled against the Mali state, captured large areas in the northern region (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu) and declared autonomy by forming a new "Azawad" state. The rebellion in the north was preceded by a shocking military takeover of the capital city of Bamako in the south. Although civilian rule has been restored and the situation in Bamako has calmed, conditions in the north remain uncertain. The country is now facing the prospects of a possible disintegration.

On March 22, the military, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, and other coup leaders overthrew the civilian regime of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The reason stated by the military for the coup was the inability of the civilian government to bring under control the rebellious north, where armed Tuareg fighters have been active under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Taking advantage of the coup and the resultant lack of governance in the southern region, the northern Tuaregs pushed southwards to occupy the posts that had been vacated by the government forces and established their hold in the region.

The coup was condemned by regional leaders as well as the international community and sanctions were imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The military soon realised its inability to deal with the northern rebellion, without external support, following which the coup leader, Captain Sanogo, agreed to step down and hand over powers to an interim president to oversee the transition back to constitutional rule. The diplomatic, economic and financial sanctions, that were imposed by ECOWAS, were lifted post this agreement and regional as well as international powers have now come together to work towards establishing peace within the country. ECOWAS has prepared an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops but has stated clearly that its mandate is to prevent any further rebel advances rather than win back the lost ground. France has agreed to provide logistical support.

The Tuaregs are a part of a larger ethnic community, the Berbers. The Berbers are known to exist as ethnic minorities in the Arab Maghreb comprising Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania, Tunis and Western Sahara. Over the years, due to their nomadic pastoral lifestyle, the Tuaregs have moved south of the Arab countries and settled, in small numbers, in neighbouring countries such as Mali and Niger.

Tuareg rebellions are not uncommon in Mali. There have been a total of four (including the most recent) Tuareg rebellions in Mali since the country gained independence in 1960. The first took place in 1962 followed by another in 1990 and the third took place in 2007. The constitution states that Mali is a secular state. French is listed as the official language and over 90 percent of the population is Muslim. The Made group, which includes the Bambara, Malinke and Sarakole, is the largest ethnic group accounting for almost 50 percent of the total population. Other ethnic groups such as the Fula, Songhay, Moor and Tuareg exist in smaller numbers and are concentrated mainly in the northern provinces. Due to the lack of official recognition of various ethnic minorities within the country, these groups have largely been neglected over the decades. Once an economically important community, that controlled the trans-Saharan caravan trade in the pre-colonial times, the Tuaregs have become both politically as well as economically marginalised minorities in northern Mali.

The Tuaregs’ desire for an autonomous state, Azawad, can be traced back to the colonial times, when the French attempted to end their nomadic lifestyle and quelled their rebellion in 1917. There have been reports that the MNLA is made up of more elements besides the Tuaregs. According to the Tuareg website1, the Tuaregs have been joined by certain Malian factions dissatisfied with the lack of employment opportunities and the continuing political alienation and lack of development of the north. The website also states the presence of deserters from the Malian army as well as fighters from the disbanded Libyan army of late Col. Gaddafi.

Over the recent years, the northern region of Mali has come to be viewed as vulnerable to terrorist activities carried out by the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The increased international interest and involvement in the current crises can be linked to the presence of a radical Islamic group, Ansar Dine, which is linked to the AQIM. There have been speculations that the years of distrust and constant exclusion from power may have led the Tuaregs to seek support and join hands with these radical Islamists. The region is in a state of void with a faction of rebels seeking an independent state while another faction, led by Ansar Dine, desiring an imposition of Sharia law. This void is now being seen as a potential space for AQIM to grow and thus there is an urgent need to prevent that from happening by clearing out the Al-Qaeda factions from the region.

The National parliament speaker, Diouncounda Traore, has assumed the Presidential office for the interim period. The rebellion in the north came at a time when presidential elections were to be held soon. The first round of elections was scheduled to take place on April 29. A smooth transition of power was expected as ex-President Toure had announced his decision to step down after completing his two terms in office. The situation within the country is now in a stark contrast to its neighbouring country, Senegal. Senegal’s ex-president, Abdoulaye Wade, had amended the constitution in 2011 in order to be able to run for presidential elections for the third time. This led to a series of nation wide protests. However, he agreed to step down after losing the elections, leading to a calm transition in government. Unlike Abdoulaye Wade, Amadou Toumani Touré, who was largely popular among the Malians, never attempted to stay in power.

The breakdown of law and order in Mali has affected all the civilians and has led to an increase in migration of refugees to neighbouring countries. The new leader now faces the challenge of re-establishing control over the rebellious parts of the country and dealing with the Islamic radicals without further alienating and marginalising the already dissatisfied factions. The possibility of a ’total and relentless war’ against the rebels has, however, not been ruled out by the interim President.

Priyanka Mehrotra is Research Assistant, ORF.

1 http://www.temoust.org/l-azawad-ou-nord-mali-brave-encore,15769

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