by Oualid Khelifi, Ceasefire
Mali has seen a rapid succession of events this year. A rebellion broke out in the country’s north on 18 January and a coup d’état followed two months later, on 22 March. The army mutineers have justified their move by Bamako’s failure to manage the conflict in the Azawad, a northern region which encompasses three out of Mali’s eight administrative provinces: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.Analysts and newswire reports have deplored one of West Africa’s democratic models descending into chaos, and foreign capitals called for the reinstatement of the constitution and the dissolved state institutions. The rhetoric of the regional bloc and the international community has been thus far centred on the need to restore the old democratic order Mali has been long praised for. Yet, the extent to which Mali’s well-deserved democracy has been exaggerated is not being seriously questioned. Neither has attention been drawn to the fact that these exaggerated democratic credentials have been at the heart of today’s crisis.
As many of Africa’s former colonies, the nascent polities which emerged after independence were caught in the chill of the cold war and their nation-state building process was marred by low intensity proxy conflicts. The socialist regime of Mobido Keita, Mali’s first president, did not wait long after French withdrawal in 1960 to start cracking down on opposition. Social unrest fuelled by precarious living conditions and stifled dissent brought Keita to suspend the constitution in 1967 before he was ousted the following year by Moussa Traoré, a junior army officer. In classic military dictatorship fashion, Traoré ran the country until he was overthrown in 1991 by another army officer, Amadou Toumani Touré – also known as ATT.
Of his own accord, ATT handed power a year later to civilian president Alpha Oumar Konaré. For this move, ATT gloriously entered public life and was nicknamed “soldier of democracy”, a title which got him international recognition as the initiator of democracy in Mali. However, even though ATT went back to his garrison in 1992, his role in protecting the democratic process and guaranteeing constitutional order allowed him to stay very close to Bamako’s civilian decision makers.
Therefore, along with the military clan which subverted Traoré, ATT remained in the shadows of Konaré’s two mandates, a period plagued by corruption and expanding business and power prominence of top military officials. Once Konaré’s constitutional time was up in 2002, ATT walked back into the palace as an elected independent president. With no affiliation to Mali’s political parties and little experience in civil administration, ATT presided over coalition governments whose programmes and policies grew increasingly marked by clientelism and pursuit of elitist interests in the absence of a genuine political spectrum.
Despite the ephemeral and bumpy experience, foreign voices perceive post 1992 Mali as a democratic trailblazer in Africa and the region. The notion however does not find much appreciation amongst large proportions of the population. “Only the buildings supposed to host administrations for these praised democratic institutions have been built so far. We have almost believed this self-deceiving message, ATT and business barons who pull government’s strings are selling a democratic lullaby to enforce their positions while yesterday’s masters in Paris nod to the clique which serves its agendas”, one local journalist told me on my visit earlier this year.
After March 2012 coup, a source at Mali’s suspended foreign ministry told me that the latest coup is primarily the consequence of a fragile democracy which has failed to grasp the simple fact that both the coup and the Azawad rebellion have been reoccurring themes. In 2010, ATT escaped two coups attempts, but details on both were kept largely opaque. “While the conflict in the north was opportunistically chosen as the coup’s official motive, it is a strong grudge against ATT and his circles which drove these middle ranking officers to stage the mutiny” said the source, noting further that sheer frustration has engulfed the country’s modest security forces whose numbers are estimated at 16,000 including the army.
The on-going Azawad conflict, which has seen sporadic insurgencies since 2007, has worsened the faltering morale of the little paid, ill-equipped and inadequately trained soldiers and middle-ranking officers on the front “who find themselves fighting a war in a region they mostly don’t know given their southern origins [90% of Mali’s 14.5 million people live in the five southern provinces] while a handful of their superiors in Bamako get fatter and fatter”, argued the source.
The military’s role in the Azawad conflict
This year’s rebellion is the fourth in the history of independent Mali. The first dates back to early days of the new born republic (1962-1964) while the second (1990-1995) and third (2007-2009) run in parallel to applauded democratic processes in Mali. Even if each episode of the Azawad conflict unfolded under singular national and regional contexts – beyond the scope of this piece-, it is worth underlining that grievances within segments of the Azawad population have mostly remained ignored over the past five decades: a lack of public investments, disparity in living standards between south and north, physical disconnection due to lack of infrastructure, centralisation of power in Bamako and insensitiveness towards linguistic and cultural specificities.
A group of Azawad locals moving in the vicinity of Timbuktu, January 2012 (Photo: Oualid Khelifi)
The remoteness of the region, the proportionally small population (less than 10% of Malians live in Azawad) and high costs of investments in arid Saharan regions are all arguments used by central authorities and repeated on the street of southern regions to dispute the economic viability of budget envelopes dedicated to the Azawad. Peace accords in 1991 and 2006 have however committed Bamako to developments programmes, more representation in the state’s administration and a certain degree of decentralisation. Nonetheless, northern rebels accuse authorities of falling short on its promises while Bamako claims it has acted within its financial means and points the finger at disingenuous Northern separatists.
In reality, some progress has been achieved in basic infrastructure and channelling aid money directly to the Northern provinces rather than passing through the capital, however, according to a government source, certain forces have stood in the way of any serious implementation. “ A strong faction within the army and leading businessmen act against bringing stability to the Azawad. The lucrative drugs, arms and goods trafficking they lead with criminal networks in northern Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara would be under threat”, said the source.
In fact, a closer look at Mali’s local media over the past decade would reveal that such accounts are not exclusive scoops. Since the birth of Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2002 – a regional splinter group as a splinter of Al-Qaeda -, Malians of different walks of life have spoken of the infamous association linking influential clans in Bamako with Sahara-based criminal groups acting like their clients, transporters, fixers and middle-men. In October 2011, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a member of parliament representing a community in the Azawad, was attacked by four armed men who threatened his life would in danger if he keeps talking and looking into such links.
This discussion has become a recurring theme for average Malians, and particularly in the Azawad. Many communities feel the immediate danger of losing their habitat to drug lords while others have had to move away from AQIM who has increasingly engaged in the practice of camping in the vicinity of nomad groups and small villages in an attempt to recruit youngsters in their ranks, according to several reports I got form primary sources during my stay in and around Timbuktu. Often poorly educated and with little perspectives for employment, Azawad youth is increasingly disillusioned. An elder Touareg told me that families increasingly fear the threats of AQIM and drugs’ traffickers when they are out herding or travelling during the nomadic season, “we have had to walk over to these criminals, beg them at times or pay them at others, to get back our poor kids lured in joining them”.
Regardless of where Azawadians stand in relation to this year’s rebellion, they all reproach Bamako’s laissez-faire approach towards AQIM and criminal networks. Shortly after the conflict breaking out, a Timbuktu local told me: “we cannot help asking the question…why don’t they send the army after Al-Qaeda and drug bandits, it’s been years we see them here and there, it would not take much to crack down at least on some of them. I understand we are a poor and a geographically difficult country, but this does not seem to matter when people in Azawad take arms, Bamako sends military right away”.
Members of Malian army in the eve of the rebellion near Timbuktu, January 2012 (Photo: Oualid Khelifi)
The Azawad conflict from within
Saddening memories of human loss inflicted by a decades-long conflict are still very much fresh in the minds of the Azawad people. Even if Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) – liberation movement which launched this year’s rebellion, claims to be fully representative the Azawad, a significant portion of the civilian population has grown weary of having to forcibly move to refugee camps at neighbouring countries while their homes are left behind to the odds of war. On the other hand, people in the the Azawad have lost trust in Bamako’s discourse and have little hope that the south would do more to lift them out of poverty and cleanse their homeland from terrorist and criminal nets.
Squeezed between the hammer and the anvil, many Touaregs have embraced MNLA’s mission of liberating the Azawad and establishing an independent state. However, the three other ethnic groups - Songhai, Peulhs and Arabs – in the Azawad are a bit more sceptical about a MNLA’s political project given the Touareg prominence in the organisation’s leadership. In response to such fears, MNLA’s rationale suggests that the Azawad in its entirety shares the same grievances; hence, the population of a new independent, inclusive and secular state could then take destiny in its own hands and away from Bamako’s failed rule. This message might resonate with many people in the Azawad, but criteria for Azawad’s self-determination remain blurred and questions on national identity of an independent Azawad worry parts of the population. A Songhai human rights campaigner raised the linguistic discrepancies as he told me: “Moors speak Arabic, Songhais speak Sonrai and Peulhs speak Fula. People fear that Touaregs who have been at the forefront of all rebellions would pursue their own agenda by given a higher status to their Tamasheq berber language and cultural heritage”, said the source. On the other hand, one MNLA Touareg supporter denied the legitimacy of these concerns and argued that “French would be Azawad’s official language while the others would be national languages”. This vision angers Bamako, anti-separatist and the south in general. A London-based Malian expressed his frustration over “the non-sense of creating a new multi-ethnic state which accommodates various languges and traditions while the state of Mali offers exactly the same thing. Does this mean that Azawad would be Mali minus Bambara [the predominant language in Mali’s south, also used as lingua franca]?” wondered the source.
Azawad children from different ethnic groups at Essakane music festival – January 2012 (Photo: Oualid Khelifi)
Beyond national foundations to form a consensus basis for an independent Azawad, there are other issues which fuel grudge amongst the North’s ethnic groups. A common “black vs white” friction finds its roots in the history of Touaregs – often called white – as owners and traders of black slaves, a practice abolished by the French colonial administration during the first half of the 20th century. These accusations are however rationally unfounded, especially in recent history and current times.
The Touareg people refer to themselves as “Tel Tamasheq” meaning “those who speak Tamasehq”. And Even if they are misleadingly called “white men” by some of their Malian and Azawadian fellow citizens, the reality is that Touaregs colour of skin covers a large spectrum ranging from light-skinned moor to sub-Saharan black, hence, language and tradition are the common denominators to determine a Touareg person. While the argumentum against the alleged Touareg white supremacy complex is clear and easily proven, Bamako’s propaganda to create divisions within a rebellious north have made out of it an actual issue. The Touareg’s in their turn show some resentment towards Songhai and Peulhs communities in the Azawad, to whom they reproach involvement with “Ganda Koy”, an armed militia in the north which committed crimes against Touareg populations in the 1990’s and is widely known to be agent provocateur for the military and government in Bamako.
Azawad and the so-called ‘Islamist threat’
Despite claims of MNLA leadership to deploy efforts against Islamist hotbeds flourishing in the Azawad , a new entity called Ansar Edine - supports of religion in Arabic- preaching the return to Islamic values in Azawad saw birth late last year under the hands of Iyad Ag Ghali, a redeemed former Azawad rebel and ex diplomat of Touareg origin who last served as Mali’s deputy general consul in Saudi Arabia.
During an interview carried in January this year with the Mauritanian newspaper Alakhbar, MNLA secretary general, Bilal Ag Chérif, admitted that his organisation’s has links with Ansar Dine given that “they have the same enemy”. Back in January, an Azawad security specialist told me that central authorities are disproportionally reiterating the threat of a group “whose membership does not exceed double digits and whose expansion or recruitment prospects are very limited”. The motivation is to stir the public opinion of the south against the Touaregs, and “reinforcing the fabricated myth associating Touaregs with AQMI and radical Islam”, added the source.
In statements released regularly since late last year, MNLA’s leadership has repeatedly stressed on its political vision to found a secular state in the Azawad. Most recently, MNLA underlined again its differences with Ansar Eddine by referring to a video widely circulated in which the latter group attests “to establish Sharia law in Mali, not only in the Azawad”, read the MNLA communiqué noting further that MNLA is not concerned with Sharia law in Bamako but would not allow it in an independent Azawad.
Since the 18January 2012- date corresponding to the start of the rebellion, the relationship between the two groups has remained ambivalent. International news agencies quoted locals in Kidal and Gao – two army strongholds which fell to rebels last month- talking of the presence of MNLA and Ansar Edine hand-in-hand, of bars and alcohols depots shut, of private property looting and finally of jihadist chanting and Salafist black flags flapping over buildings.
On the other hand, the latest reports from recently-captured Timbuktu, the last major Azawad city to give in after Bamako’s army had fled, suggest that MNLA’s flag got burnt and its fighters chased away as Ansar Eddine took control of the city. Tens of speculations based on anecdotal evidence have already rushed to pronounce on secular clans within the MNLA’s led rebellion losing the bras-de-force to Islamist rivals, allegedly linked AQIM.
Regardless of the truth or the falsehood of these accounts, cultural, social and spiritual aspects of the Azawad population are largely understated; hence, the likelihood and assumptions of the so-called “radical Islamification” of the Azawad are not examined thoroughly. Here, it is important to note that the other three ethnicities which constitute more than half of Azawad’s 1,3 million have for centuries contributed to the region’s spirituality, therefore a picture which ignores the anthropology of all the ethnic groups would be reductionist and often misleading.
(The figure 1.3 million is according to 2009 official census. However, approximations vary greatly depending on the source. Nomadic lifestyle of some communities, criteria used to determine residence and politically motivated statistics could play a role to minimise or exaggerate numbers)
Touareg, Songhai, Peulhs and Moors have lived alongside one another since the 14th century Songhai Empire and until today, they still endure side by side the environmental hardship and regular droughts which strike the region. Touareg, Moors and Peulhs have in common the pastoral life style even if they have grown increasingly sedentary. Peulhs and Songhai are ethnic groups whose members extend beyond the Azawad and borders of Mali. Their language, culture and traditions are shared with their respective bigger ethnic communities scattered around West Africa where moderate Islam is practiced today adjacently to Christianity and animism.
Three Azawad women at Essakane music festival – January 2012 (Photo: Oualid Khelifi)
Moreover, Touaregs are organised matrilineal societies, and family residence is often matrilocal. It is difficult thus to perceive that these attributes, central to the group’s socio-organisation, would be dismissed overnight by fundamentalist schools of thought where women enjoy way lesser a status.
An error of judgement
Radical Islamist practices remain largely alien to the Azawad, but the impoverished population is increasingly aware of the danger behind foreign doctrines being imported to its soil and targeting its vulnerable youth. Yet, MNLA appears to have made a costly strategic mistake by agreeing to militarily annex Ansar Eddine in the first place.
Most recent reports from Timbuktu suggest that Ansar Eddine and AQIM have seized full control of the historical city while MNLA insists that it still holds positions. In a statement dated 4 April, MNLA announced that it “considers the dispatches from AFP (Agence France Presse) copied worldwide as a disinformation campaign” and reiterated that it is “holding its position against all mafia networks and distinguishes itself from Ansar Eddine organisation and others who stand in the way of the liberation of Azawad”, read the statement.
This conflicting set of accounts has made it even more unclear as in towards which party would the balance tip over the next days and weeks. Reading into MNLA’s attack on AFP news agency suggests that it fears greater losses on the media front. However, regardless of how this bras-de-force would unfold, a few hundred Islamists fighters – a group which includes foreigners from Salafist and Jihadi epicentres in the Maghreb and West Africa– discredited as they are in the locals’ eyes, would not win over the hearts and minds of 1.3 million Azawadians. The international public opinion is confronted once again with pens and voices scaremongering about a Sharia-based “Emirate” or “Caliphate” in the Azawad while analysis of the underlying factors remains scarce.
The urgency for a new approach
Such is the case for conflicts of a similar nature, the near future is notoriously difficult to predict as many questions still lay unanswered over the longevity of the armed factions in the Azawad, the timetable for mutineers to stand down, the army’s strategy to handle the conflict on the short term and the direction the international community would take towards the crisis.
At any rate, whoever peace brokers might emerge, any vision for a sustainable resolution should stay away from the simplistic approaches so far employed to tackle the conflict. Insisting that the current situation is mostly due to weapons overspill during and after the Libyan conflict last year is another interpretation which plagues further the understanding of today’s context in the Azawad. The first documented Azawad rebellion dates back to 1911-1916 when northern tribes rose against the French rule using weaponry acquired at the margin of the Italian invasion of Libya. Today’s events are indeed one century apart, some of the protagonists have changed, but the continuity of rebellions and revendications in the Azawad require more thought than the simple answers found in the irony of history.
The Azawad conflict is rooted in the geographical complexity of the vast Saharan space, the human and cultural stakes of remote regions and the economic philosophy of investments’ viability. It requires a new perception towards the principle of shared sovereignty over the deserts established in the post-colonial context without consultative proceedings. The fundamental issue is to define a roadmap for Azawad’s socio-economic integration in the wider region, regardless of whether or not independence will be achieved. It is time to start thinking beyond the limitative frameworks under which previous peace accords and agreements were signed.