A NATO ignited spark is causing a real big fire, this time in Africa. Mali's Tuareg rebels clashed in June with their former Islamist allies, after the two groups fell out over forming a breakaway state in the northern Mali. The clash near the remote regional capital Kidal was the first armed confrontation between the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Al-Din. The two groups are made up of Tuareg tribesmen from rival clans. The fighting has raised fears of widening chaos in the vast northern part of the country, a desert region the size of France (60% o the Mali’s territory). On June 6 African leaders urged UN backing for military intervention in Mali to return the region to central control. After having fought the Malian army together the two groups are now fighting on a tribal basis. The Ansar Al-Din is regrouping around Kidal, where they want to set up their headquarters. Meanwhile the residents of Timbuktu launched an attack to kick out the Islamists currently controlling the ancient city in the north of Mali. The Patriots' Resistance Movement for the Liberation of Timbuktu opposes the secession of northern Mali. So the combat actions are spreading involving more actors. The UN, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) officials meeting in Abidjan also called on June 6 for an immediate dissolution of the former junta which came to power following the March 22 coup. The putschists have formally ceded authority to interim authorities but practically remain their hold on power.
Mali is rich in phosphates, tin, gold, marble, granite, manganese, uranium. It’s the third gold rich country in Africa. Potable water and oil reserves have been recently discovered in the northern part of the country. Uranium and potential oil and gas deposits in the North-East are under the Tuaregs control. The gold and bauxites rich north-eastern areas are controlled by the Mali’s government.
In April the north of the country was lost to the rebels with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya’s conflict. It was backed by Islamists with ties to Al-Qaeda, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state. The Mali’s desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence on April 6 for what they call the state of Azawad after capturing key towns in an advance that caught the newly installed junta off guard. The advance capitalized on confusion in Bamako after the March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had ironically been to boost efforts to put down the rebellion.
The revolt: causes and assessments
The Tuaregs are nomads, the population is about 5,5 million, they are the people that have always been oppressed in other countries, they never recognized the state borders and never stopped to fight for statehood, the territory they call Azawad. The insurgencies have been numerous, for instance in 1994-1995 and 2007 – 2009 they tried to establish an independent state in the territories of Niger and Mali.
Muammar Gaddafi gave refuge to dozens of hundreds Tuaregs, many of them served in the Libyan armed forces, about two thousand in the PanAfrican legion. He mediated all the conflicts the Tuaregs were involved in. He was the one to save them in the times of terrible drought in 1973 and it was him who came out with the Greater Sahara project presupposing a wide autonomy for the nomads. Taking the Tuaregs side made the Colonel’s clout grew in all the counties where they constituted part of population, like Mali, Niger and Burkina-Faso. Gaddafi had a dream to become the king of Africa, he never spared efforts to render any kind of support to Mali. The Tuaregs were a kind of leverage tool, any time the Mali rulers tried to do something against his wishes he loosened a grip of the nomads to remind them who was the boss in the house.
With Gaddafi gone, the Tuaregs were left to fend for themselves. Having received military experience in Libya. armed with up-to-date weapons they were a force to count with. Since autumn 2011 they became persona non grata in Libya and had to leave the former haven. Some of them were born in Libya. Their attempts to come to any kind of arrangement with the new Libyan authorities were futile.
In January 2012 angry and hungry Tuaregs, the former Libyan servicemen, united in the separatist MLNA. They moved to Mali and were victorious. By the middle of January they had captured Menaka, Tesalit. Aguelhok. They happened to be stronger than the regular armed forces of Mali, equipped with obsolete 1960-70 China produced weapons and poorly trained. One of the factors making them stronger was the possession of French arms parachuted by NATO aircraft to be used against the Gaddafi’s forces.
On March 22 a coup d’etat took place in Mali. A group of junior and mid-rank officers led by army captain Amadou Haya Sanogo overthrew President Amadu Tumani Touré. The world turned against the putshists except the USA, that made known its intention to go on with humanitarian aid ($140 million). Within Mali the coup was largely welcomed by the people, despite coming just a month prior to new elections. The great majority wanted the changes necessary to address relentless poverty, growing unemployment, declining provision for education and health care, corrupt use of public funds and the deepening collapse of government authority. Above all they supported the coup as a means of moving quickly to reaffirm Mali’s territorial integrity. The hopes were doomed to be a disappointment.
The event had taken place just a few weeks before the slated presidential election. Former foreign minister Tiébilé Dramé was to succeed President Touré. The Party for National Rebirth (French Le Parti pour la renaissance nationale – PARENA) led by Dramé discussed peaceful power transition with Touré. No changes in internal affairs were expected but the foreign policy was to be changed dramatically. Dramé was considered to be a pro-French politician, his foreign policy would have taken a turn to the West. Aside from economy, the cooperation with the West was supposed to include fight against terrorism based on special services cooperation, something that hadn’t been practiced before. Touré shied away from military cooperation with France, he refused to allow the Mali’s airspace to French air forces that planned to attack the Al Qaeda’s positions in Mauritania and Algiers. Shocking as it may seem, Mali’s coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo had been given US military and intelligence training by the US Africa Command, through the US State Department-sponsored International Military Education and Training program. He still wears a US Marine Corps label pin in memory of his training in Virginia in 2003. The Captain likes to brag about his contacts with the US military and special services. His action exacerbated each and everything. A pro-Western politician was to come to power anyway as a result of democratic voting. The Sanogo led coup was untimely in the year of the US elections. The junta commands a 7 thousand strong force of poorly trained soldiers and inexperienced commissioned officers. The first thing they did after capturing the presidential palace was looting. They literally went on a rampage in the streets of the capital. The action totally undermined the efforts to conduct operations against the Tuaregs. Unable to rule, the junta formally ceded the power to a national unity government led by Interim Mali President Dioncounda Traore. The interim government’s Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra has studied and worked in the USA.
Libya and China were the main allies of the toppled president Amani Toumani Touré. The Gaddafi’s fall happened to be a major impetus to the rise of the China’s clout. The Chinese have been involved in a range of major economic projects for a number of years. They build bridges and highways, the Chinese companies develop oil deposits, they conduct exploration activities in the Nara district. The Chinese are ready for long-term investments in the continent that gives them the edge over Western competitors looking for fast profits. No matter the Chinese influence rising, the Western presence in Mali is still strong; the British, French, Australian and South African companies are actively involved in oil, bauxite and uranium production.
The Mali's Tuareg rebels National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is usually seen as secular and separatist. But there are others: the Ansar al-Din and the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb are Islamist groups. The mission is one – to counter the Mali government, but they have different goals: it’s not so much independence the Islamists are after but rather the control of the whole country converting it into a Sharia law governed territory, like it happened in Timbuktu, where an emirate was proclaimed some time ago after the Islamists got hold of the city. To the contrary the National Front says Azawad is enough, it even promises not to violate the borders of neighboring states. Looks like the rebel groups’ unity is over as the June 2012 events show.
Al Qaeda going strong in North Africa
The NATO supplied weapons parachuted in Libya are used by Al Qaeda cells in Algiers, Mauritania, Niger and Mali now. The poorly trained and equipped armed forces of the Sahel countries make them an easy prey to fundamentalists. It’s not an occasion a new regional Al Qaeda's branch – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) branch has been established recently made up of the Islamists coming from Mauritania mainly. Thus the overthrow of Gaddafi’s government provoked the Al Qaeda’s activities in the North of Mali. The Ansar militants set the goal of establishing Sharia laws in the newly born state. They never stop to commit acts of extraordinary cruelty like mass killings. For instance that’s what they did on January 24, 2012 in Aguelhok killing hundreds of Mali regular troops and civilians. The Ansar militants captured Tambuktu on April 2. The first thing they did was the declaration of new Islamist emirate.
Prospects for Azawad
The viability of the new entity is doubtful. No way it can survive alone without economic and political support from outside. An autonomy status is a possibility. The African Union is the main opponent, it’s the organization that sees fighting separatism as the main mission. But a military operation in Azawad would be a too large scale action, above the AU capabilities, especially taking into consideration the fact that it has other military commitments in the region. Before the combat actions started the Tuareg delegations had visited the EU. They came out in support of democracy and assured Al Qaeda was an enemy. They promised to fight drug trafficking. The French economic interests were to be respected. European and US companies were promised lucrative offers concerning oil development. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad has leaders quite acceptable for talks. The Tuaregs appear to be have no plans to expand further. The ECOWAS is undecided. The Mali territorial integrity is important to preserve. Azawad may easily become a constant headache for a number of countries, while strengthening the Al Qaeda’s presence may seriously destabilize the continent. In April an ECOWAS summit decided to conduct two simultaneous peacekeeping operations: in Mali and Guiney-Bissau (one more victim of a military coup). The strength of peacekeepers in Mali is to be about three thousand. The mission is to support the government in its efforts to restore territorial integrity, but taking part in combat actions is ruled out. The Somali experience shows the African Union and the ECOWAS are hardly the entities to pin great hopes on. Azawad stands a good chance to defend its independence. It could be a broad autonomy officially, but an independent state in practice. Or the MLNA will finally get what is wants – international community making a difficult choice to recognize Azawad as an independent state in exchange for MLNA joining the fight against Al Qaeda. The recognition of the territory will create a precedent to spark a chain reaction. It’ll be a destabilizing factor taking into account Azawad claims part of adjacent states lands.
Solving this crisis will not be easy. Re-instituting a democratically elected government in Mali will take years. The influx of extremist groups poses significant challenges not only to the region, but also for the United States and the international community. Mali is a country sharing borders with Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania. NATO went beyond the UN resolution 1973 in Libya against Russia’s and China’ warnings not to do so. The NATO’s intervention spurred a domino-like effect across Africa’s Sahel region. Now we all face the implications. One nation gets set on fire after another. Various North African regions are glued together by a delicate balance – due to the messy colonial legacy inherited. Instability in one African country can lead to major instabilities throughout the region. A dangerous chain reaction has been started. Now Mauritania, Niger and Algeria are targets for intervention. Should AL Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb be successful in carving out holdings in northern Mali, it will only be a matter of time before they begin crossing into Algeria. The situation had been serious enough even before the Mali events. It’s not in vain Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania formed the Joint High Command Operational Centre (CEMOC) in 2010, to address the perceived threats from organized crime and Islamic armed groups. The events in Mali spilled over to Guinea-Bissau, which immediately saw a coup d’état of its own in mid-April. While ECOWAS and other parties attempt at keeping conflict to a minimum in an increasingly agitated western African region, the next country at risk could be Morocco with regards to its Western Sahara issue. The Western Sahara has long been a contentious issue in the region, with Morocco and Spain being key players in this crisis. With Algeria hosting various Western Saharan refugee camps, the contested territory must be carefully watched over the coming months. There are probably other consequences in store but they are all the responsibility of those who stand for unilateral actions (or going beyond the international law), the lessons like Iraq and Libya, to name very few, never learned.
Isn’t it something to think about before a foreign intervention is launched in Syria, an option on the table according to the US UN Ambassador Susan Rice Mali, or Iran, an action strongly supported by some USA and West European warmongers?