Mali situation far from resolved

The situation in the West African country of Mali continues to get more difficult and complex.

Although the intervening French troops initially managed to drive Islamist fighters of the Ansar Dine, MUJAO and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb out of the Northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, it is now becoming clear that these forces have neither been broken up nor driven out of Mali. They are evidently regrouping, with bases in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, for the purpose of carrying out irregular or asymmetrical warfare against the Malian state and its French and African allies. Kidal appears not to have been completely cleared of its rebel forces, and several attacks have been carried against Malian troops in Gao. Meanwhile, there appears to be more coordination among Islamist rebels in Several West and North African countries, leading to a wave of kidnapping of foreigners for ransom across the region.

In areas held by the Malian army and its allies, too, the situation is complex. Malian soldiers are accused by Human Rights Watch and others of having committed crimes against the civilian population, while civilian populations have targeted Arab and Tuareg owned businesses for revenge attacks.

The idea proposed by the French government, namely that the Malian government of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré make concessions to the Tuareg separatists so as to turn them into a force to fight the Islamists, is not eliciting loud applause in Bamako, Mali’s capital, either from supporters of Traoré or from those of his rival, Army Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Although in European and American media there is a tendency to express uncritical sympathy for the Tuaregs as a neglected minority oppressed by the darker skinned people who run the government, the reality is really more complex. The Tuaregs do have some legitimate complaints about the government, especially its inadequate response to climate changes. But in pre-colonial times and during the French colonial administration, some aristocratic Tuareg clans held a relationship of masters to slaves over other Malian ethnic groups, and by some accounts this relationship still continues in some form.

The claim by Tuareg separatists (who by no means represent all Tuaregs in Mali) to the whole of North Mali collides with the fact that they are only about ten percent of the population of the region (they are far from a majority in Timbuktu, for example, where speakers of languages of the Songhai group predominate). Also, if Mali turns out to have major reserves of oil, gas and uranium, it is probably to be found in the North, so splitting that off to form a separate Tuareg state is seen as an alarming prospect for Mali’s economic future.

And the projected state of Azawad for which the Tuareg separatists have been fighting would theoretically include great chunks of Mali’s neighbors: Algeria, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso, which have Tuareg populations. The governments of these countries would be unlikely to agree to such a thing.

The European countries that colonized Africa struggled against each other for control of territory, and the colonial boundaries were determined by those struggles and did not follow the borders of pre-colonial states or ethnic groups. For example, what are now Sudan and South Sudan became “British” (actually, nominally Egyptian) because in a face to face confrontation at Fashoda on the upper Nile between British General Herbert Kitchener and French Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, the French blinked first.

Nobody asked the local population whether they wanted to be ruled by the French, the British, the Egyptians, the Belgians, or nobody but themselves.

When these colonies became independent, they were left with these irrational boundaries, and consequently with the potential for a lot of internal ethnic conflict. But the judgment of almost all of Africa’s leaders has been that it is better not to tinker with the boundaries, as this, far from cooling down ethnic friction, is likely to set off an even greater balkanization of the African continent. In Mali alone, there are more than 50 languages spoken; in nearby Nigeria, the number is ten times that. (The separation of South Sudan from Sudan is a recent exception, accepted by other African states because of the united support in the South for independence and because of the extremely bad government of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir).

Captain Sanogo’s faction is especially much opposed to doing a deal with the Tuaregs. He took power in a coup d’etat in March 2012 specifically to preserve the “territorial integrity” of Mali, accusing then President Amadou Toumani Toure and his officials of opening the door to a national split up, because they were corrupted by cross-Saharan smuggling operations.

On the left, Mali’s main Marxist party, the Parti SADI, (African Party for Solidarity and Independence), has for a while been worried about French neocolonialism playing a Tuareg card, and now they believe their fears are confirmed. The announcement on February 5 by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that the French military is already working with the Tuareg separatist organization, MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) brought about an angry response from Parti SADI: “To impose the MNLA at the table of negotiations will be justly seen as inadmissible interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation, and would lose for France the political benefit of an intervention which all are saluting at present.”

Rather, the Parti Sadi statement says, the MLNA leaders should be put on trial for the massacre of Malian soldiers taken prisoner a year ago.

Photo: U.S. Army Capt. Laura Porter with children during a medical capabilities exercise in Senkoro, Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.