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[Dehai-WN] Africanarguments.org: The Tuareg: between armed uprising and drought

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Thu, 1 Mar 2012 00:28:31 +0100

The Tuareg: between armed uprising and drought ¨C Baz Lecocq and Nadia

February 29, 2012


Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali - the military element of a nationalist
response to the region's problems.

The recent Tuareg uprising in Mali under the banner of the MNLA has raised
concerns over stability and safety in the region, with much attention
focussed on the Libya and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb)
¡®connections¡¯. The framing of the conflict in terms of international
security and political (in)stability elsewhere obscures the causes,
considerations and implications on a local level. Here we will try to
discuss the conflict from a Tuareg perspective, estimating the impact of
local, international and national concerns on the chances for peace or
lasting conflict.

The Tuareg fighters are the masters of high-speed long-distance motorised
guerrilla warfare, a tactic with which they have repeatedly defeated the
Malian Armed Forces and which was subsequently adopted by AQIM. To regain
the advantage, the U.S. employed aerial combat units against AQIM,
<http://www.deagel.com/equipment/r2c0127.htm> while the Malian Army has
invested in areal combat precisely to better deal with Tuareg insurgency.
The possible introduction of ground-to-air missiles, brought into Mali by
Tuareg fighters returning from the Libyan conflict, would mean a loss of the
tactical advantage for both the U.S. and Malian armed forces. The return of
Malian Tuareg fighters from Libya, and the concern over these missiles,
explains the rapid militarization of northern Mali in the past months, which
enhanced chances of renewed military conflict.

To properly understand the shifting dynamics of this conflict, it is
necessary to understand the different positions taken by Tuareg factions in
Northern Mali: the Tuareg and Arab fighters who were integrated into the
Malian Armed Forces as the outcome of previous peace processes, as well as
the fighters who returned from Libya in late 2011. Part of the last group
has been voluntarily integrated in to the Malian army, while others have
joined the MNLA. A number of high ranking Tuareg officers in the Malian army
and their Tuareg rank and file however remain loyal Malian soldiers.

Regardless of its claims, the MNLA does not represent a politically united
Tuareg people. While some Tuareg make use of Malian state support only for
pragmatic purposes, others have always felt fully part of Mali. There are
many Malian civil servants and politicians of Tuareg origin. But the recent
sacking of prominent Tuareg politicians¡¯ residences in Bamako, (mostly
former government members), and their subsequent flight abroad, are further
proof to most Tuareg that they are not seen as full Malian citizens.

The recent fighting in Northern Mali thus positions Tuareg forces of the
MNLA against Tuareg and Arabs in the Malian Army. These positions reflect
power relations internal to Northern Mali that must be taken into
perspective. The current inter-community violence will complicate the
conflict in ways the Malian Government will undoubtedly be able to exploit,
just as it has done in the past. Since the outbreak of the latest round of
conflict in 2006, the Malian government has changed its strategic alliances
in the north toward a coalition of Tuareg and Arab tribes, making use of
internal struggles for political dominance within Tuareg society. This will
inevitably prolong the conflict and raise the death toll.

As for the presence of missiles in the region: while Tuareg rebels avoided
urban combat in the past, the MNLA now targets cities in the north, in the
hope that the Malian army will not deploy its attack helicopters and thus
avoid civilian casualties. The fighting in M¨¦naka has proven this tactic
partly successful, the bloody assault on Aguelhoc had disastrous effects.
The consequences for MNLA support remain to be seen. The continued use of
areal combat units by the Malian armed forces, with no news of these being
taken down by the MNLA, sheds doubt on the actual presence of ground-to-air
missiles in the area.

More important than military tactical explanations however are political
ones. The MNLA, (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), is a
nationalist movement. It is the most recent incarnation of the Tuareg wish
for national independence, built on a centuries old awareness of Tuareg
socio-political coherence as a people. This had first been formally
expressed in demands for independence during decolonisation in the late
1950s, then again in violent rebellion in the 1960s. It was politically
reformulated in the 1970s and 1980s, and reshaped into a new military
uprising and political negotiation in the 1990s and 2000¡äs. Now it resurges
in ever more clearly nationalist terms.

The media focus on AQIM and former Libyan military in the MNLA hides the far
more important participation of a large group of young media savvy Tuareg,
some of whom are educated in Libya or The Gulf states. These founded the
National Movement of the Azawad (MNA) in late 2010, to address the various
crises facing Northern Mali. The arrest of their leadership after the
founding meeting in Timbuktu, the violent police repression of their
demonstrations, and the lack of recognition of the movement from Bamako, has
led them to connect with other elements to form the MNLA. Undoubtedly
inspired by the independence of South Sudan last year, they use the language
of <http://www.mnlamov.net/droits-de-lhomme.html> international human
rights and indigenous people¡¯s rights to formulate the MNLA¡¯s demands for
pulaire-portant-sur-lauto-determination-de-lazawad.html> national
independence to be decided by referendum. Their participation means that
Tuareg nationalist aspirations have firmly taken root in a new generation,
proving the viability of the idea.

To those who believe in it, and the members of the MNLA do, national
independence is the rational answer to the complex problems besetting the
Tuareg. Some form of recognition of the national aspirations of the Tuareg
needs to be made for peace negotiations to have a chance. Decades of
intermittent fighting, renegotiations, reopening of hostilities and
resultant insecurity have proved this already. However, the outcome of the
proposed referendum will most likely show only minority support for
independence as Northern Mali is a mosaic of cultures and populations with
very different relations to the Malian state. A reformulation of the
independence question to one of limited autonomy, in line with previous
agreements between government and Tuareg separatists, might form the basis
of a more realistic political debate.

AQIM is highly unpopular among the population of Northern Mali. Primarily it
raises feelings of insecurity (if only through the presence of Malian and U.
S. armed forces) and disapproval of their ideology is still widespread. AQIM
has become the object of accusatory propaganda for all sides in the conflict
without there being any way to know its real impact or connections in the
operational theatre.

However, in the past years some Malian Tuareg and Arabs have joined AQIM.
Recently, former rebel leader and official Malian diplomat Iyad ag Ghaly
created the Ansar ud-Din: a salafist movement aiming at the institution of
an independent and Islamic Azawad state. Ansar ud-Din attracted Tuareg
previously integrated in AQIM. So far, Ansar ud-Din has been denied all
support by other Tuareg political factions, including the MNLA, but there
are likely to be links between AQIM and Ansar ud-Din. This movement presents
a radically different vision of Tuareg nationalism and a new form of
opposition to the Malian state. This will certainly complicate the internal
political struggles that accompany all Tuareg rebellions so far and hamper
the peace process. Moreover, while the MNLA claims the attack on Aguelhoc of
January 24 as theirs, a number of eyewitness accounts indicate that the
attack was coordinated and carried out mostly by Ansar ud-Din, possibly
allied with former AQIM elements. Furthermore, the Mauritanian press agency
ANI announced the death of two former AQIM leaders during the Aguelhoc
attack. Confusion about the various actors in the conflict and their
positions are enhanced by the strong media presence of the MNLA, while Ansar
ud-Din, despite its presence in the field, remains silent.

Most important to this conflict, however, are the economic and ecological
crises The North currently faces. The murder and kidnapping of foreigners by
AQIM has resulted in the collapse of the tourist industry, and a near total
retreat of international NGOs, drying up two important sources of legal
income. The NGO retreat also meant a decrease in support infrastructure for
relief aid serving to mitigate the effects of the drought which has affected
the region since 2009. <http://reliefweb.int/node/446712> Although the
famine early warning system indicates small improvements for northern Mali,
there is no accurate data on the actual consequences,
<http://reliefweb.int/node/476238> which might be worse than previously

In the past, the Tuareg nationalist movement gained its momentum and mass
support from the famines of the 1970s and 1980s. The collapse of their
pastoral way of life and mass starvation left many Tuareg with the idea that
if they wanted to survive, they had to be politically independent. The
current drought and shortages of food, pasture and the lack of effective
national and international responses, will certainly strengthen nationalist
sentiments among the population, enhancing support for the MNLA. At present
the conflict has generated almost 120,000 refuges and internally displaced
persons. The combined humanitarian consequences of the conflict and the
drought lead us to fear the worst for a dry season that has already begun
months earlier than normal, in a period of military conflict that risks
degenerating into full-scale war.

lance-sa-strategie-anti-aqmi-de-developpement-du-nord.html> Last year¡¯s
announcement by President Tour¨¦ of the Special Programme for Peace,
Security and Development in North Mali (PSPSDN) was met with scepticism.
Most development programmes promised after the rebellion of the 1990s have
either never materialized, or the funds have been allocated to, or embezzled
by, a Tuareg elite or politicians elsewhere in the country. For the local
economy, the sole positive side is that some of this money has been invested
in international smuggling, but the trickle-down effects of these
investments are small and slow to come, while they raise further
international concerns about regional security. What assistance did arrive
has mostly been employed in direct relief aid or programmes with high
visibility in the local ¡®traditional economy¡¯ (cemented wells and the
like), which are proven to uplift the pastoral economy when the next drought

The money used in micro credits to start small shops is futile in its
attempt to kick start the local economy and this is well-sensed by most
inhabitants of the north who nevertheless take aid money but without much
hope of lasting effects.
du_mali/36911-abeibara-les-travailleurs-du-pspsdn-plient-bagages.html> The
MNLA¡¯s negative stance toward the president¡¯s programme has not been
helpful either. The argument that most of Mali is not very prosperous makes
no sense from a Tuareg perspective. Why should they compare themselves to a
country they do not feel part of? They prefer to look towards South Algeria,
Libya and Saudi Arabia: prosperous desert countries. The continued failure
to generate economic development musters further support for national
independence. At the same time it remains questionable whether economic
prosperity would make the Tuareg forget their desire for independence.
However, unless the economic development of northern Mali is geared towards
lasting viability, lasting peace will not be possible.

So far no peace talks have been announced, but it is of vital importance
that they are brought about in the near future. These, in our opinion,
should include all parties, but especially civil society in the North, while
the MNA should be recognized as the political branch of the MNLA. The wounds
of the inter-ethnic conflicts of the 1990s in Northern Mali are not yet
healed. Manipulation of these wounds by any of the involved parties is
however likely, which would inevitably lead to spirals of increasing
violence in the region.

Baz Lecocq Lectures African History at Ghent University, Nadia Belalimat is
Ing¨¦nieur d¡¯¨¦tudes au CIRED (International Research Center on Environment
and Development) and PhD candidate at EHESS Paris.


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