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[Dehai-WN] Le Monde diplomatique : Crisis in Mali: The Sahel Falls Apart

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Mon, 9 Apr 2012 22:03:31 +0200

Crisis in Mali: The Sahel Falls Apart

The military coup which ousted Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré in late
March has only added to the confusion across the Sahara-Sahel region, caught
between Tuareg rebellions and acts of terrorism by North Africa’s al-Qaida
franchise, writes Philippe Leymarie.


The young officers who seized power in Bamakoon 22 March don’t have words
strong enough to condemn their former army chief and president, Amadou
Toumani Touré, so long known as a “soldier for democracy”: “Incompetent,”
they railed. “Incapable of fighting the rebellion and the terrorist groups
in the north.” Back in March 1991 Touré had taken part in a military coup
against General Moussa Traoré and headed the Transitional Committee for the
Welfare of the People. After a national conference and elections, he
restored the civilians to power. He had been president since2002, and was
due to end his second term this 20 April with the election of his successor.

The National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE)
has dissolved institutions and suspended the electoral process, saying that
it did not wish to end democracy but just “restore national unity and
territorial integrity.” But this new military regime, which has been
unanimously condemned, may not be able to turn the situation in the north,
close to Algeria and Niger, to its advantage.

Tourism was the only economic activity in the most deserted areas of the
Sahara-Sahel region. Now it has stopped. There are no visitors to the
Taoudeni basin on the Algerian-Malian border, the Aïr of Niger and
Mauritania’s Adrar mountains. The recent return of thousands of mostly
Tuareg fighters from Libya, the proliferation of weapons and a huge rise in
cocaine and cigarette smuggling have all helped to spread the war from
southern Algeria, where it started, to northern Mali, northern Niger and
parts of Mauritania.

“I would never have thought that a handful of madmen, inspired by the
Algerian civil war in the 1990s, could turn the Sahara-Sahel into the Wild
West, terrify local people and reduce them to misery,” said Maurice Freund,
who runs the travel company Point-Afrique. In Gao, northern Mali, he was
dismayed to see “15-year-old kids carrying Kalashnikovs, laying down the
law.” Point-Afrique withdrew from the region after four French tourists were
killed in Mauritania in 2007, and seven employees of the French nuclear
company Areva were taken hostage in northern Niger in 2010.

The recent Tuareg revolt began on17 January with a bloody attack on Menaka
in northern Mali, followed by several successful raids on Malian army
garrisons, including the base at Tessalit, which they took over on 11 March.
The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), formed in 2011, has about
1,000 fighters, including 400ex-Libyan army soldiers. Since 2012 it has been
fighting in “partnership” with Ancar Dine (Defenders of Islam) linked to
al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM), which today claims to control most of
northeastern Mali.

The MNLA is reviving earlier Tuareg rebellions, of 1963, 1990 and 2006, and
demanding independence for Mali’s three northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao
and Kidal, an area of 800,000 sq km -- one and a half times the size of
France. It represents 65% of Mali’s territory, but only 10% of its
population of 14 million.

“The Tuaregs told the French [the colonial power] back in 1957 that they did
not want to be integrated into the republic of Mali,” said Mahmoud Ag
Aghaly, head of the MNLA’s political wing. “We have been talking to the
government and signing agreements for 30 years, but to no effect.” The
separatists say northern Mali has been abandoned by the government,
something President Touré himself acknowledged: “[In northern Mali] there
are no roads, health centres, schools, wells or basic infrastructure. There
is nothing. A young man from this region has no chance to get married and
succeed in life, unless they steal a car and join the smugglers.”

A thousand Malian soldiers, backed up by500 Tuareg and Arab fighters who had
joined the army’s ranks, had been sent as reinforcements to Gao, Kidal and
Menaka. But a lack of motivation(there has been a high level of desertion,
even among senior officers), and poor equipment meant the rebels suffered a
series of military setbacks. Even in peacetime, Bamako’s small army is
unable to control the 900km border with Mauritania or the 1,200km border
with Algeria.

Even though this war threatened to spoil the end of his final term and
jeopardise the presidential election due on20 April, Touré was
philosophical: “The problem of the north has been with us for 50 years. Our
elders have dealt with it, we are dealing with it, and our young will have
to deal with it. This problem is not going to disappear tomorrow.” He said
the Sahara-Sahel region is difficult to control because fighters, smugglers
and traders travel freely across an area the size of Europe, ignoring

The Joint Operational Military Committee setup in Tamanrasset, Algeria, in
2010 suffers from a lack of consensus between the countries bordering on the
Sahara. Mauritania, in close contact with the French Special Operations
Command, advocates a purely security-based approach, while Mali argues for
long-term development, which it believes is the only thing that will stop
people being recruited into Tuareg rebel movements or the katiba(fighting
units) of AQIM.

From Mali’s point of view, Algeria is both the cause and the cure for
terrorist-linked unrest. The Salafist Group for Calland Combat (GSPC), as it
was known until it was renamed AQIM in 2007, grew out of Algeria’s GIA
(Armed Islamic Group), and only Algeria’s security and intelligence services
could control it. Algeria’s $8bn defence budget (30 times greater than
Mali’s) would also help. Touré saw northern Mali, where AQIM hostage-takers
are believed to be hiding, as an extension of Algeria: “When I talk about
northern Mali, it’s as if I’m talking about Algeria,” he said. “I see Gao,
Thesalit and Kidal as the border districts of your country. The history of
[Algeria] is linked to this region. Mali supported the Algerian revolution.
Members of the National Liberation Army were given shelter in Gao and

Though the fighting in northern Mali threatens the whole region, the
tendency to confuse separatism with terrorism or criminality clouds the
issue. The killing last October of Muammar Gaddafi,who saw himself as a king
of the Sahara-Sahel, removed one of AQIM’s enemies, and allowed it to
rebuild its stock of weapons. Niger’s president, MahamadouIssoufou, sees the
Tuareg uprising as “collateral damage from the Libyan crisis.” The MNLA is
careful to distance itself from the group: “AQIM’s actions pollute our
territory, and the Bamako authorities have allowed them to continue. We say
to the international community, give us independence, and that will be the
end of AQIM in Mali.”

The proposal has some support in France, traditional political godfather to
the region. It remains a target of AQIM for the same reasons now as two
years ago, when French tourists were killed in Mauritania: Its military
presence in Afghanistan, pro-Israeli policies, its stranglehold over
Nigerian uranium, the raids by its commandos to free hostages in Niger and
Mali, the ban on wearing the niqab in public in France.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe’s paternalistic advice to Mali is to
negotiate with all parties including the MNLA, apply old agreements and try
to develop the north. This advice is unwelcome, coming from a country that
helped Libya to mount its own revolution and now urges regional states to
“organise themselves better.” France’s prompt condemnation of the military
regime that took over on 22 March and suspension of cooperation may also be

The United States, which sees the Sahel as a front in its war on terror, is
deploying its spies and special forces. It would like to get rid of AQIM’s
leaders, but Algeria has banned US CIA drones from its airspace, and the
Sahara countries are suspicious, fearing that an obvious US presence would
worsen unrest, as it did in Afghanistan.

The region has become a powder keg. Everyone fears the contagion will
spread, bringing a Balkanisation of the Sahel. Hundreds of members of the
Islamist sect Boko Haram have taken refuge in Niger and Chad.

Meanwhile 200,000 refugees have fled the fighting in the north of Mali for
Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The World Food Programme
estimates that 5-6 million people in the Sahel are in need of food aid
because of the current drought and famine.

(Translated by Stephanie Irvine)

Philippe Leymarie is a journalist.


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