The standoff between Mali’s government and the armed Islamists who control two-thirds of the country is unlikely to resolve peacefully, and the prospects for a new war in the Sahel appear increasingly probable.
In January, a disciplined Tuareg separatist group, the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), initiated a rebellion that eventually forced Mali’s corrupt and weak military to withdraw from the northern part of the country in April. Militant Islamist groups – Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – subsequently took over the territory and demonstrated a fierce determination to impose a Taliban-style government on the entire country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which includes Mali and 14 other Western African states, and France have expressed a commitment to preserving Mali’s territorial integrity and disarming the militant Islamists by any means possible, including military intervention if peaceful measures fail.
Unfortunately, if the humanitarian issues that fueled this conflict remain unaddressed, a military solution is unlikely to resolve the tensions that led to the Malian state’s collapse. However, Ansar Dine and AQIM’s extremist nature suggests that a military solution may be inevitable if the government in Bamako seeks to reestablish the country’s territorial integrity and restore its prized reputation as a rare African democratic success story.
The Rise of Azawad
Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber tribe, numbering 1.5 to 3 million, who inhabit territories within Mali, Niger, Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Libya. They practice a moderate form of Islam and have managed trade routes — primarily in gold, slaves, salt, and ivory — throughout the Sahara for over a millennium. Despite centuries of old divisions and inner power struggles, the Tuaregs share the same grievances and goals.
When French colonial rule in Africa ended, the Tuaregs were scattered across numerous countries. Similar to the Middle East’s Kurdish population, the Tuaregs felt marginalized in the newly independent states. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, severe droughts created new humanitarian and environmental catastrophes for the Tuaregs. Such experiences fueled nationalist ambitions and dreams of an independent Tuareg state, which to date has never existed. Each uprising was suppressed. Peace settlements, typically brokered by Algeria, promised development projects for the Tuaregs. However, these promises never materialized.
Throughout 2011, dry spells and low river levels created a severe drought across the Sahel. Consequently, 3 million Malians (including 600,000 children younger than five) fell victim to food insecurity. Worldwide, Mali’s maternal and infant mortality rates rank tenth and third, respectively. This extremely impoverished African country’s GDP per capita ($1,100 USD), life expectancy at birth (53 years), and electricity consumption (455.7 million kWh) rank 206, 209, and 165, respectively. Rural development in the Sahel would require an annual investment of 1.5 billion Euros for the next decade, according to a World Bank consultant. These figures define the context in which the Tuaregs initiated an armed uprising in January 2012.
The NATO intervention in Libya directly influenced the Tuaregs’ capacity to overpower the Malian military. Once violence erupted in Libya during 2011, Gaddafi hired tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries — primarily from Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Chad — to battle Libya’s opposition. As longtime allies of Gaddafi, many Tuareg rebels entered Libya to fight alongside his regime. As Gaddafi’s regime collapsed and chaos ensued, the Tuareg fighters returned to northern Mali with large stockpiles of Gaddafi’s weapons and initiated their rebellion against Bamako on January 17, 2012. Mali’s weak and ill-equipped military lacked the strength to quell the uprising.
In response to the civilian government’s inability to suppress the uprising, Captain Amadou Sanogo led a military coup d’état on March 22, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Touré and ending Mali’s two decades of democratic rule. Sanogo’s junta, named the “National Committee for the Revival of Democracy and the Restoration of the State,” called on northern Malians to resist the Tuareg separatists. Despite the military leader’s intentions, Sanogo’s coup only strengthened the Tuaregs’ determination to achieve independence. Less than two weeks later, the MNLA seized control of northern Mali, forcing Sanogo’s forces to flee. On April 6, a rebel spokesman told the France 24 TV channel, “We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as of today.” The separatist group’s first press statement outlined its objective of “free[ing] the people of Azawad from the illegal occupation of its territory by Mali.”
Azawad refers to the northern portion of Mali — including Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao — that the MNLA seized control of after the coup in Bamako. Although previous Tuareg separatist demands have included the incorporation of southern Algeria, western Niger, and western Libya as well, the MNLA declared that their self-proclaimed independent state, Azawad, would respect the borders of all neighboring states. The MNLA’s self-proclaimed independence from Bamako was condemned by the African Union and several Western governments, which asserted that they would never question Mali’s territorial integrity. No state within the international community recognized the legitimacy of Azawad’s independence.
However, international condemnation of Sanogo’s coup led to an ECOWAS-brokered deal, meant to return Mali to civilian rule. On April 12, 2012, Mali’s parliamentary speaker, Dioncounda Traoré, was sworn in as interim president. A 70-year old mathematician educated in France, the Soviet Union, and Algeria, Traoré lacked legitimacy. Thousands of Sanogo’s supporters stormed Traoré’s office on May 21, chanting “down with ECOWAS, Down with Diouncounda” and carrying an empty coffin with the interim president’s name written on it. After being beaten by the crowd, Traoré was forced to seek medical treatment in France. Two months later, Traoré returned to form a unity government, although much confusion remains as to who leads Mali’s government.
As chaos ensued, Ansar Dine and AQIM entered northern Mali, with more guns and money than the MNLA, and seized control of the territory that the MNLA previously claimed for their Tuareg state. Ansar Dine immediately stated its opposition to independence. “Our war is a holy war. It’s a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions.” The organization’s military chief Omar Hamaha continued, “We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam.”
Currently, according to the BBC, “Timbuktu is under Sharia law. Gunmen patrol the streets, arresting men for smoking, forcing women to veil their faces.” David Blair of the Telegraph reported, “Al Qaeda’s allies have imposed the rigours of Sharia, banning alcohol and music, blocking the local television signal and preventing radio stations from broadcasting anything but official announcements and Koranic verse.” Amnesty International labeled the human rights crisis as the worst situation in Mali since independence in 1960. The violence in northern Mali has displaced 365,000 people, 15,000 of whom fled to neighboring Mauritania in the final two weeks of June, according to the United Nations High commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR). Smaller numbers of refugees have fled to Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
A dearth of funding threatens to exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crises within the refugee camps. A UN report has stated:
Operations to support Malian refugees are threatened by a critical low level of funding. For UNHCR, only US$34.9 million has been received against an appeal for US$153 million, that is just 22.7% of the funding needed. Our partners World Food Program (WFP) and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) also report poor funding levels for refugee operations in the region. UNHCR and partners are struggling to maintain minimum humanitarian standards for the refugees. In some camps in Niger and Burkina Faso refugees have to contend with daily water supplies below the emergency standard of 15 litres per person per day.
The sacking of hotels, in addition to the widespread violence, has essentially destroyed Mali’s tourism industry. “The entire local economy is gone. Everything has been torn down,” stated Halle Ousmane Cisse, Timbuktu’s mayor. “There’s no more trade, no more banks. Administrative services are non-existent: Islamists have looted everything. Timbuktu is now a ghost town.”
After the armed Islamist factions hijacked the MNLA’s struggle, the MNLA’s political objective changed. On July 15, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a MNLA senior member, declared an end to his organization’s separatist demands. “We are seeking cultural, political and economic independence but not secession,” stated Assaleh, who instead advocated a system like Canada’s Quebec province, which enjoys special autonomy rights. Another MNLA official stated that “independence has been our line since the start of the conflict but we are taking on board the view of the international community to resolve the crisis.”
Presently, the African Union is attempting to negotiate a peace settlement with Ansar Dine if the organization separates from AQIM. Meanwhile, in the event that a peaceful resolution fails to develop — a likely outcome given Ansar Dine’s extremism — the African Union, through ECOWAS, is planning the creation of a UN-backed, 3,300-troop force to expel the Islamist militants from northern Mali and reunify the state. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that Paris would send forces into Mali to initiate an assault on AQIM, which considers France enemy number one. As of this writing, the coalition is seeking the UN Security Council’s approval for military intervention.
While denouncing the “bribed” governments of ECOWAS, Ansar Dine threatened reprisals against the Malian government and other states complicit in any coalition intent on forcefully expelling the armed Islamists. Ansar Dine threatened France with a statement promising “suicide bombings, assassinations or abductions,” even if non-French troops enter northern Mali, based upon the assumption that West African troops would be acting on behalf of French interests. Ultimately, if the African Union fails to negotiate a political solution with Ansar Dine, northern Mali’s malnourished civilian population may have to endure a bloody war between a French-backed ECOWAS coalition and Ansar Dine, on top of the daily struggle to survive in the drought-stricken region.
Lessons for the White House
The Sahel is one of the world’s most unstable and dangerous regions. Portions of the land are controlled by armed Islamist extremists, drug smugglers, and kidnappers whose income depends on the ransoms of Western hostages. The lawlessness and extreme poverty within this strip of territory below the waterless Sahara threatens to create a new Afghanistan or Somalia in West Africa. The collapse of the Malian state has enabled Al Qaeda to gain a safe haven in more than 300,000 square miles of Malian territory with vast natural resources, airports and military bases. This scenario creates grave security concerns for the United States.
Washington has been slow to learn the painful lessons of blowback. The Western military intervention against Gaddafi transformed Libya into the world’s largest source of illicit weaponry following the regime’s demise. Militant groups, including the MNLA, seized the opportunity to overpower Mali’s army, thus empowering AQIM to become the dominant force alongside their Islamist Tuareg counterpart, Ansar Dine. Provided the confusion and power vacuum in Bamako, the Malian state has no capacity to expel AQIM without foreign intervention.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has spent an annual $100 million on the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a part of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), to boost the Sahel governments’ anti-terrorism efforts and weaken al-Qaeda’s regional influence. Nonetheless, the AFRICOM mission in Mali backfired. The 87 Land Cruisers and satellite communications technology that the United States gave Mali’s military fell into AQIM’s hands after it gained control of northern Mali, according to David Blair. “The Islamists are the masters today,” claims Blair’s unidentified source inside the Malian army. “They have all the equipment that we left in the field.”
When Amadou Toumani Touré usurped power in 1991 in a military coup, he restored civilian rule the following year, earning the title, “soldier of democracy.” Before insecurity and violence erupted in 2012, Mali experienced two decades of democracy and was hailed as an African democratic success story. Today, however, Mali’s future appears dark. No central government wields the power, or legitimacy, to protect Malians from the daily atrocities carried out by armed factions. Nor can it address the environmental, economic, and humanitarian crises that place millions of the brink of starvation and fuel the flames of radicalism. Any strategy that the Obama administration employs will carry high risks, and no easy solution is apparent.
Nonetheless, Washington should encourage dialogue among all the relevant regional actors even if the prospects for peaceful settlement are dim, and focus on addressing the root causes of instability in the region – environmental degradation, desertification, food insecurity, and large weapon flows. Besides al-Qaeda and its like-minded extremists, no one has an interest in seeing one of Africa’s largest nations becoming another Afghanistan.
Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.