Glimpses of the Political Maneuvers Surrounding Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion

Beginning on January 17, Tuaregs in northern Mali under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) launched an armed rebellion against the government. As of last Friday they had attacked five towns, and yesterday they descended on a sixth, Niafunke.

The rebellion is a sequel of sorts to earlier conflicts in Mali in the 1990s and from 2007-2009. Causes include longstanding feelings of marginalization among the Tuareg, but the current conflict also reflects the political changes that have shaken the Sahel in the past year, especially the fall of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, who had deep ties to Tuareg communities and helped broker the ceasefire of 2009. The NMLA reportedly includes fighters who were part of Qadhafi’s security forces.

Two recent news reports provide further insights into the politics of the rebellion.

Magharebia reports on Algeria’s role in the crisis:

Algeria withdrew military advisors from northern Mali last week in an effort to force a political solution to the Touareg revolt.

[...]

Algeria’s decision to freeze military support to Mali came after the country halted counter-terror operations in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and redirected troops towards areas now in rebellion. The decision was reportedly taken to prevent Mali from using Algeria’s military support against the Azaouad rebel movement. Algeria also froze delivery of military equipment pending an end to the fighting.

Algerian sources said that the decision was temporary and did not apply to long-term Algerian-Malian military agreements, adding that the move was aimed at forcing the two sides to reach a political solution.

Jeune Afrique (French), meanwhile, has obtained a document that details the proposals a Malian government representative made to Tuareg leaders in early January in an effort to prevent rebellion from breaking out. These proposals included offers to create new administrative arrangements and establish new political and religious posts for tribal representatives.

These reports, and the calls from Mali’s government for political solutions, suggest that the government of Mali believes a negotiated political resolution was and is still possible. The government of Algeria, for its part, appears unwilling to become implicated in violence against the Tuareg, perhaps for fear of rebellion or instability spreading into its own territory.

Seen in one light, the rebellion could appear to be less a genuine bid to establish an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali than a tactic that the Tuareg are using to force greater concessions from the Malian state. If this reading is correct, the possibility of a negotiated settlement is real, but the government’s offer  to the Tuareg as represented in the document obtained by Jeune Afrique would have to be substantially increased before the NMLA would lay down its arms.

A key question in the present circumstances, though, is whether the absence of a regional power willing to act as mediator, as Qadhafi did in 2009 and as Algeria appears hesitant or unwilling to do now, will mean that the present conflict gains momentum without any outside force acting to stop it.

A final factor to consider is the presidential election scheduled for April. The rebellion could well last beyond that date, meaning that Mali’s next president will inherit a serious political and security crisis in the north, along with tough choices about what strategy to follow in dealing (or negotiating) with the rebels.

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7 thoughts on “Glimpses of the Political Maneuvers Surrounding Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion

  1. Great analysis. You got it right for the reason of the withdrawal of Algeria: if they wish to hit AQIM, they will hit the Tuaregs. Wondering if that was the reason Algeria never lifted its finger to help Mali, Mauritania and Niger to help fight AQIM outside of its border as the Tuaregs (some groups?) were seen very well connected to AQIM. The constitution’s excuse for not going outside its border does not fly. So, to my humble opinion, the fight against AQIM is finish. As the rebellion is for a long time and Algeria, as the regional power, will not “accept” the direct intervention of foreign militaries. But, GIs and the French Legion have been seen in Northern Mauritania. To do what? No one not in the secret knows.

    Since today or yesterday, papers in Mali (link below – read 2-3 last paragraphs) saying that Mauritania is behind or supporting the rebellion in Mali. That is a bad accusation and complicates further things.

    http://www.maliweb.net/category.php?NID=86407

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  3. Your statement that the rebellion could leave a serious problem for ATT’s successor falls a bit short: what everyone here in Bamako is wondering is whether the elections will be able to take place at all, in the face of widespread northern unrest. Many even believe ATT has deliberately fomented the rebellion, or at least turned a blind eye to it, specifically so he can declare a state of emergency and remain in power after the end of his 2nd term. For whatever it’s worth, ATT swears he’s looking forward to leaving office in early June and has no designs on staying on.

    • Fair enough. I woke up this morning to an email asking me if I knew anything about rumors of a coup in Bamako. So far I’m trying to take a really cautious line on any possibility that the elections will be delayed or canceled, but as you say there is now a real chance that the elections won’t go forward as planned.

      • If he has publicly linked himself to political solutions I would think he would be politically weakened by being forced to declare a state of emergency later in the same year.
        Incidentally concerns over territorial integrity seems to be a major motivator for military coups, especially the ones that enjoy the leadership of the highest military leaders. Burma*, Indonesia** and Pakistan all had separatist movements result in the military unite and dislike the less than stalwart civilian leaders. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything here but the possibility can’t be denied. Indeed, a rationale for the 1991 coup was the Taureg rebellion (even though that ended relatively peacefully).

        *Indeed the Burmese government has based its legitimacy on its ability to prevent Burma from dissolving under separatist pressure.
        ** Yes there was a Communist uprising but the Indonesian military had been united by separatist conflicts throughout the nation prior to this and militant separatism and political resistance to unification from outlying areas probably instilled a distrust of civilian leaders, especially ones who weren’t Javanese.

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