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.