Mali: Quick Items on Elections, Protests, and the Northern Rebellion

Two brief observations about Mali:

  1. Some northern Malians do not want the country’s presidential elections, scheduled for April 29, to go forward (Fr) while the rebellion in that region is still active. But there is still a lot of pressure on Mali and in Mali to hold the elections. This week, the Economic Community of West African States urged Mali to move forward with the vote “at all costs.” Major candidates also reportedly oppose any delay. And, of course, the current government has said the elections will take place.
  2. The protests that Mali saw earlier this year over the alleged mismanagement of the war are not over. This week students marched in Kati (Fr; map). They were “worried about the insecurity that prevails in the north, especially in Tessalit” and hoped to meet with the president to discuss the crisis. There is also reportedly discontent within the army (Fr), amid losses to the Tuaregs and accusations of corruption (h/t Martin Vogl).
  3. There has reportedly been a split within the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg-led rebel army in the north. Specifically, the group Ancar Dine (Ar: “Supporters/Defenders of the Faith”) has called for an Islamic republic and the application of shari’a in Mali. One Malian source (Fr) says (my translation), “Taking this radical position signals a rupture with the MNLA.” After a meeting between MNLA leaders and Ancar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali failed to resolve the difference in position, the rupture deepened. MNLA released a statement on Monday affirming its desire for a republic “based on principles of democracy and secularism.” Ancar Dine now claims to control northeastern Mali.

What do you make of these items, particularly the last one?

Mali: Toward Dialogue between the MNLA and the Government?

The Tuareg rebellion continues in northern Mali, with recent fighting centering on the town of Tessalit (map), a battle one Malian newspaper (French) says will be decisive for the future course of the war. However, reports are now saying that the Malian government and the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA – read a backgrounder here) are taking steps toward dialogue.

Magharebia says that talks have already begun:

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA), Mali and Mauritania on Sunday (March 4th) started talks to put an end to the months-long armed conflict between Touareg rebels and the Malian government, Aray Almostenir reported on Monday.

The tripartite consultations aim to find a “cease-fire mechanism and the return of displaced people”, the Mauritanian website reported. The goal is to launch “multilateral negotiations in northern Mali under regional and international auspices with the subject of Azaouad self-determination on the agenda”.

The original article from Aray al Mostenir is here (Arabic), and another on the visit of the Malian president’s representative to Nouakchott can be found here (also in Arabic). The other points under discussion, according to Aray al Mostenir, include “evaluating previous peace agreements” and “under regional and international auspices, beginning multilateral negotiations, concerning northern Mali, whose agenda will include the subject of self-determination for Azwadians” (if I’ve botched the translation, please correct me).

Meanwhile, RFI (French) reports that the political leadership of the MNLA is attempting to generate a platform of demands that will be broadly acceptable to the different wings of the movement and to different ethnic groups in the north. The article mentions that the Swiss may play a role in this process.

We’ll see what fruits these trees bear.

Two Perspectives on Tuaregs’ Experiences in or Returning from Libya

Two pieces on Tuareg movements in Libya and the Sahel merit attention. In one, the BBC’s Celeste Hicks describes the rippling effects of Qadhafi’s fall on human movement in the region: Qadhafi’s defeat helped cause the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali, and the fighting in northern Mali has sent refugees into Niger, amid Nigerien fears of contagion from Mali – ie, renewed Tuareg rebellion in northern Niger. Hicks ends by detailing the Nigerien government’s efforts to prevent a Tuareg uprising inside its territory.

The second piece, in French (text here, mp3 here) contains an interview with a Malian Tuareg who fell in with pro-Qadhafi fighters during the civil war, and now “tells no one that he was part of the forces of the former dictator, for fear of being killed.”

 

COREN, A Northern Malian Group Calling for Unity amid Rebellion

Over the weekend, a group called Le Collectif des Ressortissants du Nord – “The Northern Citizens’ Collective” or COREN – held a rally in Bamako. COREN emphasized the plight of northerners, including northerners who have been attacked in the south and people in the north who have suffered from displacement and fighting. But COREN also stressed the importance of Mali’s national unity and territorial integrity. The movement hopes to play a central role in negotiating an end to the rebellion in the north.

Yesterday, the website of Mali’s government posted an article (French) by the journal Le Républicain entitled “Nord Mali: Gestion de sortie de crise: ‘Mettre le Coren au centre de toutes les négociations et de gestion'” (“Managing a Way Out of the Crisis: Putting COREN at the Center of Management and All Negotiations”). The article details a 48-point platform that COREN has put forth as a blueprint for resolving the crisis in the north. The platform is meant to be implemented by government and civil society. It prioritizes dialogue and accountability.

Sunday’s meeting was a sequel to earlier meetings between COREN and the government, including one meet earlier this month (French). I will be curious to see how the organization’s role takes shape going forward; for the moment, they have the government’s ear and the ability to bring prominent politicians to the table. The nature of their position – a group that can claim to speak for northerners while taking a line that fits well with the government’s aims – also makes them a natural ally for the government under the current circumstances. Whether or not they can put their proposed solutions into action remains to be seen.

Despite Tuareg Rebellion, Mali Gives Assurances on Presidential Elections in April

The Tuareg rebellion that began last month in northern Mali has continued. Rebels belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked two towns over the weekend, and the Malian army “has launched an air-and-land offensive” to win back territory and defeat the MNLA. The fighting in northern Mali has sparked protests in the south, as military families shaken by news of losses marched in the capital Bamako and elsewhere. The emergence of these interlocking crises has fueled speculation that Mali’s presidential elections, scheduled for April 29 and seen as symbolizing the consolidation of Mali’s democratic credentials, could be delayed.

On Sunday, President Amadou Toumani Toure gave assurances that the elections will go forward as planned.

“We are already used to holding elections during war, and during Tuareg rebellions,” Toure said on national radio, referring to past polls during Tuareg uprisings in the 1990s. “Whatever the difficulty, you must have a president, elected legally and legitimately.”

Toure, or “ATT,” whom term limits prevent from running again, has not endorsed a candidate yet (see my quick post on some of the major candidates here, and read Think Africa Press’ thoughtful take on the election here).

ATT’s statement comes as no surprise. Malian politicians have several incentives not to delay the elections, even if the rebellion continues through April.

One incentive is that postponing elections could risk funding and support from external donors. Mali’s government badly wants to preserve external aid flows in order to deal with food insecurity and development – not to mention the rebellion itself. Sacrificing its image as a successful West African democracy could come at a high cost.

Another incentive is that a delay – and the corresponding administrative and legal confusion associated with whatever interim government took power – could exacerbate the political instability in Mali. Dioncounda Traore (French), President of the National Assembly and a major presidential candidate, has warned that if a delay occurs, “anything could happen, even a coup d’etat.”

A third incentive is, if portraits of ATT are to be believed, the president’s desire to leave a strong legacy. Such a legacy could be marred if rebellion is still raging when he steps down, but extending his mandate in an extra-constitutional fashion could do even more damage. ATT may feel that passing the baton to another politician this year would be better than risking the instability that might result from a delayed election.

None of these factors guarantee that the elections will be held on time. But with only two months to go, it certainly seems that the president and the political class in the south are firmly in favor of holding the vote as planned.

Niger: Tuareg Backlash Against China

Tensions are running high between Tuareg communities and the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U), in Azalik, northern Niger. These tensions exacerbate mistrust between the Tuaregs and the central government of Niger. Problems in Azalik count as yet another instance of backlash against China’s presence in Africa. This backlash is not universal. But as China’s economic activities expand in Africa, backlash will occur with greater frequency, making situations like the one in Azalik a potential harbinger of things to come.

The seeds of the current conflict were sown in 2007, when Niger granted uranium production rights to SOMINA, a joint venture of Sino-U and the Nigerien government. Tuareg rebels protested this deal:

The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ)…said in a statement the uranium-rich territories of northern Niger belonged to the Tuareg people.

[...]

“All contracts awarded by Niamey are invalid as long as the indigenous people are not involved and do not benefit from them,” the MNJ said on its Web site http://www.m-n-j.blogspot.com.

“No exploitation (we repeat) will be possible today and less so tomorrow, because these lands have their owners: the indigenous Tuaregs,” the statement said.

Despite this opposition, China and Niger went forward with the project. China loaned $95 million to Niger in 2009 to support SOMINA.

With mining underway, Tuaregs continue to protest the project.

To Tuaregs, the $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik, due to begin producing later this year, has come to represent all that is harmful about Chinese investment in Niger.

Last month Nigerien workers – many of whom are Tuareg – denounced in a written statement conditions at SOMINA, claiming it resembled “a Chinese colony.” Nigerien laborers sleep in dorms, separately from Chinese workers. The rooms are located in illegal proximity to open pit uranium mines, and the Nigeriens suffer chronic diarrhea on account of an unsanitary water supply, the document charged. Trouble at the mine has led Azalik to be referred to throughout northern Niger as “Guantanamo.”

Despite poor conditions, the mine offers a coveted chance to work. But further frustrating locals, SOMINA employs hundreds of Chinese nationals and recruits ethnically Hausa workers from the south despite widespread poverty and unemployment among the local Tuaregs.

[...]

Chinese mining executives refuse invitations from local elected officials to discuss improving conditions…
“They say they don’t have to answer to us because they have direct communication with the central government,” adds Mohamed Mamane Illo, a former Tuareg rebel and elected councilor of Ingall.

In some ways, this is a familiar story of communities caught between corporations and governments hungry for the resources on the land where they live. Maybe that is the point. China’s approach toward Africa tries to avoid politics. But any time resources are disputed, politics is present. One could even say that the fundamental political issue across West Africa is control of resources. Interesting also is what happens to national governments as these conflicts proceed – despite the income they may acquire by dealing with corporations, their legitimacy with their own people (although arguably the Nigerien government has none left with the Tuaregs anyway) may take a hit.

So are the hopes that the military junta would achieve better relations with the Tuaregs already fading? If so, that’s a powerful indicator that resource conflicts owe more to the relationships between localities, foreign economic powers, and the political center than they do to the specific group in charge in the center.

Libyan Influence in the Sahel

Yesterday the International Crisis Group released a media briefing on Libyan influence in Chad called “Beyond Political Influence.” Tracing the history of this connection from 1969 to the present, ICG argues a large change took place in 2003:

Tripoli, Libya

Because of Chad’s internal political crisis, the deterioration of the Chad-Sudan relationship and the emergence of the Darfur crisis, Libya has been able since 2003 to solidify its position as a powerbroker. It used its links to the armed opposition on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border to become the principal mediator between the rebel factions, and it helped re-establish contact between N’Djamena and Khartoum, in the process perhaps preventing what could have been a direct war between the two regimes with disastrous regional consequences.

However, Libya’s diplomatic successes in Chad have been short-lived, due to a lack of focus on longer-term reforms and its difficulty in tolerating the contributions of other regional or wider international players in its quest to dominate its neighbourhood. Tripoli rarely uses its authority to force the parties to stick to the deals it brokers, and those parties always suspect a hidden agenda behind the diplomacy, since Gaddafi makes little secret of the desire for his mediations to advance geostrategic ambitions. At the same time, the Chadian government uses Libya’s good offices to co-opt armed opponents, who in turn try to make the most personal profit out of the peace deals. Lastly, the lack of coordination between Libyan and other peace initiatives has led to a struggle for influence that has allowed the protagonists to play the several interlocutors against each other.

I am just starting to learn about Libya’s influence in the region as a whole, so I am trying to fit ICG’s work with the other puzzle pieces I’ve seen. Qaddhafi obviously looms large in the region, from his (recently non-renewed) AU chairmanship to his role as a broker in accords between Sahelian governments and Tuareg rebels. Libya’s attempts to exert influence in Sahelian and central African countries have not always gone smoothly, producing backlash in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. But Libya retains real diplomatic clout with many of its neighbors to the south. Libya exercises this influence in large part, the State Department and others have suggested, through its financial and oil resources.

With this background in mind, I am also wondering how Libyan actions affect counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. Yesterday I also ran across a report that Libya had released over 200 Islamist prisoners, including a few dozen with ties to al Qaeda. At a time when counterterrorism policies are in flux at the national and international level throughout the Sahel and North Africa – from Mali’s ransom payments/hostage exchanges with AQIM to Mauritania’s “prison dialogues” to more hardline approaches – could Libya’s turn to rehabilitative strategies affect other countries’ thinking on the issue? Or am I connecting dots where no connections obtain?

Whatever the case, I would like to start following Libya’s regional relations more systematically. Any reading recommendations from commenters would be greatly appreciated.