A few days ago, IRIN posted a useful backgrounder on the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. Read it and it becomes clear that the rebels – the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad or MNLA – have, at least in the short-term, achieved some of their top military priorities:
When the MNLA began hostilities with the attack on Ménaka on January 17, it announced its main targets as Kidal, Tombouctou and Gao, the three provincial capitals of the “septentrion”, or far north, all of which would be part of a “liberated Azawad”.
Azawad refers to the idea of an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali.
The rebels were scoring victories even before the coup in southern Mali on March 22, but confusion in the south has helped the MNLA rapidly conquer their main targets. Kidal fell on Friday, Gao on Saturday, and Timbuktu some time between Sunday and today (on a side note, I really appreciate that the BBC refers to Timbuktu as “the last northern army stronghold,” highlighting its current significance, rather than as “the fabled ancient desert blah blah blah,” as many other outlets are wont to do).
The dynamics of the rebellion in the north are complicated by the fact that several groups are operating at once. There is the MNLA, which wants independence. There is Ancar Dine (Arabic: “Supporters/Defenders of the Faith”), which says it wants to impose shari’a in Mali. There is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which may see the rebellion as an opportunity to deepen its presence in the region. Such hopes on AQIM’s part may be in vain. Kal – who writes, “Northern Mali is not fated for AQIM to make it its home or be a major player in the region’s internal politics” – analyzes the interplay between those groups here. Ranked by size, the MNLA is the most important force.
Even these few paragraphs should hint that the politics within and around the rebellion going forward will be quite complicated. This complexity makes it important to take things one step at a time.
First, it remains to be seen exactly what will shake out in southern Mali. The junta in the capital Bamako has agreed to reinstate the constitution (it had briefly substituted a new one) and return power to civilians. So the coup is over, right? Well, not yet. As the BBC points out, “They have not stepped down and there are no clear arrangements for a transition of power.” More clarity will come today, as the Economic Community of West African States decides what sanctions to impose on the junta, and how the junta responds – especially what kind of timeline it proposes for a civilian handover. Many details must still be ironed out before anyone will know clearly who rules in Bamako.
Second, it remains to be seen whether rebels’ military victories translate into lasting political control. Fragmentation within the rebel camp, and confusion about which political vision will be imposed, could make administering newly conquered territories difficult or lead to infighting, which could turn large number of civilians against the rebels. Another question will be whether the rebels receive much international recognition, and my feeling is that they will not. Both African leaders and outside governments have been reluctant to see any re-drawing of maps in Africa – South Sudan fought two civil wars over a period of fifty years, and endured a six-year transition process, before achieving independence, while the proto-state of Somaliland has been functioning (without the international recognition it craves) for two decades. It’s hard to get recognized if you’re a wannabe new state.
In this case, I do not believe Mali’s neighbors will be keen to recognize the Azawad. As Peter Tinti writes, the MNLA says its territorial ambitions are limited to Mali but “the prospect of a rebellion that crosses several borders” – ie, into other areas with Tuareg populations, such as Niger, Algeria, and Libya – would “freak out the international community.” There are a lot of forces, in other words, that militate against international recognition for a state called Azawad, even if the rebels are able to control the area de facto in the coming weeks (months? years?).
Events in Mali have moved very quickly and are continuing to do so. Once again, I recommend turning to Twitter for the latest, especially the feeds of Martin Vogl, Martin Plaut,Peter Dorrie, Hannah Armstrong, Tommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich. I leave you with a map below, highlighting (from west to east) Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, and with a link to a much nicer map at Wikipedia, that gives an overview of major battle sites.