Northern Mali: Tuareg Rebellion State of Play and Map

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 VoglMartin Plaut,Peter DorrieHannah ArmstrongTommy 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.

11 thoughts on “Northern Mali: Tuareg Rebellion State of Play and Map

  1. Pingback: Northern Mali: Tuareg Rebellion State of Play and Map | Sahel Blog | Today Headlines

  2. This analysis, like so many others, seems to imply that the Tuareg are
    * some kind of homogeneous group (which it is not as they are divided in multiple tribes, clans, etc.)
    * the only inhabitants of Northern Mali (which they are neither given that the Sonrai, Fulani, Bozo, etc. groups even outnumber the Tuaregs in the territory the latter call Azawad).
    Hence, I would be interested to learn more about the internal dynamics in the North.

  3. Excellent points, Karl. Thank you. And the divisions with the Touareg (Tamashek) also exist in cross-clan lines, in that there are those (perhaps majority?!) who are against secession. The loudest and the now-heavily armed (former mercenaries of Ghaddafi) are the ones who make noise….what about the silent?

  4. Karl and Barry, thanks for your comments. This post was intended to focus on rebel groups and not on the Tuareg people or northern Malian peoples as a whole, but certainly it is important to take into account the concerns you mention. If I write about the Tuaregs later this week I will endeavor to capture some of the diversity of viewpoints you both mention.

  5. Pingback: Upheavals in the Sahel: Coups, Chaos, #AQIM & #Mali | Selected Wisdom

  6. Hi Alex, thanks for the reference. I am stunned that the MNLA/Ansar Dine were able to take Gao so easily and that Sanogo advised the army to retreat (though it probably saved lives). While I am relieved that street by street fighting was averted, I am equally surprised that the Songhai militias (Ganda Koy and Ganda Isa) decided to sit this one out (rumor has it that the Malian army advised them to do so). I fear that things could still get very ugly in Gao, as the city is awash with arms and according to my friends and “family” there, the situation is already dire.

    Anyway, I have long been a reader of Sahel Blog and appreciate your trenchant, thoughtful analysis.

    Many thanks,

  7. I think the MNLA are playing their cards very well. They saw the window of opportunity to establish independence based on the momentary lack of a constitution in Mali. And now they are distancing themselves from the Islamists and stating that they feel they could fight the Islamists better than anyone else now that it is for their own country and people they are fighting (and not for the many foreign battles they fought for Kadafi.) Thirdly, Algeria and other states with Tuareg populations should see the establishment of Azawad as a way to rid themselves of separatist concerns when the MNLA invite all Tuareg peoples to come live in their own country.

    It was obvious the Bamako government could not manage all of Mali – a country the size of California and Texas combined. Their soldiers were dying in the north for nothing. Here is a chance to better combat the Islamist in the Sahel and to reduce the separatist pressures in Niger and Algeria.

    If only the Europeans would let Africa’s borders find their natural lines. Yes there are new found resource interests in that area but I’m sure the international oil giants will be able to take advantage of Azawadians just as conveniently as they have been doing with the existing African states.

  8. If anyone has any information on the military capabilities of the various groups, it would be useful. How much damage would the Islamic groups be able to inflict if they move south. One gets the impression they don’t even have enough gas to get their vehicles south, let alone enough weaponry, but information is sparse. I’d appreciate any thoughts or information at all.

  9. MNLA actually controls bleedin’ little of importance in the key towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao these are firmly in the mits of Ansar Al Din (who is really a proxy of Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM) and the MUJWA (movement for unity and jihad in west Africa). Their control is strengthening through implementation of sharia, control of mosques, schools, tranny stations, control of fuel, electricity and even food aid. Those that oppose Sharia are being deprived of food aid. Much fancy fancy Al Qaeda in East Africa does in Somalia using al Shabaab, AQLIM uses its proxy Ansar Al din to achieve their ultimate goal creation of an Islamic emirate in Azawad as part of Al Qaeda’s goal of restoring the caliphate. AQLIM is creating an environment that can facilitate its freedom of movement and an expansion of its presense. AQLIM is actually well positioned in Ansar Al Din, according to Ambassador Fowler’s book “A Season in Hell” Omar Ould Hammaha (called Omar1 in the book) was his primary kidnapper, part of Mohktar Bel Mohktar’s faction in AQLIM and he is now one of Ansar Al Din’s chief spokesman, seen in recent video’s at Gao. MNLA has a secular and democratic agenda this is opposed by Ansar al Din and its supporter AQLIM whose focus is to impose a foreign ideology fancy Sharia and establish an Islamic state. Now that the Islamists hae high jacked the rebellion, it’s likely that MNLA would attempt to resist but with no outwith support it’ll be tough. MNLA needs to be strong and demonstrate its resolve by fighting its Al Qaeda occupiers, only then might it secure recognition and support from outwith. Emergence of a secular MNLA led popular resistance is probably the bessy chance to remove AQIM’s growing presence. If on the other hand nout is done, Northern Mali will become a Somalia fancy environment, meaning a bleak future for those that live there with no outwith help for development and no hope of political recognition. Al Qaeda will strengthen its already strong control on Northern Mali and use it as a gaff to plan and mount operations into the region (Mauritania, Algeria and Niger) and perhaps elsewhere such as the UK. Another issue is Drug trafficking, Northern Mali is on the transit route for both Hashish and Cocaine; in 2009 a 727 was discovered landed in Northern Mali which had an estimated 8 tons on Cocaine, AQLIM had some links to that. Now that Islamists and their allies control airports we could see the drug trafficking expand dramatically to benefit Al Qaeda, Azawad may find itself a centre of trafficking, of course all this prevents recognition of Azawad .

  10. Pingback: an immense practical advantage: clarity in the midst of confusion « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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