Yesterday, the northern Malian rebel movement the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) declared that they had achieved their military goal – the Azawad, the area in Mali for which they claim independence, had been “liberated” (French, audio). The MNLA, a spokesman said, was announcing an end to its military operations. Today, the MNLA declared independence for the Azawad.
The Mali-based journalist Martin Vogl writes, in a series of tweets,
“Even spokespeople for the MNLA rebel group admit their declaration of independence was premature.” (link).
“MNLA spokesman admits not a single country is going to recognise Azawad as an independent state.” (link)
“MNLA don’t have full control of Kidal, Gao or Timbuktu. Strange time to declare independence.” (link).
Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu are the regional capitals of northern Mali.
I definitely think that from a logistical standpoint, the declaration is premature: The MNLA’s relations with other armed groups in the north, such as Ancar Dine, are uncertain and tense. The MNLA’s political relationship with ordinary people is also unclear – who accepts their claims? who doesn’t? The details and implementation of political administrative control over the territory remain largely unstated. And, as Vogl points out, they will have no recognition from elsewhere. France has already said the declaration has no meaning. Moreover, due to the coup in southern Mali and the fighting in the north, many international aid packages to Mali are already suspended or in jeopardy of becoming so. The north may find itself facing mass hunger without much help, a problem that could further challenge the MNLA’s control over the land it calls the Azawad.
From a political standpoint, the declaration makes more sense, I think. The MNLA has garnered substantial momentum in the past two and a half months, and I think their continued success, survival even, will depend on keeping that momentum going in some form. A conquering army wants either more conquests or a clear stopping point/victory, yes? Otherwise, what do the leaders do with a bunch of riled-up fighters? Downtime, waiting, a lag – all of those could damage morale. So unless they will push south, a shift in focus from conquest to consolidation makes sense.
At the same time, the MNLA’s lack of solid political/administrative control may be the key factor driving them toward making a declaration of independence, both as an attempt to forestall competing claims from other groups and as a bid to translate perception into reality, for both domestic and international audiences.
The tests now for the MNLA will be how they fare against their internal enemies, and how quickly their external enemies, including the government in Bamako, regroup. Until a force outside of northern Mali comes to crush them, the MNLA may well control – on some level – a certain amount of territory. But the experiences of other breakaway states bode ill for them in the long-term. Can the MNLA achieve even what Somaliland has achieved, namely, the creation of a proto-state exercising de facto control? Even Somaliland lacks international recognition and faces its own internal separatist movements. South Sudan, meanwhile, only achieved de jure independence after two wars, a long negotiations process, and heavy involvement by outside powers who were open to their independence bid.
If readers can think of other cases, let us know – but I am struggling to think of a story that would offer much hope to the MNLA.