Mali: Independence for the Azawad?

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.

12 thoughts on “Mali: Independence for the Azawad?

  1. Whatever happens, the genie is out of the bottle. Mali is too weak to reclaim Azawad. The French have too much on their plate and ECOWAS (Nigeria) isn’t ready to embark on another adventure.

    That leads AFRICOM, but Americans know very little and care even less about Africa and Africans, so the political support to mount an operation there is minimal.

    Eventually, it is either an independent Azawad or more autonomy for that region within Mali. Take this as a teachable moment, the artificial borders imposed during the Berlin conference MUST BE DISMANTLED. It is just a matter of time all the huffing an posturing on earth will not change the outcomes.

    This is a sign of things to come. Expect similar events in Nigeria in the future.

    • Do you want an American-led invasion and probable occupation of northern Mali? Admittedly I suspect the U.S military would be far more competent at it than either the legal Mali government or the coup leaders but the idea tends to send African leaders into a panic. It’s suggestions like that one that caused the U.S so much trouble in just finding an African nation to base the HQ in.
      As for the borders, they were generally accepted for a reason. Things were bad enough in Africa after independence, vast interstate wars weren’t going to make anything better. Thurston even mentions the case of Somaliland with new separatist conflicts and South Sudan isn’t much better.

      • I was just pointing out that an American-led invasion isn’t possible.

        We haven’t heard the last about Africa’s borders. Whether we like it or not, Africa’s borders must and will change. It could be bloody, but Africa has had an extremely bloody past twenty years.

        Cote d’Ivoire is an unstable equilibrium. Nigeria will cease to exist after oil. Congo is unsustainable and Mali will disintegrate – regardless.

      • Self-determination is an extremely potent force. Tuaregs have been agitating for independence since 1958, and you simply cannot postpone that right indefinitely. The prudent thing would be to grant them independence.

        There is no point insisting on artificial states, blood will be spilled, anyway. The earlier we get over it, the better. We don’t solve problems by deferring them.

        The French will eventually leave West Africa, anyway.

    • You make a lot of good points in this comment and the ones below. I think you are right that more re-negotiations of borders lie ahead.

      You cite two options for the Azawad, autonomy or independence. In the medium term at least, it seems more likely to me that the Azawad will have greater autonomy rather than official, internationally recognized independence.

      • Alain Juppe said that the issue of Azawad could be settled by some form of regional autonomy. So I think it is being considered. The problem is that there is no one to discuss with at Bamako.

    • The Western obsession with Al Qaeda will be extremely damaging to Africa. The sooner it is abandoned, the better for the West and for Africa.

      There are a lot of similarities between the situation in Mali and the situation in Northern Nigeria.

    • Why would a people who live in may be the most desolate and poorest region of the world keep rebelling against a government,a state since the late 1950’s on multiple occasions? They suffered from droughts, famines, reprisals,neglect,genocidal acts, denial and indignities for years. Reading reports from Amnesty International and the UNHCR one realises that the populations of Azawad,especially the Kel Tamasheq have been dealt an awful hand by the former colonial power and the rulers they handed them to without their consent. What do you make of selfdetermination? If anything the Malian authorities must be sued by the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. The Azawad democratic republic will restore peace and stability to a region transformed by rogue corrupt states to a hub for all sorts of traffickers and international criminals.

  2. I’m wondering whether certain African governments who have historically had issues with their Tuareg populations possibly see an opportunity to “deal” with the Tuareg problem once and for all. In the past, the Tuareg could always look to the Brother Leader in Libya to have their backs. With him gone, I wonder if there is the thought in places like Niger and Chad that they could mount a more decisive offensive. The last Tuareg uprisings were met with conciliation that obviously didn’t last and didn’t get at the root of the problem.

    I’m not advocating this strategy, mind you. It’s just that animosity between the Tuareg and their southern neighbors goes way back, and although the MNLA seems ascendant right now, I think it could be the beginning of a tough time for the Tuareg of the Sahel.

    • It’ll probably be decided on a nation by nation basis. Coordinated repression of Tuareg would be hard to maintain for more than a few years and short of total ethnic cleansing* the Tuareg aren’t going anywhere. In some nations their situation will deteriorate but others might see little change at all. We’d have to look at the makeup of the governments, economic considerations and security concerns over the past decades to get clues on how they’ll react.

      *Difficult to do to say the least even if they weren’t in the Sahel.

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