The unfolding crisis in Mali

September 6, 2012

Sarah Knopp provides background on the conflict gripping a West African country.

THE CRISIS in Mali has shown up sporadically in the Western media over the past six months, but mainly in the form of images of "religious terrorism"--attacks on mosques and religious sites in Northern Mali, violence between Muslim "factions," kidnapping of Westerners and "terrorist attacks" on the Malian military--without much explanation.

Both fear-mongering about Islamic terrorism and romantic fascination with the Tuaregs, the "desert warriors" of Mali's north, have replaced substantive explanations for the roots of the crisis.

The human tragedy unfolding in the Western African nation is that as many as 365,000 people have been displaced in Northern Mali this year as a result of drought, starvation and political chaos, according to Conn Hallinan, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus. Relief organizations that might have been able to provide aid have largely left the North.

The Sahel has been suffering an extreme drought since 2009, and mass famine is a real danger in the summer months, when increased caloric intake is a necessity for the body to stay cool in temperatures that can reach 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees are crowding camps in Algeria, Libya, Niger and Mauritania.

Women and children displaced by drought in Northern Mali gathered to receive emergency aid
Women and children displaced by drought in Northern Mali gathered to receive emergency aid (Cyprien Fabre)

Northern Mali exists in a different world--culturally, ecologically and politically--from the country's capital in Bamako, which is sub-Saharan. The North is a cultural melting pot, with large populations of sedentary groups of many ethnicities, and with the desert pastoralists who speak Tamasheq, known as the "Tuaregs." Their traditional way of life was based on desert trade and herding, and they are economically and culturally connected to North Africa, rather than the sub-Saharan region of Mali.

In the capital in the South, the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown in March by a military junta led by Amadou Sanogo, a general who attended U.S. military training programs in 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010, according to Hallinan.

The junta's justification for the seizure of power was that Touré had been allowing the Malian military to be overrun by Tuareg rebels in the North. The junta suspended the constitution and launched a major military offensive. But it was forced to retreat about a month later, and the military is largely absent from many Northern cities like Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

WHO THE Northern rebels are exactly is a source of hot debate. According to the government in Bamako, and many of the sedentary peoples of the South, the "terrorist attacks" in the North are led by Tuaregs, who were former mercenaries for Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.

After Qaddafi's fall, according to this logic--and it is the logic most frequently repeated on French Radio International and other news outlets--the mercenaries returned to northern Mali after Qaddafi's fall, heavily armed and ready to kick up dust, not mention generate revenue by capturing Westerners for ransom. The Malian government uses this explanation for violence in the North to delegitimize claims of Tuareg resistance.

According to the U.S. government, much of the fighting in the North has been caused by al-Qaeda of the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), a group with bases in Mauritania and tied to an international Islamist movement. This has provided justification for the increased involvement of the U.s. military in the Sahara and Sahel.

U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) has basing agreements with Uganda, Ghana, Namibia, Gabon and Zambia. Through the "Trans-Saharan Initiative," the U.S. government has been providing military training and surveillance technology to West and North African governments that agree to fight terrorism--and leading military campaigns themselves. U.S. attack helicopters are being used in areas where AQIM is allegedly active.

Ansar ud-Din, a group founded by a Tuareg politician, not part of an international terrorist network, is also active in the region. Some think that this group is connected to AQIM--but the association is largely based on conjecture, since both groups favor imposition of Sharia law.

It may well be that elements from any or all of these groups--former Qaddafi mercenaries, AQIM and their alleged affiliate Ansar ud-Din--are responsible for kidnapping Westerners, blowing up religious sites and attacking the Malian army in the North. But little is known for sure.

As author Baz Lecocq--whose book Disputed Desert: Decolonization, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali is essential reading for those trying to understand the current conflict--wrote in an article earlier this year: "[I]n following events in the Sahara, everything is shrouded in a haze of dust. Nothing is known with certainty, all depends on hearsay and a form of rumor known as the 'Tuareg telegraph' that can only be interpreted with deep knowledge of the Sahran world."

There are few, if any, trained war correspondents covering the struggle. Western scholars and NGOs have left. The primary source of information for the media is the Malian military junta itself or the Tuareg rebels. Each of these, of course, has its own agenda.

However, the Tuareg rebel group MNLA--which stands for National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, the desert territory in Northern Mali and Niger, and southern Algeria and Libya where the Tuaregs, among others, live--should be of particular interest to anti-imperialists.

THE MNLA is an armed group that claims the right to national independence. They took responsibility for a January attack on the Malian military in Menaka, one of the opening skirmishes in this later conflict. In addition to the MNLA, in 2010, a group called the MNA (National Movement of the Azawad) was formed, mainly made up of young Tuaregs from the migrant-worker generation. Its leadership was promptly arrested.

Both of these groups stand in the tradition of the movement for Tuareg independence that began shortly after Mali was created as a nation in 1960 from the former French colony Soudan français. Scared by the war for liberation in Algeria, the French officially decolonized West Africa, and the reigns of power in Bamako were taken by Mobido Keita and his US-RDA party, advocates of "African Socialism." They named the country Mali.

Like the French before them, the post-colonial government oppressed the Tuaregs in many ways. They insisted on maintaining the French practice of appointing chiefs, or amenokals, as the officially recognized representatives of each of the Tuareg tribes (the Tuaregs were used to electing their chiefs). They forbid the speaking of Tamasheq in schools. They forced large groups of Tuaregs to settle in the name of "progress."

Another source of resentment for upper-class Tuaregs was that the Malian government used both laws and the rhetoric of social equality to try to stop the practice of slavery in Tuarreg society, appealing directly to the slaves ("bellah" as the French called them, iklan in Tamasheq).

The Tuaregs rose up in armed resistance against the government in Bamako for the first time in 1963 in a bid for autonomy for the North. In response, the government unleashed brutal collective punishment, attacking civilian populations and poisoning wells necessary for desert survival. The army created "Forbidden Zones"--anyone who entered these areas was considered a rebel to be shot.

There were forced relocation policies that concentrated the Tuareg population. This was a death-knell to the way of life for a nomadic, camel- and horse-herding, and trading population that had to move freely in order to gain sufficient access to water and to grazing land.

Because of government's relocation policies, a drought in 1973 was particularly devastating and nearly completed the process of driving the majority of Tuaregs from a nomadic way of life--and ensured that the next generation would be poor, urban, migrant workers across North Africa and the Middle East. The drought played a role in convincing Tuareg that to survive, they would need independence.

The problems in Mali stem from the legacy of colonialism and capitalism. The French invented the borders that now define the country, as well as the rest of North and West Africa. These borders were drawn without regard for the cultural and organizational traditions and affiliations of the indigenous people.

The current crisis is also the product of ecological catastrophe, with an increase in the frequency of drought. Greater pollution from unregulated capitalist development has also contributed to the frequency of drought, and the increasingly market-driven agriculture forced on the North has put further pressure on the area.

However, there are complicated aspects with the Tuareg national liberation struggle. From Libya, Qaddafi supported the Tuaregs as a means to meddle in the affairs of neighboring states. Second, there has never been unity among the Tuareg about whether they are fighting for an independent state or for autonomy within Mali. The concept of a "state" makes more sense to a people oriented on territory and property--whereas the Tuaregs were traditionally nomadic.

Thus, a number of questions arise: What would be the economic basis of a Tuareg state in the North? What about all of the other ethnic groups that live there? Currently, there is talk of a referendum on independence modeled on Sudan. Would such a referendum win? These are all complicated questions, but they don't change the fact that the Tuaregs are oppressed and have a legitimate claim to self-determination.

WHILE IT remains extremely difficult to decipher exactly what is taking place in the North, there are some things we know for certain.

The U.S. military wants a foothold in Northern Africa. Africa supplies a third of China's energy supplies, and Algeria has the eighth biggest proven natural gas reserves in the world. According to the Financial Times, the fear in Washington is that the U.S. and the West are slipping behind China and India in the new scramble for resources in North Africa.

According to news reports, French geologists captured in Northern Mali last November may have been affiliated with a French uranium-mining company trying to set up shop. We don't know for sure. Mauritanian news agencies report that AQIM is holding other French hostages who were captured at a uranium mine in northern Niger two years ago, as well as other Westerners captured in Timbuktu.

But we do know that French and American companies will do everything in their power to extract mineral wealth from Northern Mali, paying the lowest possible extraction taxes that they feel they can get away with, and at whatever cost to the environment that people there have to pay. In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a report called "Sustaining U.S. Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," which states that "working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary."

If Western military bases can help the French or Americans to achieve any of their strategic aims in the region, they will use them. And the dominant narrative about the crisis in Northern Mali will be one that attempts to justify interventions of this sort.

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