Area claimed by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Click on image to enlarge. Photo: BabyFoot. wikimedia commonsThe threat from the Tuareg rebellion has been a ubiquitous issue for the French, and later the governments of Mali and Niger, for almost a century. The long-held dream of an independent Tuareg state seems now to have come true. In the wake of the Malian coup d’état, the Tuareg rebels have seized control of the northern parts of the country, and in the south part of the inhospitable Sahara desert a new Tuareg state has been declared. However, the conflict is still ongoing—and is likely to be inflamed—as the government of Mali fights to regain control and radical Islamic groups increase their involvement in the region.

The Tuareg are a desert nomadic people with their own language and culture who are closely related to the Berber people. They live in the Sahara Desert and form a distinct minority in Mali and Niger, but they also have a significant population in Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. The Tuareg have a history of rebellion, with at least five major Tuareg rebellions in the region since 1916. First against French colonial rule and after decolonization the rebellion has been directed towards the governments in Mali and Niger.

On the 17 January, the Tuareg rebellion group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) announced the start of the fifth rebellion against the government of Mali. The MNLA was now reinforced by former insurgents and heavily armed Tuareg fighters returning from the Libyan civil war. Together with their co-belligerent, the Islamic group Ansar Dine, they started to wage war against the Malian government. The Malian military were overwhelmed and unable to defend themselves against the now better equipped and more experienced Tuareg veterans. The Malian army lacked sufficient weaponry to fight back the insurgents, instead, they turned against their own president. In a coup d’état in March 2012, the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was ousted because of his handling of the crisis. Ironically, the Malian disarray caused by the coup d’état gave the MNLA and Ansar Dine the opportunity to seize control over the northern part of the country.

On 6 April, the MNLA unilaterally declared the “irrevocable” independence of Azawad from Mali. In a statement posted on the group’s website, the rebels pledged to create conditions for lasting peace and start the building of state institutions based on a “democratic constitution for an independent Azawad state.” They furthered declared to respect neighbouring countries’ borders, adhere to the UN charter and called upon the “the international community to recognize the state of Azawad without delay.” The EU and the African Union have both rejected MNLA’s declaration of independence, and the African Union has urged the international community to not recognise Azawad.

With or without international recognition, the MNLA still controls the three regional capitals of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. The region that makes up the Tuareg country of Azawad is slightly larger than Turkey, but it is sparsely populated. The region is also the poorest part of Mali and suffers from a critical shortage of food and access to health care.

Touaregs near Timbuktu, Mali. Photo: Alfred Weidinger. wikimedia commons. Concerns have been raised over MNLA’s co-belligerent, Ansar Dine, which is said to have links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ansar Dine, “Defenders of faith”, has stated that it seeks to impose Sharia law across Mali and Azawad. However it still remains unclear how much influence this group has in the newly declared Azawad, but rumours suggest that the group has claimed control of several cities. MNLA has tried to distance itself from Ansar Dine, declaring that the MNLA is “holding its position against all mafias and stands out from the organization Ansar Dine and others who stand in the way of the liberation of Azawad”.

The secession from Mali has been a longstanding dream for the Tuareg, but it has little international support. There are few allies for MNLA to rely on, and its cooperation with Islamic groups like Ansar Dine is not likely to help its cause. MNLA has tried to legitimize its movement by claiming that it consists of various ethnicities in northern Mali and that most of the Tuareg fighters returning from Libya actually fought against Gaddafi to liberate the country; this could be seen as an attempt to gain support from the National Transition Council (NTC) in Libya.

Mali has not conceded defeat against the Tuareg, but a chaotic situation in the capital Bamako is still holding the country back. While the military coup’s leaders have agreed on handing back control to civilian rule, there are reports about a counter-coup in Bamako by soldiers still loyal to the former president.[J5]  The situation in Mali has been of great concern for the West African regional organization ECOWAS, which has threatened sanctions against the putschists, but has also declared that they will deploy troops in Mali to fight the MNLA. In the end Mali needs to solve the power struggle in Bamako or else risking to leave the country even more fragmentised.

JOAKIM CARBONNIER