Separatism in Northern Mali: Watch This Space

Washington-- Mali is currently experiencing a disastrous civil war in which a group of rebel Tuareg fighters have declared a separate state in the north and are threatening to form a coalition with local Islamists. It may be tempting to consider the crisis ― previously hailed by some observers as an example of an African shift towards democracy ― as collateral damage of the Arab Spring. Many elements, however, predate the current escalation, and are not confined to the borders of Mali. The situation is also likely to exacerbate migration from Africa to Europe. The United States and Europe are ignoring the conflict at their own peril, and must be more engaged to avoid the prospect of destructive and contagious chaos.

With the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, foreign Tuareg mercenaries from northern Mali, Niger, and Algeria returned to their homelands. Those returning to northern Mali bolstered a long-standing Tuareg insurgency that the Mali military had contained but not defeated. The influx of well-armed fighters reversed the gains of the military and forced it out of the contested region. This result, and the alleged failure of the leadership in Mali’s capital Bamako to provide sufficient resources to the armed forces, caused members of the military to depose the elected government on March 12. Amidst the chaos, the Tuareg insurgents declared Mali’s northern provinces an independent state, Azawad, on April 6.

While initially insisting that its fight was national and secular, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the main insurgent faction, surprised many observers by seeking a common understanding with the radical Islamist movement Ansar al-Din for the creation of an Islamic Republic of Azawad. While Azawad’s declaration of independence was not greeted by international recognition, the involvement of a group that displays an ideological affinity with Al Qaeda is a stark departure from the MNLA’s earlier sophistication in dealing with the media and public opinion, particularly given that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), a recognized Al Qaeda franchisee, continues to conduct its blatantly criminal activity in the region. It appears that MNLA’s outreach towards Ansar al-Din was motivated by its desire to widen the independence constituency, as many in northern Mali continue to insist on the territorial integrity of the nation.

The MLNA may have believed that it could accommodate some goals of Ansar al-Din while excluding AQIP elements. Both in its putative agreement with Ansar al-Din and in previous council declarations of elders in the region, the MLNA had successfully included clauses calling on the expulsion of extremist elements. And while Ansar al-Din and AQIP both derive their ideologies from intransigent radicalism, their organizational characteristics are very different: the former is driven by a literal and reductionist understanding of Islamic jurisprudence, the latter is motivated by the creation of an expansionist Islamic polity.

But with Ansar al-Din calling for a strict implementation of its version of shari’ah and the expulsion of non-Muslim NGOs, this is a losing proposition. And far from controlling AQIP elements, MLNA now confronts a new claimant to an Al Qaeda franchise in the declared Azawad capital of Gao, which boasts of a reach from Chad to Mauritania. Although the MNLA claims to be following the lead of the liberation movements that resulted in independence for Eritrea and South Sudan, it has in fact helped nudge northern Mali closer to a Somalia scenario, with unrecognized statehood and the entrenchment of Al Qaeda-linked groups.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Sudan, the Sahel region emerged from colonialism segmented into nation-states with little attention paid to history or culture. While the decades since independence have created  a nascent nationalism in many places, the risk of fragmentation persists, with religious radicalism proving a further complication. In its development efforts, Mali may have ignored its vast and sparsely inhabited north. The price of this oversight is a challenge to the regional socio-political order. A promise of redress, including the possibility of independence for Azawad ― conditional on a bilateral negotiated settlement ― may be needed to extricate the Tuareg movement from the perils of radicalism. Naturally, these developments have the greatest implications for West Africa. But in an interconnected world where security, migration, radicalism, and terrorism are global issues, the crisis in Mali is also a transatlantic responsibility.


Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.

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