The Tuareg are nomadic Berbers who live in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, which they call Azawad. The Malian Tuareg claim they face discrimination because of their light skin and have been neglected by the government in far-off Bamako since independence some 52 years ago. They share memories of past atrocities committed by national armies, the failure of peace agreements to deliver security and release from poverty, and the squandering or misappropriation of funds by national and local authorities.
They also explicitly resent the government’s alleged accommodation with the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM ) – a group linked with massive, billion-dollar cocaine trafficking industry controlled by rogue elements in the political-military elites which has allegedly turned Mali into a ‘narco-state’ – and the government’s attempts to smear Tuareg as terrorist accomplices.
MNLA has always been a pariah, a status now exacerbated by the declaration of independence. At first sight, the rebels seem to hold all the cards, given their claim to a territory the size of France. But, the African Union has rejected the independence declaration, and called on ‘the international community as a whole to fully support this principled position of Africa’. Algeria has similarly denounced the rebel claim, while France warned that ‘a unilateral declaration of independence which is not recognised by African states would not have any meaning for us’.
The ECOWAS bloc is considering sending a 3,000-strong force to prevent the Tuareg rebels advancing south – something the MNLA says it has no intention of doing.
The regional and local realities on the ground, however, point to a de facto toleration of Africa’s 55th state. First, the Malian army is incapable of pushing back a well-equipped, battle-tested Azawad army. As in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, ECOWAS is unlikely to squeeze an interventionist force out of a dithering Ghana with an overblown sense of its ‘West African exceptionalism’, a Senegal recovering from a botched dynastic madness, a Côte d’Ivoire with a make-believe army of yesterday’s rag-tag army rebels, and a bumbling Nigeria enjoying daily humble pie from Boko Haram terrorists that have murdered over 1,300 people.
ECOWAS troops are unsuitable for desert warfare and for the formidable and probably impossible task of restoring state control over the north. Their presence in one of the harshest environments on earth could spark a regional conflagration in which Tuareg from other countries might join a cross-border ‘race war’. The pastoral Berbers have been lords of the Sahara for two thousand years; the US Army Special Forces say ‘it’s better to have a Tuareg with you than a GPS device’. An ECOWAS force would probably be humiliated by hardened Tuareg fighters eager to die for their homeland.
Moreover, other ECOWAS states with Tuareg populations have had difficulty managing the Tuareg question since independence. Niger, for instance, doesn’t like an independent Azawad next door, but its own Tuareg problem is a compelling reason to let the Malian sleeping dog lie.
Mali is a key African partner in America’s Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership; its military has been receiving US equipment and training in the battle against AQIM. Even as normalcy returns in Bamako, MNLA ironically remains Washington’s most credible Sahelian partner against AQIM. Hence, MNLA is loathed by an Al-Qaeda dissident group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJOA), Mali’s Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), and Nigeria’s Boko Haram partners. The potential for the combined forces of AQIM allies overrunning Azawad might cause the White House to rethink its opposition to an Azawad state.
All Azawad needs is the kind of tacit support given the de facto independent states of Somaliland, Puntland and Hargesia in northern Somalia – all implacable foes of al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa.
The MNLA could also play the ‘Taliban’ card – scare UNESCO and the West with the possibility of Ansar Dine Islamists ordering a Taliban-style public destruction of some of Timbuktu’s World Heritage earthen mosques and priceless ancient manuscripts. Access to oil, phosphate and uranium resources in the Taoudeni basin and commitment to reducing the risk of kidnap and extortion to foreign mining and aid workers in the region could win MNLA some diplomatic brownie points in the West.
Finally, MNLA could gain some regional diplomatic accommodation by assuring Algerian, Nigerien and Mauritanian authorities that Azawad would neither become a launching pad for copycat ‘independence’ declarations in these countries nor itself pursue a policy of Tuareg irredentism. Indeed, MNLA’s April 6 ‘independence’ declaration pledged to ‘recognise international borders, and abide by the UN charter’
Source: Business day