Crisis in Mali: The Sahel Falls Apart
The young officers who seized power in Bamakoon 22 March don’t have words strong enough to condemn their former army chief and president, Amadou Toumani Touré, so long known as a “soldier for democracy”: “Incompetent,” they railed. “Incapable of fighting the rebellion and the terrorist groups in the north.” Back in March 1991 Touré had taken part in a military coup against General Moussa Traoré and headed the Transitional Committee for the Welfare of the People. After a national conference and elections, he restored the civilians to power. He had been president since2002, and was due to end his second term this 20 April with the election of his successor.
The National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE) has dissolved institutions and suspended the electoral process, saying that it did not wish to end democracy but just “restore national unity and territorial integrity.” But this new military regime, which has been unanimously condemned, may not be able to turn the situation in the north, close to Algeria and Niger, to its advantage.
Tourism was the only economic activity in the most deserted areas of the Sahara-Sahel region. Now it has stopped. There are no visitors to the Taoudeni basin on the Algerian-Malian border, the Aïr of Niger and Mauritania’s Adrar mountains. The recent return of thousands of mostly Tuareg fighters from Libya, the proliferation of weapons and a huge rise in cocaine and cigarette smuggling have all helped to spread the war from southern Algeria, where it started, to northern Mali, northern Niger and parts of Mauritania.
“I would never have thought that a handful of madmen, inspired by the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, could turn the Sahara-Sahel into the Wild West, terrify local people and reduce them to misery,” said Maurice Freund, who runs the travel company Point-Afrique. In Gao, northern Mali, he was dismayed to see “15-year-old kids carrying Kalashnikovs, laying down the law.” Point-Afrique withdrew from the region after four French tourists were killed in Mauritania in 2007, and seven employees of the French nuclear company Areva were taken hostage in northern Niger in 2010.
The recent Tuareg revolt began on17 January with a bloody attack on Menaka in northern Mali, followed by several successful raids on Malian army garrisons, including the base at Tessalit, which they took over on 11 March. The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), formed in 2011, has about 1,000 fighters, including 400ex-Libyan army soldiers. Since 2012 it has been fighting in “partnership” with Ancar Dine (Defenders of Islam) linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM), which today claims to control most of northeastern Mali.
The MNLA is reviving earlier Tuareg rebellions, of 1963, 1990 and 2006, and demanding independence for Mali’s three northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, an area of 800,000 sq km -- one and a half times the size of France. It represents 65% of Mali’s territory, but only 10% of its population of 14 million.
“The Tuaregs told the French [the colonial power] back in 1957 that they did not want to be integrated into the republic of Mali,” said Mahmoud Ag Aghaly, head of the MNLA’s political wing. “We have been talking to the government and signing agreements for 30 years, but to no effect.” The separatists say northern Mali has been abandoned by the government, something President Touré himself acknowledged: “[In northern Mali] there are no roads, health centres, schools, wells or basic infrastructure. There is nothing. A young man from this region has no chance to get married and succeed in life, unless they steal a car and join the smugglers.”
A thousand Malian soldiers, backed up by500 Tuareg and Arab fighters who had joined the army’s ranks, had been sent as reinforcements to Gao, Kidal and Menaka. But a lack of motivation(there has been a high level of desertion, even among senior officers), and poor equipment meant the rebels suffered a series of military setbacks. Even in peacetime, Bamako’s small army is unable to control the 900km border with Mauritania or the 1,200km border with Algeria.
Even though this war threatened to spoil the end of his final term and jeopardise the presidential election due on20 April, Touré was philosophical: “The problem of the north has been with us for 50 years. Our elders have dealt with it, we are dealing with it, and our young will have to deal with it. This problem is not going to disappear tomorrow.” He said the Sahara-Sahel region is difficult to control because fighters, smugglers and traders travel freely across an area the size of Europe, ignoring borders.
The Joint Operational Military Committee setup in Tamanrasset, Algeria, in 2010 suffers from a lack of consensus between the countries bordering on the Sahara. Mauritania, in close contact with the French Special Operations Command, advocates a purely security-based approach, while Mali argues for long-term development, which it believes is the only thing that will stop people being recruited into Tuareg rebel movements or the katiba(fighting units) of AQIM.
From Mali’s point of view, Algeria is both the cause and the cure for terrorist-linked unrest. The Salafist Group for Calland Combat (GSPC), as it was known until it was renamed AQIM in 2007, grew out of Algeria’s GIA (Armed Islamic Group), and only Algeria’s security and intelligence services could control it. Algeria’s $8bn defence budget (30 times greater than Mali’s) would also help. Touré saw northern Mali, where AQIM hostage-takers are believed to be hiding, as an extension of Algeria: “When I talk about northern Mali, it’s as if I’m talking about Algeria,” he said. “I see Gao, Thesalit and Kidal as the border districts of your country. The history of [Algeria] is linked to this region. Mali supported the Algerian revolution. Members of the National Liberation Army were given shelter in Gao and Timbuktu.”
Though the fighting in northern Mali threatens the whole region, the tendency to confuse separatism with terrorism or criminality clouds the issue. The killing last October of Muammar Gaddafi,who saw himself as a king of the Sahara-Sahel, removed one of AQIM’s enemies, and allowed it to rebuild its stock of weapons. Niger’s president, MahamadouIssoufou, sees the Tuareg uprising as “collateral damage from the Libyan crisis.” The MNLA is careful to distance itself from the group: “AQIM’s actions pollute our territory, and the Bamako authorities have allowed them to continue. We say to the international community, give us independence, and that will be the end of AQIM in Mali.”
The proposal has some support in France, traditional political godfather to the region. It remains a target of AQIM for the same reasons now as two years ago, when French tourists were killed in Mauritania: Its military presence in Afghanistan, pro-Israeli policies, its stranglehold over Nigerian uranium, the raids by its commandos to free hostages in Niger and Mali, the ban on wearing the niqab in public in France.
French foreign minister Alain Juppe’s paternalistic advice to Mali is to negotiate with all parties including the MNLA, apply old agreements and try to develop the north. This advice is unwelcome, coming from a country that helped Libya to mount its own revolution and now urges regional states to “organise themselves better.” France’s prompt condemnation of the military regime that took over on 22 March and suspension of cooperation may also be misunderstood.
The United States, which sees the Sahel as a front in its war on terror, is deploying its spies and special forces. It would like to get rid of AQIM’s leaders, but Algeria has banned US CIA drones from its airspace, and the Sahara countries are suspicious, fearing that an obvious US presence would worsen unrest, as it did in Afghanistan.
The region has become a powder keg. Everyone fears the contagion will spread, bringing a Balkanisation of the Sahel. Hundreds of members of the Islamist sect Boko Haram have taken refuge in Niger and Chad.
Meanwhile 200,000 refugees have fled the fighting in the north of Mali for Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The World Food Programme estimates that 5-6 million people in the Sahel are in need of food aid because of the current drought and famine.
(Translated by Stephanie Irvine)
Philippe Leymarie is a journalist. Copyright © 2012 Le Monde diplomatique --distributed by Agence Global