Backgrounder: Situation in Mali

The situation in Mali has now become a relatively large issue in the news, especially so with the proclamation of an independent Islamic state called the Islamic Republic of Azawad. What has been going on in Mali can look pretty confusing, especially since earlier news focused mainly on the issue of the Touraeg rebellion. So, here’s a short backgrounder on what’s been going on:

From the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia:

“In the early 1990s, Touareg and Arab nomads inhabiting the sparsely populated northern part of Mali formed MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l’Azaouad, Azawad People’s Movement) with the aim to achieve autonomy for their home region called Azawad. After a peace agreement in 1991, MPA stopped fighting the government, whilst a break-away faction called FIAA (Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azaouad: Islamic Arab Front of Azawad) did not support the accord and continued the struggle in 1994. However, the following year FIAA accepted to reintegrate itself into the peace process and declared a permanent cease-fire that led to a cessation of hostilities. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a growing dissatisfaction among the former Touareg fighters who had been integrated into the army. Subsequently, in 2007 a new Touareg rebel group emerged and briefly fought the government.”

In short, numerous rebel groups and breakaway factions from within the Touareg people have been fighting the government of Mali since the early 1990s. Like in many conflicts in these parts rebel groups come and go and often integrate into the national army as consequences of not very far-reaching peace agreements (i.e. they don’t very often attempt to resolve the main issue in the conflict.

The main issue is (from the UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia):

“The territorial conflict, fought between a number of Touareg and Arab rebel groups and the Malian government, concerns the status of the Azawad region in northern Mali. With some seeking independence and others fighting for autonomy, the rebels have at times been very successful in fighting the government on their own home turf. Due to the government’s inability to respond effectively to the rebels’ guerrilla warfare, the latter have managed to pursue their on and off armed struggle during the 1990s and the 2000s.[…] The Azawad is an area comprising parts of northern Mali, northern Niger, and part of southern Algeria. In Mali the territory includes portions of the Kidal Region”

So, the conflict stands over the status of this mainly Touareg-inhabited area called Azawad, which spans several countries. Armed conflicts have also taken place in Niger between Touaregs and that government over this territory.

Resentment towards the government from the Touareg side stems from a north-south divide which is prevalent in many countries that were formerly French colonies in the area. The Touaregs feel –with some justice- neglected by the government:

“The Touaregs are a pastoral, nomadic people, scattered among a number of West- and North African states. In Mali, they comprise less than ten percent of the total population, but make up much of the population in the sparsely populated northern regions of the country, deep in the Sahara desert. This area is called Azawad by the Touaregs, a term used in the names of all rebel groups in the armed conflict in the 1990s. Traditionally, the North in general, and the Touaregs in particular, have been both economically and politically neglected. This neglect has been compounded by severe drought and a brutal, southern, military presence. Dissent has been expressed numerous times since independence, but until the 1990s, the government managed to repress it.

In the mid-1970’s and onwards, large numbers of young Touaregs from both Mali and Niger emigrated to Libya and Algeria due to severe droughts. The ones who ended up in Libya received military training, as General Qadhafi incorporated some into his regular military forces and inducted others into a Libyan-sponsored “Islamic Legion”. The latter was subsequently dispatched to Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan, where numerous Touaregs acquired considerable combat training. Along with the military training received, the emigrants in Libya were politically active and formed the Mouvement Touareg de Libération de l’Adrar et de l’Azawad, an organisation dedicated to the liberation of the northern areas of Mali and Niger. In 1988, encouraged by Libya, the Malian section of the movement split from the Nigerien one, and formed MPLA (Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azaouad: Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) under the leadership of Iyad ag Ghali. In the late 1980s, most Malian Touaregs were expelled from Algeria and Libya, due to deteriorating economic conditions in the host countries. Newly received military capabilities combined with protracted historic grievances and a lack of alternatives, subsequently led the Touaregs in MPLA to initiate an armed struggle against the Malian government in June 1990.”

Nowadays none of the rebel groups mentioned above are big players or players at all in the conflict. The latest fighting has stood instead between the government of Mali and the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith); an Islamist outfit. Throughout the first months of this year these two groups took control of some of the major towns in northern Mali, such as Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

The intensification of the conflict in 2012 and the subsequent successes by these two rebel outfits was likely brought on by two different factors: (1) the ousting of Khaddafi in Libya and (2) the coup in Mali. As was mentioned earlier in this post many Touaregs took part in Khaddafi’s armies and when he fell many  streamed back into northern Mali and created the MNLA (the MNLA is a fusion of two previous Touareg movements: the NAM and the MTNM). Also, the ousting of Khaddafi appears to have led to an influx of weapons to Islamist outfits in the region, such as the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine. The coup in Mali then opened up the field for a wide offensive in the north, as chaos reigned in the capital in the south.

After the offensive many were expecting the advent of infighting between Ansar Dine and the MNLA, as Ansar Dine is explicitly Islamist whilst the MNLA has a more nationalist inclination and has never spoken out in favor of sharia law. This didn’t happen, and instead these two groups formed a pact and proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Azawad.

This of course caught the eye of western powers and the western media, as it is a clear expansion of Islamist power in the region. AQIM already has an established presence in Mauretania and Algeria and an Islamist presence in northern Mali may serve to bind together a vast expanse of territory under the control of these organizations.

The reasoning of the MNLA in this regard is unclear. Joining up with an Al-Qaeda affiliated outfit is probably not the most strategic of choices, as I am sure we will soon see.

//Ralph Sundberg