Mali: War threatened as Touareg declares independence

April 14, 2012

The new, interim president of Mali is holding out the possibility of “all out war” against the rebellion of the oppressed, Touareg nationality that has swept the north of the western African country.

Dioncounda Traore took over the presidency on April 12 in a deal with the military officers who overthrew the elected president on March 21. He immediately called on the rebels to "return to the fold and to strengthen this nation instead of dividing it".

BBC reported on April 12 that Traore said if they did not yield, "we will not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war".

Traore has been Mali's National Assembly president since 2007 and also president of the political party of the overthrown president.

The March 21 coup was prompted by the successes of Touareg forces fighting for a homeland they call Azawad. They have defeated the Mali military and now control the vast, northern half of Mali.

About 5 million people live in the territory, which overlaps with the southern Sahara Desert.

Mali became independent from France in 1960, but its borders are the legacy of colonial France.

The Touareg, or, as they prefer, Kel Tamasheq (speakers of the Tamasheq language) are the largest component of the multinational population in Mali's north. Their ancestral homeland overlaps the borders of four other countries Niger, Algeria, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, all of whose governments are hostile to Touareg national aspirations.

The military blamed Mali’s elected government for its defeat, saying it did not provide enough weaponry and other support.

The coup was criticised by the imperialist countries with a military presence in Mali and the region, including France, the United States and Canada.

The 13-country Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) also condemned it. It said it is preparing a military force to wrest control of the Azawad territory from the movement lead by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA).

Mali’s military leaders initially called for assistance from the big powers to crush the Touareg. They also welcomed the ECOWAS plan to militarily intervene.

They have since declared they don’t want intervention, but it’s not clear if that message is a response to domestic criticism and can be comfortably ignored by foreign governments.

The deal that places Traore in office grants amnesty to the coup makers and leaves open their return to leading the country. The BBC said Traore is supposed to organise a national election within 40 days, but conditions make the holding of an election unlikely.

Forces led by the recently-founded MNLA say their decades-long struggle for cultural rights and political autonomy has been continually frustrated and met with violence by the Mali government and military.

They declared Azawad an independent state on April 6, saying all other options to address Touareg concerns have been exhausted.

But it seems that not much preparation went into the announcement, leaving it vulnerable. There is little international support for the declaration and total hostility from the neighbouring, neocolonial governments and the big imperialist nations including the United States, France and Canada.

There is no evidence of support or cooperation by the Polisario Front, which is struggling for independence for nearby Western Sahara, with the MNLA or its predecessors.

Morocco is waging a war against the people of Western Sahara, a pastoral people with historic ties to the Touareg. The Polisario Front strives for good relations with the five countries that host a Kel Tamasheq population, though there have been recent tensions with Mali.

The MNLA is faced with overwhelming difficulties in the territory it now leads. Military forces with Islamic fundamentalist allegiances have moved into the political vacuum in the north and say they oppose an independent or autonomous Azawad.

The region is vulnerable to drought and other socio/environmental conditions that leave the population often dependent on foreign aid for survival.

And it is not clear how much support the Touareg enjoy in the south of Mali. Many left and nationalist voices in Mali condemn the “secession” movement in the north.

They claim Mali is a beacon of democracy in the region and the MNLA is allied with Islamic fundamentalist forces. They have repeated unproven accusations that MNLA fighters executed about 80 unarmed Mali soldiers in January after a battle at the town of Aguelhok.

Canadian firms have significant oil and gold extraction investments in Mali. Canada strongly opposes an independent Azawad.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says France will not “lead” a military intervention in Mali because, as the former colonial power, it would look bad. Sarkozy’s main rival in the current presidential election in France, Francois Hollande, told Liberation on April 13 that “for now” Africans should be left to sort out Mali.

Hollande said France should intervene only if asked by “the United Nations” (read, Security Council). He warned that with an ongoing threat of “secession” in the north, political circumstances in Mali can change quickly.

Among the international voices in support of the Touareg cause is Firoze Manji, editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, a pan-African social justice website.

Manji is former Africa director of Amnesty International and co-editor of African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. On Democracy Now on April 9, he said the Touareg rebellion is “part of a general phenomenon that is happening across the continent, which is driven by the fact that over the last 30 years our people have lost all the gains of independence”.

Manji said: “The rise of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, what people refer to as the Touareg, is part of that same process of feeling a loss of self-determination.”

As to the claims of cooperation between right-wing Islamists and the MNLA, Manji says recent WikiLeaks revelations point to collusion between the Mali government and Al Quaeda in the Middle East to undermine the efforts towards an independent Azawad.

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