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Northern Mali: the Politics of Ethnicity and Locality

Ethnic politics continue to be significant in events in northern Mali, with militant groups appealing to ethnic fears to gain support.
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A Malian man near Gao in northern Mali. Photograph by Emilia Tjernstram.

As Mali and the international community continue to waver between plans for an intervention and pushes for a negotiated political solution between the south and its militant-controlled north, increasing attention has been paid to the diverse actors who may make up an intervention force.

Even as questions abound about a possible Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) intervention force in Mali, Mali’s army continues its halting movement towards reorganisation alongside a group of citizen and sectarian militias with past involvement in northern Mali. These militias, which include new iterations of the Ganda Koy (“Masters of the Land”) and the Ganda Iso (“Sons of the Land”), bring to the fore the possibility of ethnic violence and retribution in any operation to retake northern Mali. Already, observers describe the language employed by some militia members as “quasi-genocidal” toward ‘light-skinned’ populations like Tuareg and Arabs, recalling the bloody violence perpetrated by similar militias during rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Northern Mali is an ethnically diverse, if sparsely populated, area. Accounting for approximately 10% of Mali's population in an area roughly the size of France, the region encompasses traditionally nomadic and semi-nomadic Tuareg and Arabs, as well as sedentary Songhai, Peul, Bella, and others. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which started Mali’s fourth rebellion since independence in January, vigorously claims to represent all the various populations of the region. However, the group itself is largely Tuareg and evolved from decades of shifts in Tuareg society, the growth since the 1990s of new kinds of Tuareg nationalism, and increasingly untenable attempts by the government of deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré to manage the north by “remote control”.

Appearing local

Yet it is not just the militias aiming to retake the north that have their eye on Mali’s ethnic fault lines. On November 24, the jihadist forum Ansar al-Mujahideen published a statement in Arabic by the ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin in Gao’ following the outbreak of fighting in Gao between the MNLA and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This fighting, which broke out on November 16 near Ansongo and Ménaka, appears to have ended in defeat for the MNLA in the movement's last major stronghold. While both sides and third parties have given dramatically different tolls from the fighting, witnesses and town notables have indicated that MUJAO forces executed some of those involved in defending the town, including the president of the local cercle, Alwabégat Ag Salakatou.

In the forum statement, the ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin’ – indicating the leadership council for MUJAO, whom Gao inhabitants generally refer to simply as "the mujahidin" – justified their combat against the MNLA, saying in an English translation posted several days later by the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum: “we [are] in our war with the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) this secular movement that doesn’t want the implementation of the Islamic Sharia…the mujahidin fought it because they became like the Tawagit [tyrants]”. It continued: “we call them to resort to the Sharia [law] of Allah but they refuse” and claimed the MNLA was oppressing Muslims “by taking their money unjustly and killing them and their dividing of the Muslims”.

In addition to the theft of property and other alleged crimes, however, the statement adds that for the MNLA: “the black has no right and the white has right, when the messenger of Allah peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said: ‘O’ people, your Lord is one, and your father (Adam) is one, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety’.”

In an interview just a week later with the Mauritanian newspaper al-Akhbar, Ahmed Ould a member of MUJWA’s leadership council and the head of its “Osama bin Laden” katiba used nearly the same language and the same religious reference when discussing the MNLA. The U.S. State Department today labelled Ould Amir, known alternately as Ahmed el-Tilemsi or Ahmed al-Telmasi, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

While racial equality in Islam is a common theme in discourse from across the spectrum of Muslim belief, the language of "white" and "black" has specific resonance in Mali and the broader Sahel, where Tuareg and Arabs are often referred to as "white". And MUJAO and its allies have previously proven adept at playing to and operating within local racial and ethnic politics.

In a widely-circulated video taken just after the fall of Timbuktu in April, Omar Ould Hamaha – who has alternately been identified as a leader within AQIM, Ansar Dine (led by long-time Tuareg powerbroker and past rebel Iyad Ag Ghali), and MUJAO – told an audience gathered around a truck that, "our combat, it is in the name of Islam, it is not Arab or Tuareg, or black or white”. In Gao and Timbuktu, MUJAO and AQIM have made a determined effort to recruit locally from different ethnic groups and tribes. And a slickly-produced pro-MUJAO video released in June, just a day after fighting broke out in Gao between MUJAO and the MNLA, made a direct appeal to ethnic Songhai symbols.

On the one hand, these efforts allow AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine to portray themselves at least in part as groups with local ties or roots, complicating efforts to define these armed groups as either ‘Malian’ or ‘foreign’. But this kind of language also highlights the fact that the MNLA, despite its claims to the contrary, remains a largely Tuareg movement. This is particularly important in Gao where many Songhai viewed the MNLA as an effort by Tuareg to impose their will on the city, and particularly over Songhai populations.

Beyond ethnicity?

This does not mean that ethnicity is completely determinative for residents of northern Mali, nor that ethnic tension is the primary driver of support for, or opposition to, various armed groups. Many Gao residents had and have very specific grievances against the MNLA, stemming from the group's goal of an independent state, as well as through accusations of criminality, abuses, and the imposition of taxes and other fees in Gao and elsewhere (though the coalition of Islamist groups occupying the north are also guilty of horrible crimes and abuses).

Indeed, the examples above show MUJAO's desire to seek support against the MNLA by making use of a variety of salient themes, including both appeals to ethnic fears and references to religious values and other more temporal concerns. Additionally, in a recent video, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel explicitly portrayed his group as protecting Mali from a supposedly foreign-driven plot to divide the country, a clear reference to the MNLA’s rebellion that had less to do with ethnic appeals than nationalism. But the examples offered above illustrate that ethnic politics remain an important factor in northern Mali, one that militant groups take into account and attempt to exploit in their quest to solidify their position in the region. Any intervention or negotiated solution must take this into account.

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I wonder what the author thinks the resolution to this crisis will be. Will ECOWAS eventually intervene or will it have to be through the militias that you speak of regaining the north? Also what does this mean for the future of the nation as a whole? I am sure that this has revealed and stressed ethnic faultlines that existed pre-conflict. Can Mali rebuild national unity and what will a new Mali look like?

For a while now my mind has been going to and fro on an issue that is very dear to my heart and I see it to be even more exigent to anyone who has the plight of Azawad at heart.My thought is taken into the relationship between the two dominant groups in northern Mali: Songhai and the Tuareg. In the recent past, persons who fear the colossal force that will emerge if Azawadians come together to form a common front have through all machiavellian means sown seed of discord among Azawadians. Making good the strategy “divide and rule.” This devilish tactics has entrenched so much so that it has created a thriving mistrust between these groups. Today the Songhai is skeptical towards the Tuareg and the Tuareg in similitude where as Bamako is ripping profitably from this rift. But brothers I have some questions boggling my mind and I will lay them bare.Don’t we trade together in Marché Washington and other market palaces dotted around the sahel? Don’t we live together in Tonka,  Bourem, Tessalit and in other  townships within Azawad? Don’t we habit the same Sahara? Don’t we inter marry and have almost the same culture? Don’t our children sit in the same class rooms in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu? Don’t we sit under the trees and in front of the mosque of the Great Askia  as well as the Sankoré Mosque to tell stories of the past, present and what the future hold for us? Don’t we move our bodies to the same rhythm be it from Ali Farka, Tinare or Haira Arby? Are we all not at the mercy of the lackadaisical attitude of Bamako towards the development of the north?If the answer to all these is yes then I can say authoritatively without any doubt of equivocation that what ripe us apart is but not existing in the face of the gargantuan similarities we share in.In a trying moment like now the least we should be concern about is animosity between the Songhai and the Tuareg. This is a time we should do away with all our differences and form a formidable front to squash out all these madness unleashed on us by the Islamists in Azawad. We, more than any other persons or groups, can liberate first Azawad and then develop our region.Our relationship goes beyond just being in one geographical location but can be traced back into history. Side by side, we lived in the past together and as one we should be today.Let us come together and put our unflinching weight behind a legitimate group that is as concern as we are about our homeland – Azawad. For what MNLA needs today is our support not vitriolic reprimand. The neglect Azawad was subjected to for the past 52 years and still counting is what MNLA wants tell the world.I am a Songhai boy and I am for MNLA body and soul. What about you?  

I am pretty sure the comment above was written by an MNLA member, not a Songhai. Tuaregs are minority in the northern Mali and they cannot govern those regions. The MNLA undestood that fact and now is trying to change the language. Now they say to be fighting for all ethnic groups in the North but people who believe them will be desapointed as soon as MNLA succeeds. An MNLA rule in those regions will be worse than a Malian governement. I personnally think there is no reason to take guns today in Mali because each region is independent from Bamako and they can do whatever they want but in the same republic of course. This latest uprising is just for a group of people who want to take control over those regions, not for people living there.Tuaregs always believe in power and I think only power will resolve the current problem. They killed many innocent people and we cannot just forgot and move on.

Anybody who really thinks this is about Tuaregs and other Malian ethnic groups is really misreading the facts of history.   What is going on in Mali has more to do with the West creating new fault lines and conflicts in order to justify putting troops on the ground and imposing their neo-colonial policies in the region.   The fact is that this conflict is a splill over of the conflict in Libya where the United States openly supported, armed and trained rebels affiliated with Al-Qaeda.   And this was all due to the French wanting to reimpose their control over their former colonial territory in North Africa.   But before this can make sense, lets go over the history.The region now made up of Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger was part of the colonial entity called French West Africa.   It was created after hundreds of years of the French playing divide and conquer with various tribes and chiefs in the region, at first in order to secure slaves and other trade goods.  Eventually through direct force of arms and by legal mandate at the Berlin Conference France became the defacto rulers owners of this region.   During this time they created the boundaries of the nations we know today.   And it is because of this that the Tuareg people are spread between various nations with none to call their own.    The Sahara was always the domain of nomadic Africans long before the arrival of any Arabs or Europeans.    But my belief is that the reason they never got a homeland of their own is because the Tuareg were one of the fiercest foes of the French colonial army in Africa.   They fought a series of campaigns against French Forces in the early 1900s in resistance to French Colonial rule.    Only later, after independence did the Tuareg, faced with pressure from the expanding deserts and economic hardship due to the end of the old trading system that once made them wealthy, start to have rebellions against the modern nations formed after independence from France.  But while the French are no longer the overt colonial rulers their influence is strong in the region and they still want to maintain power and control over the wealth and resources.   The war in Libya was part of this and having an expanding conflict in Mali only allows them and the West to continue to pursue their goals using "ethnic strife" or in other words divide and conquer tactics, to continue to keep the Africans living at a very basic level and to kill and destroy more people.   

Yes and thank for the history... not likely to be seen in western media.It is a resource war, like so many over there now. Canada has started to mine the metals, and that is basically THEFT until the ownership is settled - natural resources belongs to "the people" before the resources are extracted. First step was to destroy Mali cotton farming and exports with even bigger subsidies to the USA cotton growers. Cotton was Mali's biggest cash cow until the price dropped due to USA messing up the market. No cotton means desperately searching for another cash cow - metals, gold, uranium,Reform the banks to suit Canada. Also "decentralised the education system" whatever than means, but it is a common "loan condition" tactic of the WB and IMF.I hate my western governments with the same passion as the MNLA does... I just won't use violence and I am an atheist.