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Tuareg Rebels Capitalise on Mali's Coup

Northern rebels have taken advantage of confusion in the Malian army to make significant gains.
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A Tuareg man rides a camel in northern Mali. Photograph by Alfred Weidinger.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso:

While all eyes are on the coup d’état in Bamako, the situation in the north of Mali remains volatile. Taking advantage of the apparent confusion in the Malian army, Tuareg rebels have captured Anefis, a strategically important military base north of Gao.

This has put them into a prime position to move on Kidal, one of the main cities in the north. The city is reported to be surrounded by forces of the rebel MNLA and Ansar Dine groups, with unconfirmed reports already talking of its capture.

At the same time, a column of Tuareg forces seems to be on its way to Gao, the base for army operations in the now largely Tuareg-controlled north. Heavy clashes were reported between Tuareg rebels and allegedly government-supported tribal militias in the vicinity of the city.

But the Tuareg rebels also face a growing danger of internal division: while the secular-nationalist MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine still seem to cooperate, different ideologies and goals have become apparent.

Temporary solutions

Infighting has always been a major weakness of past Tuareg rebellions, which stretch back to the 1960s. The current uprising is the fourth major rebellion since Malian independence from France in 1960.

All ended at some point with peace agreements between the different rebel factions and the government of Mali, but promises to the Tuareg community were seldom kept. Instead, the government preferred co-opting Tuareg leaders into the system, but neglected the underlying grievances of the rebellions: marginalisation, lack of development, and desires for self-determination.

Since the last rebellion ended in 2009, new generation of internet-savvy young Tuareg has developed rapidly. They began organising themselves, decrying increased corruption and the perceived tolerance of criminal networks by the Malian government.

Then, last year, hundreds of experienced Tuareg fighters returned from the civil war in Libya, bringing with them large caches of weapons. These weapons make the current rebellion the best equipped yet, in the long history of Tuareg struggles.

Fighting started on January 17 and has so far demonstrated the overwhelming dominance of the Tuareg fighters. With the fall of Tessalit on March 14, the government lost virtually all control of the far north of the country.

My enemy’s enemy

Recent developments also threaten the government’s hold on major centres in the southern part of the Sahara region. Kidal will likely fall over the next few days or perhaps even hours. The commander of the local army units is reportedly already in negotiations with both besieging rebel factions about the terms of surrender.

Gao, the strategic base of all army operations in the north, will likely be attacked over the next few days as well. Defences here are stronger than in many other towns in the north. But nobody knows how the coup in Bamako, which has reportedly resulted in a supporting mutiny in Gao, has impacted the capacity of the army to withstand an attack by the experienced, motivated and well-equipped Tuareg fighters.

At the moment though, it is not the regular Malian military that is putting up the biggest challenge to the Tuareg rebels. Instead, the government seems to rely more and more on irregular militias. This tactic has been tried and tested during earlier Tuareg rebellions, as the mainly southern Malian military always had difficulties to defeat the Tuareg on their own terrain.

Relying on rifts between Tuareg and Songhai communities, the government has repeatedly sponsored the creation of Songhai militias to contain Tuareg rebellions. This seems to have happened again, as reports surfaced late last year that money and weapons were handed out to Songhai recruits.

In the past, the involvement of tribal militias has always resulted in some of the worst atrocities and fiercest fighting. This trend seems to continue and recent clashes between the Ganda Iso militia and Tuareg rebels resulted in at least ten deaths.

But the greatest threat to the Tuareg insurrection may not come from its enemies. While the MNLA so far seems to handle tribal rifts between different Tuareg groups very well, a conflict of interest with Ansar Dine, a movement created by veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, becomes apparent.

The MNLA is a secular movement, with its main goal the independence of the area they call the “Azawad” (the three northernmost regions of Mali: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal). In contrast, Ansar Dine is based around a religious ideology. Its leader has said that he wants to introduce Sharia law to the north of Mali, but that he is not interested in full independence.

This conflict of interests between the MNLA and Ansar Dine has the potential to turn them against each other. Already, they seem to be in fierce competition in Kidal, with both groups claiming the capture of the city.

What next?

If this, so far only rhetorical, competition turns violent, it will contribute to an increasingly bleak outlook for Mali. The chaos within the Malian army, exacerbated by the coup, and its increased reliance on irregular militias to do the fighting has already turned the conflict more violent, with dreadful consequences for the civilian population.

The main motivation for the coup, according to its leaders, was the inability of the former government to deal with the Tuareg uprising. That makes it likely that the junta will now escalate the conflict at all costs. 200,000 people have already been displaced and many more will follow if the current trajectory of events in Mali continues. On top of this, Mali currently faces one of the largest food shortfalls in years.

One ray of hope comes from the fact that the MNLA has shown willingness to negotiate. But one of its conditions is a legitimate government with the support of the political class with which to negotiate. It seems therefore that the solution of the military crisis is intrinsically linked to the solution of the political crisis in Bamako. Hopefully, this will be recognised and the efforts necessarily will be made to find a comprehensive solution.

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