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The Tuareg Uprising in Northern Mali

The most experienced, equipped and organised Tuareg rebellion since 1990 has thrown Mali into crisis.
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Northern Mali. Photograph by Emilia Tjernström.

Last week, an alliance of Tuareg, Arab and Songhoi fighters from the north of Mali attacked the towns of Lere and Niafounké, west of Timbuktu. It is the furthest that a northern rebel alliance has penetrated into the heartlands of southern and western Mali since the great Tuareg rebellion of 1990. The new rebel movement, which calls itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), launched their uprising against the central powers in Bamako on January 17 with an assault on the town of Menaka in the far east of the country. In a series of lightning strikes they then went north to take Tessalit and Aguel’hoc, where they encountered stiff resistance from the Malian army, before heading west to Niafounké. The attacks have thrown Mali into its worst crisis for two decades.

Mali in crisis

With no independent journalists in the field, hard facts and precise casualty figures are hard to come by, but it is clear that total fatalities on both sides are well into the hundreds. Thousands of civilians have fled over the borders in Mauritania and Algeria where they are facing dire shortages of food, water and medicine. The situation is fast developing into a major humanitarian crisis.

The MNLA have apparently stretched a poorly equipped Malian army to breaking point. A group of families based in the garrison town of Kati near Bamako marched on the presidential palace last Thursday demanding that the Malian army give its soldiers enough equipment, ammunition and food to defend the country. Several reports from soldiers fighting at the front have alluded to near starvation conditions and stories of raw recruits being left stranded out in the desert waiting for reinforcements that never come. The Kati protests evolved into full-blown street riots in Bamako last Thursday evening, with mainly younger protestors facing a reluctant and poorly manned police force.

Last Thursday, without explanation, the government announced that long serving Defence Minister Natié Pléa had been moved sideways to the Ministry of Internal Security, and the job had been given to General Sadio Gassama, former Minister of Internal Security. In other words it was a straight swap. President Adama Toumani Touré, who hasn’t spoken publicly since last Wednesday when he appeared on national TV to condemn the increasingly violent attacks against Tuareg and Arab civilians in Bamako and other parts of the south, obviously feels the need for a strongman like Gassama, who also knows the north very well. There are also plenty of rumours circulating that the President might use the current conflict as an excuse to annul presidential elections due in April, and thus extend his mandate beyond the period allowed by Mali’s constitution.

Growing threats

Throughout October and November 2011, news started to emerge that Tuareg soldiers returning from the war in Libya were amassing in remote bases near the town of Kidal, in the far northeast of Mali. These renegades from Gaddafi’s army had come back to Mali with large amounts of weaponry, including surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, pilfered from Libyan arsenals. In Mali, they joined forces with former rebels who had fought alongside the late Tuareg freedom fighter, smuggler and Mali’s public enemy No. 1, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, as well as a number of other Tuareg officers and soldiers who were deserting from the Malian army, taking vehicles and arms with them.

A more experienced and better equipped fighting force than any other in the long history of the Tuareg rebellion came into being and then fused with the National Movement for Azawad (MNA), a new political movement set up in November 2010 by a group of radical young Tuareg students and graduates, well-versed in the arts of communication and social networking, to form the MNLA. This is the first time a Tuareg rebel movement in Mali has had strengths both on and off the field of battle.

Mythical links

Mali has been making strenuous efforts to discredit the MNLA by linking them to terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who have been using the northeast of Mali as their base and safe haven for the last five years. AQIM are currently holding nine foreigners hostage somewhere in the vast northern deserts of Mali. But their link with MNLA is fictitious and seems based largely on a new religiously inspired Tuareg rebel movement called Ansar Eddine, which was set up in November by Iyad Ag Ghali who, until recently, was the undisputed leader of Tuareg rebel movement.

However, Ag Ghali’s project for an Islamic state in the desert has been roundly rejected by the current MNLA leadership, and he has found himself watching events from the sidelines for the first time since the late 1970s. MNLA’s avowed intention is to chase AQIM from the north of Mali once and for good, although they claim their first priority is to defeat the Malian army and secure the borders of their independent state of Azawad.

Read Andy Morgan's detailed analysis of the causes and context of the current uprising.

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