Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Sahel: Is There a Solution to the Tuareg Insurgency in Mali?

Source: ISS

The Sahel: Is There a Solution to the Tuareg Insurgency in Mali?

David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

The Tuareg-led rebellion in Mali continues to rage on. There are daily reports of defeat and successes on both sides - the side of the rebels and of the Malian army. At the same time, many questions are asked as to how some 600 rebel soldiers could pose such a serious threat to a national army? And what kind of solution is acceptable to preserve both the territorial integrity of Mali and its democracy?

Beyond the fact that the demise of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the subsequent proliferation of arms in the region have fuelled the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) insurgency in Mali, as well as the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it is essential to locate the on going rebellion within the complex security web of the Sahel. Past and current insurgencies of the Tuaregs in Mali emanate from a number of historical and current circumstances, some of which date back to the pre-colonial era. Since independence in the early 1960s, there have been a number of phases in the evolution of the Tuareg question: the period of chronic political instability; the post-Cold War unfulfilled aspirations to socio-economic and political transformation; and finally, the US-led war on terrorism in the Sahel region. Each of these elements has affected the Tuareg problem in one way or another, particularly in Mali and Niger.

Yet the main factor at play currently seems to be the perpetual resistance by some communities (mostly radical Tuaregs) to accept the idea and the authority of post-colonial states, as weak and fragile as they may be, led by Africans. From the early years of independence, most of the Tuareg leaders tended to view the new African leadership of their countries with resentment and contempt. For their part, the new national leaders tended to view Tuaregs as economically and socially backward, and their subsistence pastoralism and nomadism as an obstacle to national development. The relations between the Tuaregs and the rest of the population in other regions of West Africa also deteriorated with the resurgence of violence, as well as the alleged master-slave mentality of the some Tuareg communities. It is even possible to discern elements of a revenge motive amongst some of the MNLA’s current leaders including Mohamed Ag Najeem, whose father was killed during the first rebellion in 1963.

Contrary to previous rebellions, the MNLA has raised the stakes by calling for an independent state of Azawad in northern Mali. The fallacious rationale is that they will be able to fight terrorism in the region if they became independent. In addition, the weapons brought from Libya and their experience in Gaddafi’s army continues to sustain their offensive. One of the main concerns is whether the rebellion will last or fade as the group runs short of ammunition. At this stage, one thus needs to focus on the supply channels through which they obtain weapons. Two hypotheses could be envisaged. Firstly, the MNLA could take advantage of the on going instability in Libya and exploit the loopholes in the national security arrangements to continue having access to Libyan weapons. Secondly, the group could also rely on the informal networks of arms trafficking so well developed in the region. In this case, collaboration with AQIM, even though officially denied, would be out of necessity and convenience.

In the meantime, the insurgents rely on “hit and run” tactics which consist of attacking government positions and retreating to the desert since they do not have the necessary means to sustain their military offensive. Some reports however have suggested that the rebellion has received support and endorsement from former Libyan high-ranking military officers including General Ali Kanna, Colonels Seid Intalla and Lech Didi. According to Mali’s Foreign Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga these former military officials have access to anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well as enough small arms to be able to put up a fight against the Malian army. There have been both government and civilian casualties in Mali and more than 195 000 people have fled their homes since mid-January. Recently an important military base was also taken from the national army in Tessalit.

Neither Mali, nor the MNLA is able to sustain a protracted war and ways should be found to ease the suffering of the displaced people. Yet calls for a peaceful settlement are not coherently articulated and the main actors in the crisis seem to doubt the sincerity of the other’s engagement. Indeed, the resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion is causing tension among regional and external actors. While Algeria is opposed to any foreign military base in the Sahel, there is a fear of the instrumentalisation of the NMLA for the control of the region and its natural resources. Another factor that fuelled Bamako’s concern is the alleged claim from the NMLA that France and Qatar ought to be the preferred mediators in the conflict.

It is not clear what would France’s interest be in an unstable Mali. And it would be extremely risky to seek the instrumentalisation of the NMLA to reach out to AQIM, let alone use this strategy for the liberation of the hostages held by AQIM. It is also important to highlight the fact that key regional and extra-regional actors need to cooperate and work on a coherent and medium to long-term regional security strategy to mitigate the security risks in the Sahel. That dialogue among the key actors still has to take place.

Meanwhile some opposition forces in Mali are of the opinion that the government should have expected the resumption of the insurgency due to the evolution of the security situation in the region, but that it failed to devise a preventive strategy to counter the negative impact of the citizens returning from Libya with heavy weapons. Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), after all, is very familiar with the security problems in Northern Mali and has given preference to dialogue with the insurgents over the years.

Recently, Mali also launched a special programme for the restoration of state authority in the region - a programme that sought to address some of the socio-economic grievances aired by concerned communities. The programme also aims at reducing the influence of AQIM on the youth by offering them socio-economic alternatives. As ATT comes to the end of his 2nd term as president, with no intention to manipulate the constitution of the country to hang onto power, he hopes to leave a legacy of a peaceful and consolidated democracy in Mali. This might be compromised if he fails to reach a peace agreement with the insurgents and to offer enough guarantees that peace provisions will be implemented by an eventual new president.
Whatever agreement is reached; the issue of territorial integrity of Mali is likely to be non-negotiable. The creation of an independent Azawad state with a few hundred rebels, will certainly be a source of further instability. It is also clear that while some problems remain, many efforts were made to substantially improve the integration of Tuaregs into Malian society and various state institutions. Negotiations and peace agreements should seek to consolidate the implementation of these efforts.