When Captain Amadou Sanogo staged his coup on 22nd March against Malian President Toure, one of the reasons he gave for his actions was that Toure did not supply the Malian armed forces with sufficient heavy and new weapons to take on the Tuareg rebellion in the north. Tuareg rebels, however, made use of the chaos of the coup in Bamako to stake their claim to a large swathes of territory in northern Mali which they called Azawad which in addition to including the historic city of Timbuktu also includes the important towns of Gao and Kidal.
The initial assault on government towns by Tuareg rebels were led by the Azawad National Liberation Movement or MNLA and led by Mohammed Ag Najim, a former officer in Gaddafi’s army. Indeed, the bulk of Najim’s fighters were Malian Tuaregs who fought in Gaddafi’s forces. As Gaddafi’s star faded, these fighters crossed into Mali with large amounts of sophisticated weapons from Libya’s arsenals. The aim of the MNLA seems more nationalist than religious – the creation of an independent Tuareg homeland.
Since then however two other, more malevolent, actors have appeared in the unfolding tragedy in Northern Mali. The first of these is the Islamist Ansar al Din led by Iyad Ag Ghali. He has been deeply influenced by Pakistani preachers and his ideological affinity is towards Al Qaeda. Thus, observers were hardly surprised when Ghali arrived in Timbuktu with three senior emirs of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar, and Abou Hamame. Western security analysts have expressed concern about Africa’s ungoverned spaces and weak states for years from a counter-terrorism perspective. Developments in Mali together with other developments in northern Nigeria and Somalia proved their case. Islamists were making use of genuine Tuareg grievances in order to advance their cause. The second malevolent actor is the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJAO. This grouping split off from AQIM in order to focus on the jihad in West Africa as opposed to the Maghreb or Sahel regions. Interestingly, among their number in Gao are 100 Boko Haram fighters from northern Nigeria. Moreover, training camps have already been established for more West Africans to train for the great jihad.
All this raises the question of what is to be done? First, the chaos in Bamako has to end and legitimate authority has to be re-established. Much progress has already occurred on this front. President Toure has formally resigned, whilst Captain Sanogo has said that he will step down. Also, the Constitutional Court is expected swear in the current parliamentary speaker, Dioncounda Traore, to serve as interim president whilst fresh elections are held. These are positive steps towards re-establishing political authority, but the military balance in the country is not favouring the Malian armed forces which were so decisively trounced by the Tuareg rebels.
This leads us to the second component of our response. A regional grouping known as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has already placed some 3,000 troops on standby to prevent the rebellion from spreading to the south of the country as some Islamists have declared. These troops would need to be properly armed and provided with intelligence by the West.
Two factors militate against the rebels continuing to hold northern Mali. First, with amputations, forcing people into mosques to pray five times a day, looting property and the rape of young women, the rebels have already lost the hearts and minds of the local populace. In other words, the rebels, by their actions, have lost popular legitimacy. Second, the rebels are deeply divided. The secular vision of the MNLA and the Islamist vision of Ansar al Din are irreconcilable and the two forces have already come to blows in Timbuktu. For this reason, I support French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe’s position that legitimate Tuareg territorial claims could be addressed through the mechanism of a Malian national dialogue leading to a form of regional autonomy. In this way, MNLA forces could support ECOWAS troops in the fight against the Islamists. Third, despite their common Islamist platform, there is no love lost between MUJAO and Ansar al Din. One of the reasons for the MUJAO split from AQIM was because Africans felt that they had occupied subordinate positions to Arabs within the organisation. With more West Africans like Boko Haram rallying to MUJAO and as Ansar al Din comes under the influence of AQIM, this divide will be further reinforced.