News

Tuareg Rebellion Poses Security Risk for Fragile Sahel Region

Anne Look

Tuareg rebels in northern Mali are closer than ever to the autonomy they have sought since the 1960s.  

The international community has watched with distress as Tuareg rebels, and a splinter group of Islamist extremists, have seized control of northern Mali following a chaotic military coup in the capital, Bamako, on March 22nd.

Rebels now control a trio of key northern outposts, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, that have eluded them for decades.

A separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, claims the vast triangle of desert as its homeland, Azawad.

MNLA political spokesman Moussa ag Assarid said the group now controls the territory it wants.  All that remains, he said, is to secure the border with Mali.  He says they plan to create a secular, democratic state that will regroup all the ethnic groups in northern Mali, not just the Tuaregs.  He said northern Mali is a different world from the south.  He said they have tried to make do for the past 50 years but they have never truly been Malians.  He said independence is now all they will consider.

The MNLA said Tuesday that it is stopping its advance and is now open to talks with the Malian government or regional authority, ECOWAS.

The MNLA is the latest incarnation of a rebellion that has raged on and off in Mali since independence, or even before that if you count Tuareg resistance to French colonial rule. This is the fourth major armed rebellion since 1963.

The Tuareg have their own language and a distinct matriarchal culture. It is the men who must cover their heads and faces with turbans that are said to ward off evil spirits and block out the harsh desert sun and wind.

Jeremy Keenan, an anthropologist and expert on the Tuareg at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says arbitrarily-drawn colonial boundaries parceled the once nomadic tribes into various nations. "In Niger and Mali, they are majorities in their own regions and they have been marginalized.  They have rebelled.  It's been a pretty regular phenomenon.  When they rebel, the governments usually attack the camps, the women and kids and all this sort of stuff.  They feel aggrieved.  They feel abandoned by the world and quite rightly they have been," he said.

The Malian government has defused previous rebellions with largely unkept promises for decentralization and development.

This rebellion, launched on January 17, is unique for several reasons.

The MNLA is a new group, created last October by veterans of previous rebellions as well as pro-Gadhafi Tuareg fighters returning from Libya.  They brought with them the heavy arms and battlefield know-how that have catapulted the MNLA to a new level of military sophistication.

However, Keenan says the rebels are not invincible. "They are in a stronger position at the moment than they've ever been in the past but it's not the strongest on earth.  They're not a vast army.  They're small in number.  Where are they going to get reequipped from?  They haven't got an arsenal up the road.  They haven't got Gadhafi behind them.  They haven't got France that's going to step in and help.  OK, they can help themselves to government armories in Gao and elsewhere when they get there.  They know the desert.  They can control the desert, that is until the helicopter gunships come in," he said.

Mali's much-condemned military junta has called for international help to stop the rebellion.  Regional bloc ECOWAS has warned the rebels to halt their advance and says it is putting a military force on standby.  France referred the situation to the U.N. Security Council.

Another unique element of this rebellion is the involvement of a small but visible extremist group, Ansar Dine, that wants shariah, or Islamic law, applied in northern Mali.  The group, whose name means "Defenders of the Faith," broke off from the MNLA in March.

Residents of towns seized this past weekend say they saw rebels raising MNLA flags, as well as other fighters yelling "Allah akbar."  News agencies report also seeing the Ansar Dine's black banner flying over Timbuktu Monday.

Ansar Dine is said to have ties to al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said Ansar Dine is cause for concern.  AQIM, he says, has declared France a target and still holds six French hostages.  He said France will not engage in direct military action against the rebels but could provide logistical support to any future intervention by regional authorities.

MNLA separatists are trying to shake off associations to Islamic extremism.  The MNLA maintains that it is in a state of coexistence, and not cooperation, with Ansar Dine.

Experts say the two groups could come to blows once their perhaps uneasy alliance is no longer convenient.  The power struggle would further destabilize northern Mali, where 200,000 civilians have already fled fighting, many to neighboring countries.

The Tuareg have run caravan trade routes through the Sahara for centuries.  However analysts say the only goods moving along those routes now are drugs, guns and even people.

The vast swathe of desert is nearly impossible to police.  It has become home to drug traffickers ferrying Latin American cocaine to Europe and al-Qaida linked terrorists. Analysts speculate that Tuareg tribes are not directly involved in these activities but are perhaps taxing and facilitating traffic moving through the desert.

MNLA spokesman Assarid said the MNLA plans to rid its territory of AQIM and traffickers.  He said the Malian government has tried to damage the Tuareg's reputation by connecting them with these criminal elements.  He said it was the government who gave these elements free rein, pointing to a rumored non-aggression pact between the government and AQIM.

Mali's northern deserts remain impoverished and underdeveloped.  Growing desertification has made herding and farming difficult.  Kidnappings and insecurity have killed off tourism, which was a key industry for the Tuareg in recent decades.  Insecurity has also prevented exploration of potential oil, gas and mineral deposits.

The MNLA says that it can secure and ultimately develop the territory.  That is a gamble the international community does not look prepared to make.

Head of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington, J. Peter Pham, said a state of Azawad would not be economically viable today, though the Tuareg thrived in the centuries before colonialism.  "That was their great moment in history when the trade routes ran through their area, when salt was worth its weight in gold.  That era is gone.  There may be some underlying resources up there, but in reality it is not a viable state and the last thing Africa, much less the Sahel, needs is another failed state," he said.

Pham said that failed state would create a vacuum where terrorists and traffickers already in the Sahara would flourish. "You've got an almost instant criminal state in the making," he said.

The coup has crippled Mali's already insufficient military capabilities. Mali's allies, including the United States, have cut off all military assistance until the junta restores constitutional order. The junta's moves in that direction have so far been limited and vague. Meanwhile, the rebels are consolidating their hold on the North.

Pham says the international community could be forced to choose between two priorities: steadfastly condemning the military overthrow and preventing further deterioration of the already fragile security situation in the Sahel.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs