John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Some Mali Tuaregs Turn Against Radical Islamists

by John Campbell
February 7, 2013

An ethnic Tuareg soldier in the Malian army rides in a pickup truck in Niono January 19, 2013. (Joe Penney/Courtesy Reuters)


Reuters is reporting the claim by pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels that they have seized Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, who imposed harsh Islamist rule on Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akmed, a kidnapper associated with the alleged al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group MUJWA. An MNLA spokesman says that the two Islamist leaders have been sent to Kidal, but it is not clear what force has custody of them.

After the recovery of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, the MNLA appears to be reasserting its leadership in northern Mali, and distancing themselves from the radical Islamists, by emphasizing their demand for autonomy or independence. MNLA says it is willing hunt down Islamists and has offered peace talks with Bamako. Some military officers rejected this offer out of hand, citing claims of rebels executing soldiers. An MNLA spokesman, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, in turn criticized Bamako’s interim president Dioncounda Traore’s proposal to hold elections on July 31 unless an agreement between north and south is reached first.

MNLA’s latest moves highlight the fragility of the Islamist coalition that controlled northern Mali for nine months. Following Captain Amadou Sanogo’s successful military coup against the Bamako government in March 2012, MNLA led the establishment of the independent state of Azawad in northern Mali. However, in a devil’s bargain, MNLA allied itself with radical Islamists groups, including Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJWA to drive out Bamako’s army. Under circumstances that remain obscure, the radicals then displaced MNLA and proceeded to impose its harsh Islamist regime, apparently with MNLA’s acquiescence or approval. While this inherently unstable coalition ruled northern Mali, relations between the radical Islamists and MNLA were obscure to outside observers, but they likely remained fluid and influenced by local factors, including rivalry for control of smuggling routes. Now, however, that the Islamists are on the run, MNLA has turned on them and returned to its initial goal of autonomy, if not independence, for northern Mali. This opens up the possibility for talks with Bamako and even the potential for a viable political settlement. But, that will require a credible response by Bamako to this latest MNLA initiative.

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  • Posted by Joey Tranchina

    The situation in the north needs to sort itself out. The legitimate needs of the nomads must be respected. While there can be no lasting peace without the Tuaregs, they made a huge mistake in aligning themselves with vicious foreign Islamists. It will take time for them to regain legitimacy in this discussion. They must be cautious not to turn this into a race war, which will diminish the future for everyone.

    Extreme poverty is as persistent a barrier to sound governance, as is extreme wealth. Now, while everyone can find West Africa on a map, Mali needs to restructure its institutions and turn military support into long term domestic aid, at a grass-roots level (i.e. micro lending; teachers, books and generators for schools, national medical assistance; infrastructure (sanitary engineers, road builders, electrification, water distribution.

    Apart from a few big national projects (roads, electrification), aid must appropriately meet the absorption-rate of the culture. The needs of the Malian have been overlooked for so long that the tendency will be to drown the country in cash then step back in shock when it chokes. We’ve been down this road too often in other places not to come to Mali with a map.

    I have never in my 68 years seen young people more anxious to study and to learn than in Mali. Educating those boys & girls /men & women is where the process of building Mali’s future begins. As we say in our project: The greatest natural resource in Africa is Africans.

    This has been a horrible year. If this suffering is to be turned to some positive use, it must be through the powerful vision of enlightened Malian leadership that has yet to emerge. If there is any country in Africa that has the tolerant spirit to build a first-world African democracy it is Mali.

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