It seems even after his death in October last year, Muammar Gadaffi has managed to remain central to the Tuareg insurgency in Mali and a fragile peace in the northern region of the country.
After Gadaffi’s death, thousands of Tuaregs who had previously served in his army, have now returned to Mali, Chad and Niger among others with potential risks of destabilising those countries. Key questions in the minds of many are who can fill the vacuum left by the Libyan dictator and what impact the ongoing violence in Northern Mali could have on the already volatile and complex security environment of the Sahel.
As anticipated, the Tuareg insurgency against the Mali government has been re-ignited and strengthened with weapons from Gadaffi’s arsenal.
The Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) is one of the oldest insurgents threatening the territorial integrity of Mali. The secessionist claims of the movement are not new as the group has since the 1960s vowed to liberate Azawad, as they call Northern Mali, from “Malian occupation”. Even though generations of Tuaregs have come to the realisation that the creation a Tuareg state might be impossible and have progressively accepted the authority of the existing states through numerous peace accords and concessions, the reality is that opportunistic leaders from that group and other disgruntled citizens continue to threaten the territorial integrity and national security of most Sahelian states.
What is new, and this after efforts by the government of Mali to address some of the concerns raised by the Tuareg community, is the recurrence of violence sparked by the precarious situation in Libya and the absence of a strategy to control and absorb Tuaregs returning from the embattled North Africa. Indeed, on the 16th and 17th of January, NMLA soldiers attacked military barracks in various cities such as Menaka, Aguelhoc and Tessalit. The militants held these three towns for a short period of time, but the government managed to reclaim them by the 20th January.
This, however, did not stop the insurgents as they continued to attack the towns of Anderamboukane and Lere on the 26th of January.
The insurgents relied 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.
However, some reports 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 militants 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 and more than 10 000 people have been displaced.
Meanwhile, far from being a purely military exercise for the national army, the insurgency came at the time when Mali is looking forward to holding its presidential elections in April 2012. There is a fear that if peace is not restored immediately, the presidential elections might be under threat with risks of generalised instability in the country.
Already, social tensions are building up among various communities in the country. Parents of slain soldiers in the fighting took their anger to the street against members of the Tuareg community. To mitigate the tensions, the Muslim community as well as other religious leaders in Mali have been calling for peace, while the political leadership has been meeting in Algeria to craft yet another strategy to deal with the Tuareg insurgency. The resurgence of the Tuareg militants is causing a major problem for Mali, especially considering the already big threat of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
While Bamako did not expect this sudden rise in the insurgency due to the various actions undertaken by successive governments since the 1990s and particularly the accidental death of former rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, opposition forces in Mali are of the opinion that the government has failed to anticipate and devise a preventive strategy to counter the negative impact of the citizens returning from Libya.
According to the leader of the Party for African Solidarity, Democracy and Independence (SADI), Oumar Mariko, Chad and Niger, unlike Mali, anticipated, monitored closely the movement of the Tuareg both before and after the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Other opposition leaders even accused the outgoing president of not doing enough to counter the rebellion.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) is very familiar with the security problems in Northern Mali and has given preference to dialogue with the insurgents over the years. Recently, Mali 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 the AQIM on the youth by offering them socio-economic alternatives. As he comes to the end of his term with no intention to manipulate the constitution of the country to hang onto power, ATT hopes to leave a legacy of a peaceful and consolidated democracy. 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.
Internationally, the resurgence of the Tuareg insurgency is also causing tensions among regional and external actors. The latest issue of Lettre du Continent (2 February 2012) contends that Mali accused France of being the instigator of the NMLA’s attacks. According to the report, it is alleged that France would like to use the NMLA to fight AQIM and free the six French hostages still held by the terrorist group in the Sahel.
Another factor that fuelled Bamako’s concern is the claim from the NMLA that France and Qatar ought to be their 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 the AQIM let alone the liberation of the hostages. One thing that is important to highlight beyond speculations and suspicions is 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 actors still remains incoherent.
Report by the Institute for Security Studies
Ban voices concern over outbreak of fighting in northern Mali
8 February 2012
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today voiced deep concern over the outbreak of fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebel groups in northern Mali, stressing that he was particularly troubled by the large-scale humanitarian consequences of the conflict.Casualties include civilians, with thousands of people internally displaced and others seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, aggravating an already dire humanitarian situation throughout the drought-prone Sahel region of West Africa, according to a statementissued by the spokesperson of the Secretary-General.
“The Secretary-General condemns the use of violence as a means to achieve political objectives,” said the statement, in which the United Nations chief urged the rebel groups to immediately stop fighting and engage in dialogue with the Government to resolve their grievances.
Mr. Ban reiterated UN support of efforts to find a peaceful and durable solution to the conflict.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported yesterday that it had sent staff to assist some 20,000 people forced by the fighting to flee their homes.
Most of those uprooted by the violence in the Azawad region of northern Mali since mid-January have fled to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
The agency said clashes between the Tuareg liberation movement (MNLA – Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad) and Government forces erupted on 17 January, violating the terms of a 2009 agreement that had officially ended the Tuareg rebellion in Mali.
WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH THE TUAREG?