If you were lost in the desert in Mali right now, you’d need three things: water, a wide-brimmed hat and SIMON ALLISON’s list of the five things that will help you make sense of this incredibly complicated and very dangerous part of the world. Right now, as the conflict threatens to boil over into something that looks a lot like a regional war, it is important reading.
As the conflict in Mali escalates, the country and its complicated politics are dominating African headlines. Much of the reporting is short on context, or makes assumptions about what readers know and don’t know. For readers who want the broader picture, here are the five of the most important points too often neglected in the coverage:
One: Gaddafi’s guns didn’t start this conflict, but they certainly helped
It’s tempting to view the conflict in Mali as an inevitable consequence of the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. There is some evidence to back this up. Gaddafi, for all his craziness – or perhaps because of it – was a stabilising force in the Sahel region. His cash supported regional politicians, his occasional military support propped up regional governments, and his grandiose diplomatic initiatives forced regional cooperation. He was the policeman, and without him no country is strong enough to enforce order.
For Mali, Gaddafi was especially important because his army recruited thousands of young, fit fighting men from the northern Tuareg ethnic group, historically Mali’s most vociferous opposition. The Tuaregs are the nomads of the Sahel desert, and have long rejected the authority of the government down south in Bamako. They’ve initiated several armed uprisings in the past decades. So when Gaddafi’s Tuaregs were forced back home to northern Mali – bringing with them caches of sophisticated weapons and lots of cash – there was always going to be problems.
No one, however, expected a new rebellion to erupt quite so quickly. It was just a few months after Gaddafi’s death that the first Tuareg-led raids against the Malian army were launched. This speed was only possible because the necessary political framework had already been laid down by a new-look Tuareg group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA had kicked out some of the Tuareg political old guard, including veteran leader Iyad Ag Ghali, and resolved to restart the fight against Bamako’s rule.This they did, strengthened hugely by the influx of highly-trained trained soldiers and equipment.
Two: The rebels are a disparate, dysfunctional coalition
It’s common in media reports to see the fighters in the north described as “the rebels” or even “the terrorists”. Although a useful shorthand, this is not strictly true because it implies some kind of a cohesive, coordinated organisation working together for the same goals.
The truth is more complicated. “The rebels” are in fact a loose, ever-shifting coalition of four main rebel groups, all of which have different aims and motivations.
Let’s start with the MNLA, the vanguard of the rebellion; its initial offensive pushed Mali’s ramshackle army out of most of northern Mali, which the MNLA subsequently declared an independent republic called Azawad (recognised by nobody). The MNLA is the torch-holder for Tuareg nationalism, and while it pays some allegiance to Islamic ideals it puts nationalism before religion. As the situation has evolved over the last year, the MNLA has lost out to better-organised Islamist groups – who have not been afraid to attack MNLA-held positions – and has effectively been cut out of its own rebellion. It’s now promising to work with international forces to re-take northern Mali from the Islamists.
Next up is Ansar Dine, which is the strongest Islamist group in terms of popular support and territory controlled. It is led by none other than Iyadag Ghali, who was the Tuareg leader sidelined by the MNLA. He underwent a political conversion and emerged out the other side as a fundamentalist, Sharia-imposing Islamist (how much of this is political opportunism we’re not quite sure). Ansar Dine insists its goal is to control the whole country and turn it into an Islamic state. The links between Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups is unclear; certainly Ansar Dine has cooperated closely with them before and continues to do so, but it seems more amenable to negotiation than the others.
Then there’s the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujwa), a new, rather shadowy group led by the notorious smuggler Sultan Ould Baddy. It’s an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), started when Ould Baddy was snubbed as AQIM chief. Since then AQIM and Mujwa have established a cooperative truce, leaving Mujwa to do what it does best: use its religious, political profile as a cover for criminal activity, particularly drug-trafficking and possibly people-trafficking. At least this is the strong suspicion: it’s hard to prove anything in the Malian desert right now.
Finally, there’s AQIM itself. It has been active in Mali since about 2003, using it as a base from which to target other countries. Since the rebellion it has become more active in Mali, assisting Ansar Dine to take and govern key northern cities. However, AQIM is still active elsewhere: it was one of AQIM’s main commanders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly Algerian hostage situation.
The fractured nature of the rebels in the north has been one of the major stumbling blocks to any potential solution: it’s hard to negotiate when you’re not sure who exactly to negotiate with.
Three: Mali’s government is about as illegitimate as they come
France, in defending its military intervention in Mali, likes to point to the desperate plea for assistance the French received from Mali’s interim prime minister, DioncoundaTraore, as if that gives it all the legitimacy it needs. Technically, France might be right, but it’s worth pondering the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of Mali’s prime minister and its government.
In March last year, just before planned national elections, President Amadou Toumani Toure was quickly overthrown in a military coup, led by junior officers. Elections were scrapped, and under pressure from the international community the military appointed a civilian interim government led by Traore. Traore’s prime minister was the widely-respected Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Microsoft’s former Africa head.
This did not mean that the military – the same military which had failed so miserably to protect the north – had given up its grip on power. Traore was badly injured when the army conspicuously failed to protect him from an angry mob which stormed the presidential palace, and spent two months in Paris recovering. Diarra, meanwhile, lasted only until he started openly disagreeing with the coup leaders, before being ousted in what was effectively another coup.
The upshot of all this is that Mali has no representative leadership. While the north is split between rebel groups, the south is riven by political divisions and a decidedly murky, although military-centred power structure – hardly a recipe for success.
Four: Al-Qaeda’s not really here
Don’t be confused by the name: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not the same as the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. Think of it as a franchising operation: Al-Qaeda agrees to let AQIM use its name in order to increase its global profile, while AQIM benefits from having the scariest name in the terrorist business. In fact, AQIM is the successor of an Algerian Islamist group which was smashed by Algerian authorities, and most of its leadership is, in fact, Algerian. Its major goal is the imposition of Sharia law in the Sahel region, and particularly in Algeria. Tactically, however, it has learned a lot from al-Qaeda proper, incorporating kidnappings and suicide bombings into its repertoire.
So it’s inaccurate, or at least disingenuous, to talk about the “al-Qaeda presence” in the Sahel as part of a big global al-Qaeda expansion; or to put the Algerian hostage drama into the context of other al- Qaeda operations such as 9/11 or the Nairobi embassy bombings. It’s more accurate to put the hostage drama in the context of Algeria’s long-running problems with Islamist opposition. Expect to hear more of this generalising al-Qaeda talk, however, as the Mali situation becomes just another stop in the “War on Terror”, particularly from media outlets looking to simplify the situation.
Five: Africa had its own plan to fix this mess
Africa wasn’t hanging around waiting for France to step and sort out the Malian mess. There was another plan in motion, one proposed by the West African regional bloc Ecowas and approved by the United Nations Security Council.
This plan called for a West African intervention force, numbering a little over 3,000 soldiers, to help Mali’s army re-take the ground it had lost and deal decisively with the various rebel groups. The idea was to take it slowly and explore possible political solutions first; also to give military planners the time they needed to formulate effective tactics and establish supply lines. Deployment of troops was only scheduled for sometime in August. This may seem overly cautious, but military men and politicians were convinced that a premature intervention would do more harm than good, especially if it came before negotiation.
“Negotiation is the best way,”said General Carter Ham, head of the US military’s Africa Command. “Military intervention may be a necessary component. But if there is to be military intervention it has to be successful, it cannot be done prematurely.”
The situation changed, however, with the rebels’ swift and unexpected advance into southern Mali, amid threats to take the capital Bamako. The government panicked and called for immediate reinforcements, provided by France. The West African contingent scrambled to ready themselves, but only began arriving in Bamako last week – without the negotiations and preparations that they had hoped would ease their passage and made a successful resolution to the conflict more likely. DM
- Al Qaeda and its allies in the Sahel and the Sahara from the Al Jazeera Center for Studies
- Trying to understand MUJWA on al-Wasat blog
- Making sense of Mali’s armed groups on Al Jazeera
- Gaddafi’s guns trigger collapse from Chatham House
Photo: A French soldier stands guard next to villagers in Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013. The town of Diabaly was retaken by French and Malian forces after al Qaeda-linked rebels took over the town a week ago. REUTERS/Joe Penney