As Timbuktu Falls, What Future For Mali?

Timbuktu was once a metaphor for the middle of nowhere. Now it is in the middle of a struggle that has important implications for the whole Sahel zone that runs from Senegal to Sudan. Tuareg armed forces coming from further north have taken control of the key towns of northern Mali: Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, largely cutting the country in two.

What could be called the “Central Government” of Mali in Bamako was overthrown on March 21 by a coup of young military officers claiming that the government was incompetent in its struggle against the Tuareg. The coup is more or less led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, who had been trained by the US Marine Corps, but Sanogo is probably acting on his own and not on behalf of the US Marines. He has shown himself able to control the government buildings in Bamako but little else.

It is not likely that the civilian-led government of former President Amadou Trouré will be restored. Touré was himself a former general who had come to power in a coup, then governed in a fairly democratic way but without making many socio-economic advances.  The country now faces a food crisis due in part to drought and in part due to the lack of improvements in its agricultural production and distribution system.  Thus, the new military group is not likely to be met with opposition but not much support either.

The Tuareg are largely a Berber people whose ancestors had moved south to avoid the Arabic conquests of North Africa.  To this Berber stock have been integrated a good number of former slaves who are now agricultural workers. Tuareg society is structured on a strong system of castes based on socio-economic functions.  They follow a nearly exclusive pastoral-camel nomad mode of life.  They largely stayed beyond the control of French colonial administrations, and since independence in 1960, they are usually beyond the control of the central government.

There have been periodic rebellions usually coupled with demands for the creation of an independent Tuareg state. There was a strong wave of violence in 1964 when the Tuareg realized that they had no influence in the newly independent government.  There were again rebellions during the 1970s when the drought situation was particularly critical. Rebellions are often linked to socio-economic difficulties usually related to drought.

However, the current rebellion is more linked to the availability of a large number of weapons from the armories of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya.  Qaddafi had at one stage incorporated a number of Tuareg into his militia system, so they were trained to use modern weapons. As the Qaddafi government disintegrated, a large number of weapons became available and the new Libyan militias, largely based on tribal groups, had no longer any use for Tuareg fighters. Thus there was a return to Mali and other Sahel states of Tuareg fighters and their families, as well as with a mixture of people from other groups who had been working in Libya.

With an influx of militarily-trained men and a large number of weapons, the Tuareg rebellion has flared up again, primarily in Mali, but there are signs of it spreading.  The other West African governments are worried.  After a special meeting on April 2, 2012 of the 15-member Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) all the frontiers with Mali have been officially closed.  Since the Tuareg rarely pass by official frontier posts, the closing of frontiers is symbolic, but it does have an impact on food and energy supplies of people living in Bamako and none on the Tuareg.  At the ECOWAS conference there was some talk of sending military aid to Mali, and the ECOWAS armies have been put on “alert” but meaningful military intervention is unlikely.

The French government has urged its 5000 citizens in Mali to leave, but most are French-Malian dual nationals and are permanent residents of Mali. Most are unlikely to leave unless the situation degenerates badly.

The creation of a Tuareg state seems unlikely, but after the recent creation of South Sudan, the idea of carving out a new state is no longer impossible.  With the Tuareg forces moving toward Mopti, the only large center between the Tuareg-controlled north and Bamako, the future of Mali is uncertain.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Photo by Martin Vogl