It was an open secret; the tension in the north had been mounting for years. No one in Mali was surprised when, last January, the Tuareg took up arms fighting for the liberation of Azawad, the collective name of the three Malian northern regions. Since the beginning, the leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mnla), declared to aim for self-determination, between the lines one reads independence. This latest rebellion comes at a moment in history when the region is at the centre of geo-political interests linked to the availability of mineral resources of which the region is rich, and the spreading of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahel.
The question of independence is not new. In 1957, before the independence of Mali, the Tuareg told France – the colonial power – that they did not wish to be integrated in the new country, too many the differences between north and south. The Tuareg, who regards themselves as whites, despise the populations of the south and refer to them as the ‘nigger’, and resent to see them occupy all the layers of government. The reaction has been a refusal of integration and a tendency to isolate from the rest of Mali. This has also led to five revolts.
In 1963, only three years after independence, the northerners took up arms against the south. The army repressed the revolt in a blood bath. Many Tuareg found refuge in Libya and Algeria, a tendency continued in the years also because of the growing drought in the region. New incidents flared up in 1990. The violence subsided only with the signing of the Tamanrasset Accords. New revolts started in 1994 and 2006. The Algiers Accords (2006) seemed to bring a new calm to the north, but it is a short-lived feeling. In 2007 the Tuareg were once again in turmoil and for two years the north was once again at war.
Each revolt ended when the Tuareg signed a pact with the government promising development plans that never materialized. The funds, however, were always disbursed and ended up in the pockets of southerner politicians. In this way, the north has remained devoid of any meaningful infrastructure. The Azawad is the poorest area of an already poor country. There are no roads, bridges or hospitals. The large region is home to 600,000 people, yet there are few dispensaries and schools which work only thanks to foreign NGOs. The roads between main urban areas are not asphalted. Even the main road from Bamako to the north is little more than a bush track. The north is also bowed by a permanent drought that brings the population to the brink of collapse. It is not by chance that Bishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako asked the international community to support the people in the north. 180 thousand people have already fled the area and are refugees in bordering countries.
Azawad might be a difficult place where to live, yet it is not unimportant. The region is rich in mineral resources and a beehive of smuggling. After 7/11, the USA has effectively closed the routes that from Latin America and through northern Atlantic brought drugs to Europe. South American cocaine producers have reinforced their net through Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry and Mauritania. From the Bijagos Islands, in Guinea Bissau, the drug is shipped to Spain and Italy through Mali. In 2009, a Boing 727 crashed in the desert, the only cargo was cocaine. That incident is a good gauge to assess the connivance of South American criminality and Malian institutions.
The little care the government of Bamako afforded to the north favoured the infiltration of Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi). Even though Aqmi followers are not numerous, they do control the kidnapping of Westerners and benefit from drug smuggling and trafficking of people. Aqmi is not welcomed by the Tuareg, who are not fundamentalist and resent the presence of foreigners on their territory.
The future is uncertain. The caretaker government of Mali is trying the diplomatic card. In the end, the military option will be chosen, and the result will be more isolation and hatred. However, there is still hope that common sense will prevail, and that a new settlement for the north be found. This should provide development and security to the Tuareg, while allowing them to a real place in Malian society.
Olbag ag Hauttin