By Shruti Shrivastav
Staff Writer

The new year brought with it heightened conflict in Mali among the Tuareg rebel group and the unstable government. Around April 1, rebels of the Tuareg ethnic group took control over most of northern Mali, an area as large as Spain on the edge of the Sahara desert including the desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The Tuareg rebels had no difficulty capturing towns and villages because of their vast experiences fighting as mercenaries for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The Malian army, weak and unstable on the best of days, was not able to retaliate when the rebels attacked — especially since Tuaregs were also armed with quality weapons from the ousted Libyan leader’s arsenal.

As the Tuaregs took control over Timbuktu, a historic trading center with a population of about 55,000, fleeing government officials as well as defeated Malian soldiers initiated a mutiny among Malian officers. These officers removed the elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure. According to the mutineers, the president had not sufficiently supported the Malian soldiers against the rebel attacks. The army faced heavy casualties under the poor leadership of Toure, with detrimental conditions and limited resources.

The mutiny, which occurred around March 22, left the government in shambles, and the defenses in the north continue to fall short as the Tuareg take town after town, increasing their controlled territory. The Tuareg inhabit the Saharan desert of North Africa — Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso. They consider themselves free men who are abandoned by God (translation of Tuareg) and have been traced back to Berber descent. Legends and tales portray the Tuareg sporting indigo veils and traveling through the desert on camelback. Known to be nomadic since their early origins, they are skilled warriors that include an Islamist faction dedicated to imposing Shari’a law throughout Mali.

The rebel takeover of Mali forecasts other possible Tuareg uprisings in countries like Niger and Algeria. Growing political unrest, uncontrollable crime and religious fundamentalism made Mali an easy target for the rebel attacks. The Tuareg claimed they have gained rightful control of their homeland, and hope to spread Islamic law throughout Mali. The leader of the rebels, the Azawad National Liberation Movement, is the umbrella group that is vying for organized control of northern Mali, but other Islamic factions such as the Ansar Dine also inhabit the usurped territory and have proven links to Al-Qaeda. Iyad Ag Ghaly, an extremist within Ansar Dine, has been seen holding talks with local Muslim leaders to try and impose strict Shari’a law within the city of Timbuktu. His men have reportedly been forcing women to cover their faces and ordering shopkeepers to take down advertisements of unveiled women.

On April 6, the Tuareg declared the captured territory in the north as an independent state called Azawad, with Gao as its capital city. On their website, the MNLA added that they would respect the other countries’ borders, but asked for the same respect for their newly controlled territory. The African Union, an intercontinental collaboration between the African countries to promote unity, development and progress, condemns the declaration, calling it “null and void.” Former colonial power France has also denied the recognition of Azawad, and the UK has shut down its embassy in the capital Bamako.

The rebellion has led to widespread crime in the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Looting, abduction and murder has displaced over 44,000 people into nearby Niger. One of the poorest countries in Africa, Niger is struggling to support the influx of refugees. The Tuareg agreed to a ceasefire after the UN Security Council called for an end to violence in Mali. They ask for recognition from the international community saying “We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory. We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation… now the biggest task commences.”

United States policymakers are unaware of what role or position to play in the recent Malian conflict. The U.S. has reason to take precaution because Mali was a leading partner in efforts against terrorism, and the United States has donated military equipment to the Malian army under the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. The creeping threat of Al-Qaeda extending its reaches into Mali worries several policymakers. The State Department has issued travel warnings and the Obama administration has banned the entry of Malian officers responsible for the coup into the United States and demanded the country be returned to democratic rule.

Currently, however, the ousted president seeks shelter at the Senegalese Embassy in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Questionable arrests of prominent political and military figures associated with former president Toure’s government have been made in Bamako. Mali’s military junta claims it is working with the new regime, but the real pressure to return the country to civilian rule came only after harsh sanctions were imposed by the Economic Community of West African States. The coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo signed a deal with ECOWAS to end sanctions on Mali and hand over the power to the head of the national assembly. A timeline has not been set for the handover and Captain Sanogo is determined to play a key role in the takeover and upcoming elections.

The resignation of Toure in early April, followed by the arrests of many important political figures has the Malian public afraid that the military is continuing to play an important role in the political realm. Most recently, astrophysicist turned politician Cheick Modibo Diarra was named as prime minister of Mali. Speculation is that the transition was made by the junta in order to make peace with ECOWAS. Diarra is new to politics and was scheduled to run for president in the June elections, and the coup clearly facilitated the process. Before entering politics, Diarra worked for NASA’s space program and was the chairman of Microsoft Africa.

Although the transition back to civilian rule seems initiated in Bamako, the Tuareg-controlled north is in disarray. The country once regarded on the forefront of development and democracy in West Africa now finds itself in a humanitarian crisis. Aid agencies claim that over 13 million people will be in need of food and water, especially since the country is recovering from drought. The ECOWAS sanction sped the transition of the government into the hands of the new prime minister, but with the crisis in the north, Mali’s neighbors are closing its borders too. The new government will now face the harrowing task of regaining the lost territory in the north. ECOWAS is willing to lend its support, but the troops face major disadvantages in desert warfare.

Not only will it be difficult to take back the cities and garrisons in the north, finding a way to peacefully and diplomatically cater to the Tuaregs, the Islamic Radicals and the Malian locals will be near impossible. Northern Africa holds its breath as the conflict draws out and watches every move of the new Malian prime minister and regime forced to handle the delicate situation.

Image Courtesy of Flickr user Maghrebia

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