Africa, World — January 8, 2013 2:54 pm

A Mirage in the Sahara: The Fragility of Azawad

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It is not every day that half a country secedes, but that is exactly what happened in Mali earlier this year. On April 6, after months of fighting, a representative of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) formally declared independence for Azawad, a region in north Mali. The rebel group drove the Malian army out, plunging the region into chaos.

The MNLA, comprised of Tuaregs, a group of pastoralist Saharan Berbers, soon found itself in conflict with a number of Islamist groups, namely Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The MNLA and the Islamists have markedly different goals: while the former supports the establishment of a more secular, independent state, the latter is much more concerned with the enforcement of sharia law. Even within the Islamist insurgency, however, tension is brewing.

So far, the Islamists have gained the upper hand over the Tuareg rebels.  Cities formerly occupied by the MNLA, including Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu, have fallen into the hands of Ansar Dine and its allies. In Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, members of Ansar Dine destroyed shrines of 15th century Muslim saints, claiming that the worship of such figures violated sharia law. Although the MNLA contends that it still retains power, it is becoming increasingly clear that Islamists wield real authority. The Islamist rise and failure of the south Malian democratic regime are troubling to many neighbors who are facing similar problems with separatism and religious fundamentalism.

Many also wonder how the MNLA could defeat the government but fall to the Islamist groups. However, the Tuareg rebellion’s success is attributed to the weakness of the Malian state rather than organizational or material superiority: though the rebels had not increased their strength since their last rebellion in 2009 they were still able to defeat the frail government, while their own enduring weaknesses left them vulnerable to Islamists.

Ultimately, for many weak West African states, Azawad is a destabilizing factor, and if these governments hope to maintain order, they must cooperate. But, regardless of the geopolitical arrangements that unfold in the coming months, the Azawad will remain shrouded in violence for the foreseeable future.

The Blue Man Group

Known as the “blue people” for their distinctive clothing color, the Tuareg have long been in conflict with the Malian government. Previous insurgencies amounted to little in terms of territorial gain. However, this rebellion is unique because it was supported by fighters who were trained under Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. After Gaddafi fell, these soldiers returned to north Mali, bringing with them the weapons they had used abroad.

Yet, as University of Ghent professor Baz Lecocq told the HPR, the presence of new heavy weaponry is “overplayed in most media.” Rather, the crucial differences between this rebellion and its predecessors were threefold. First, much of the fighting this time around has resulted in the capture of major cities, and second, the current rebellion consists of many more independent groups with different goals.

Most importantly, explains Lecocq, “the main reason [for the rebels’ success] is that their adversary,” the Malian government and army, has “collapsed.”  During the fighting early this year, government forces were continually losing ground. Disillusioned with the leadership of President Amadou Toumani Touré in response to the Tuareg rebellion, army forces staged a coup d’état.  The new leaders hoped that the putsch would improve the army’s capacity to fight the rebels. However, the disorder in the capital only strengthened the relative power of the MNLA and the other groups operating in Azawad. Northern Mali fell into the hands of a new, markedly weak authority, meaning that the fledgling state of Azawad was vulnerable to takeover by stronger Islamist groups.

Sharia in the Sahara

To determine what made the Islamist groups in Mali relatively strong against the MNLA, one must examine their origins.  Michael Lambert, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, tells the HPR, “This brand of Islam that is being imposed in northern Mali is very foreign to that part of West Africa.”  AQIM, the oldest of the three organizations, originated from a guerrilla Islamist movement, the Armed Islamist Group (GIA), which fought against the secular Algerian military government in the 1990s.  Many GIA fighters were trained in Afghanistan as mujahedeen during that country’s insurgency against the Soviet Union.  There they absorbed the doctrines of Salafism, a brand of Islamic fundamentalism, and learned the principles of anti-secular combat, which they brought back to the Maghreb.  AQIM eventually split from the GIA and aligned itself with the larger al-Qaeda movement. MUJWA broke off from AQIM in late 2011 with the express goal of expanding Islamism further into Africa.

Ansar Dine though is indigenous, and the goals of its leader, Iyad ag Ghaly, are somewhat unclear. Ag Ghaly began operating as a Tuareg rebel, and eventually helped negotiate a peace deal with the Malian national government.  Later, as a government employee, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, and came into contact with extremist groups abroad. Gradually, he evolved from a womanizer and notoriously heavy drinker to a devout Islamist.  At a meeting with other Tuareg leaders in October 2011, he offered to lead the MNLA; however, his desire to impose sharia law in Azawad led to his rejection. The question, then, is whether he is fighting for religious or personal political reasons.

The various Islamist groups are also linked with each other and with foreign groups. MUJWA has ties to Boko Haram, another fundamentalist group operating in northern Nigeria.  AQIM is connected to the larger al-Qaeda network, and the leaders of AQIM and Ansar Dine are relatives. However, Lambert says, “These are real groups. They’re very different, and just because Ansar Dine has an Islamist agenda doesn’t mean that they’re al-Qaeda.” Crucially, the three groups are capable of operating in tandem in northern Mali, even if their goals are not the same.

In contrast, the MNLA is avowedly secular, and has few alliances with other groups.  Thus, the Tuareg find themselves battling a network of militias, each capable of waging separate guerrilla wars, meaning the MNLA faces an extraordinarily difficult task in reasserting control over Azawad.

ECOWAS to the Rescue?

The international community has been growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Mali, hoping that it avoids the fate of Afghanistan and Somalia in becoming another chaotic multinational battleground against Islamism. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recently approved the deployment of 3,300 troops to Azawad, and plans will be submitted to both the African Union and United Nations Security Council.

The two international players with the largest stake in Mali appear to be France and ECOWAS, though Algeria, which has long attempted to increase leadership in the region, may also exert significant influence. “For France, part of [its interest] is concern for a former colony. You can’t completely erase that,” explains Lecocq. “The other is that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a direct threat to French interests, not so much in Mali as in Niger.” French businesses operating in Niger have fallen prey to AQIM attacks. In 2010, seven workers for the French nuclear energy company Areva were kidnapped in Niger and transported to Mali. Though three have been released, an additional pair of French nationals was taken hostage later, and France has recently sent military surveillance drones over Azawad.

Most of the military burden though will probably fall to ECOWAS. Many member nations have faced similar legitimacy problems of their own over the past few decades, and ECOWAS forces have been instrumental in ending conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Furthermore, the links between the Islamist groups in Mali and insurgent activities in neighboring states threaten to destabilize the entire region.  Leaders have been urging Alassane Ouattara, the President of Cote d’Ivoire and current chairman of ECOWAS, to develop military plans.

However, the international community has disagreed over what military involvement should look like. Assistant Professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies Dr. Benjamin Nickels tells the HPR, “The easy way to characterize these various differences of views is… [some] feel that something must be done as soon as possible to reduce AQIM and other Islamist violent extremist groups operating in the North, and [others] are not ready to act without further preparations. What constitutes success is an important part of this debate.”  Rebuilding the Malian state requires a different approach than simply kicking out the Islamists, and the dissension between international advocates of each approach will play an important role in determining Mali’s fate.

Overall, the conflict in Azawad will continue and consume many lives, and before 2012 ends, it will likely have involved a wide swath of the global community.  However, foreign players should recognize that they will not end the problems of northern Mali simply by ousting Ansar Dine, MUJWA, and AQIM.  Azawad is a warning to ECOWAS, reminding them just how important the capacity and legitimacy of each member state is to regional security.

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