While much attention has been focused on Mali’s capital Bamako following the March 22 coup overthrowing Mali’s elected government, developments in the northern part of the country may have greater regional implications. Bolstered by fighters and weapons flowing from Libya, separatist Tuareg rebels have succeeded in driving out government forces and allowed a number of Islamist groups to expand their presence. Niger’s Ambassador to the United States Maman Sidikou, Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council, and Anouar Boukhars from McDaniel College discussed the situation in Mali, its regional context, and the role of the international community at a panel hosted by the Carnegie Endowment and the Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham moderated the conversation.
- The History of Tuareg: There are about 1.5 million Tuareg spread across five countries in the Sahel, including Mali, said Atallah. In recent decades, the Tuareg have come together and called for an independent state, commonly referred to as the Azawad. The Tuareg have long shared a relationship of mistrust with the government, Atallah added.
- The Tuareg and the State: Atallah added that there have been four Tuareg uprisings, the first one in 1962 and the most recent in 2012. Algeria has aided in efforts to negotiate between the Malian government and the Tuareg, with limited success. Meanwhile, some Tuareg gained military experience and arms by serving in the Libyan army, while Mali made some attempts to incorporate Tuareg into the Malian army, police, and government between 1992 and 1994, Atallah said.
- The Actors: Northern Mali is a complicated region, home to a number of diverse actors and groups, Atallah said. Boukhars argued that it is important not to over-analyze religious commonality between these groups and to keep in mind their different purposes and approaches. Sidikou stated that such differences are somewhat irrelevant if the end-goal of consolidation through terrorist means is the same. The groups with a presence in northern Mali include:
- MNLA: The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) officially speaks for the independence of the Azawad and represents a secular entity, not just the Tuareg, said Atallah.
- AQIM: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) originated in Algeria. It is not a Tuareg group, but is currently present in northern Mali and has contributed to the takeover of the region, Atallah said.
- Ansar Al Dine: Ansar Al-Dine has Salafi tendencies. It remains largely unaccepted by the MNLA, although the two cooperate on some issues.Boukhars labeled it a pragmatic entity; while it has ties with AQIM, it also claims to have similarities with more moderate regional groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda.
- MUJAO: The Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is an offshoot of AQIM and has been actively involved in holding people for ransom, said Atallah. Boukhars added that it has only targeted Algerians to date.
- FLNA: The National Liberation Front of Azawad (FLNA) is an Arab group; it is not pushing for secession, but demanding that government invest more in the region’s development, including tourism in Timbuktu, said Atallah.
- Roots of the Crisis: The coup that destabilized the south of Mali and the Tuareg rebellion in the north share a number of root causes, said Boukhars. He suggested that they stem from the decay of state institutions, high levels of corruption, the lack of a credible response to the demands of the Tuareg, transnational border crime, the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, and the unwillingness of Algeria to play a leading regional role.
- Rising Discontent: Boukhars stated that while the coup and Tuareg uprising took some by surprise, discontent had been mounting for a long time. The Tuareg were resentful that the government was investing money in military facilities in the north rather than infrastructure to serve the population, and decided to pursue their goals of an Azawad state before it became too late, Atallah explained.
- The Failure of the State: Mali’s political elites seem to have abdicated their responsibility for dealing with the grievances of the Tuareg, Boukhars said. He explained that the military remains underfunded and ill-equipped and there is a widespread mismanagement of the state, both contributing to the Tuareg rebellion.
- Terrorist Consolidation: The presence of terrorists like AQIM puts the entire region in jeopardy, Sidikou asserted. He expressed concern that terrorists are consolidating power.
- Regional Context: Sidikou noted that the whole Sahel region is facing a number of serious challenges. In addition to drought and high food prices, many Malian citizens are scared and fleeing to neighboring nations, which have constraints of their own. Niger, for example, is now spending $20 million to buy arms and secure its territories, while its people suffer from hunger and other social challenges.
- Returning Stability to the South: Boukhars stated that the south would need to reinstate its institutions and stability before the issue of the north could appropriately be dealt with.
- Autonomy for the North: Once political order returns, the Malian government will need to consider options for the north. Atallah and Boukhars argued that autonomy may be the only option remaining.
- Dealing with Actors in the North: Sidikou noted that the problems in the north are exacerbated by non-local extremist groups. Atallah added that it would be important to build on the indigenous community’s will to weed out extremism.
- Role of the International Community: Sidikou stated that the United States should provide help through logistical support, training, and intelligence in close collaboration with regional actors. He noted that he is not asking the United States for its soldiers, but rather, support. He suggested the international community should form a “Friends of the Sahel” group similar to the Friends of Yemen.