David Jacobson and Rafael Serrano
December 14, 2012
The Tuareg, the nomadic group that has inhabited the Sahel region of West Africa for centuries, are facing an emerging humanitarian catastrophe in northern Mali, together with several other smaller groups. They are caught in a pincer between jihadi extremists who engage in drug-running and kidnappings of Westerners on the one hand — and a coalition of states forming to crush the extremists on the other. The isolated and vulnerable Tuareg, the vast majority of whom practice a moderate form of Islam, risk being caught in a bloodletting–unless Western policymakers bring the Tuareg plight into their planning for stabilizing the region.
Indeed, much killing of Tuareg has already begun, and hundreds of thousands of Tuaregs have fled Mali and are in refugee camps in neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. Equally importantly, if the Tuareg and other minorities lose their footing to the jihadis, the stability of the region may well be compromised. The humanitarian plight, and even more severe risks in the future, has remained constant through the cycle of rapidly moving events in the region—from coups to mediated talks to planning for intervention. Curiously the limited, substantive dialogue on the evolving nature of the previously existing humanitarian crisis risks a loss of current contextual understanding of the situation in the plans for expelling the militant Islamist elements.
The threats to the local populations are clear on the ground, and were articulated to us during a lengthy discussion we had recently in Paris with two leaders of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad). We met with the MNLA minister of foreign affairs, Hamma Ag Mahmoud, and their minister of information, Moussa Ag Assarid. They belong to the Transitional Council of the State of Azawad, the executive body of the MNLA. We met with the ministers to get first-hand perspectives for a research study of tribes and militant violence in the region.
On the one side the Tuareg face the depredations of three jihadist groups, including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who have imposed brutal rule based on extreme forms of Sharia law in the major cities of northern Mali. Women, who have traditionally held a prominent status among the Tuareg–much better than most women elsewhere in northern Africa–have been forced to wear veils and stay indoors. Sufi shrines have been desecrated in the ancient Islamic center of Timbuktu. Amputations and floggings have been imposed for supposed transgressions–first in public and, after public protests by residents, the jihadists were forced to do their work inside jails.
The ministers told us that the jihadists are receiving significant support from outside parties, including arms and supplies provided under the auspices of some Islamic humanitarian organizations, based in the Gulf and in a neighboring country. This is not unprecedented, as similar tactics were observed during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, though it is not clear if these are the acts of individual “entrepreneurs” within these NGOs, or the official organizations themselves. Other NGOS are playing critical, life-saving roles and are providing essential public services in the cities and the refugee camps, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Two of the three jihadist movements–AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) are primarily made up of Arab and African (and possibly some European) foreigners from outside Mali. The third, Ansar Dine, is led by a breakaway Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali. Ansar Dine’s support among the Tuareg is largely limited to one clan, the Ifoghas. However, we learned that Ag Ghali has alienated even some of his own kin relations, as well as traditional tribal leaders. It has been reported that Ag Ghali’s own parents threatened to disown him if he started fighting his own people. His support at the rank and file level is, the ministers suggested, a function of monetary payments given to his foot soldiers.
All three of the jihadi groups are involved in drug trafficking through the Sahel. They have started cooperating with other militant groups, such as the Nigerian Boko Haram which has been responsible for escalating violence in Nigeria. Boko Haram militants were observed in Mali, according to the ministers, some 300 miles northeast of the city of Gao.
The jihadists in essence hijacked a Tuareg rebellion. In early 2012, the MNLA wrested control of northern Mali, or the Azawad, from the Malian army, in surprisingly easy fashion, considering that they booted out both army and administration from the huge region, while simultaneously declaring independence. However, this triumph was fleeting, as heavily armed jihadi militants hijacked the moment from the MNLA. In June 2012, these militants took control of the three major cities in northern Mali, including Timbuktu.
The second part of the pincer is the politics of the states in the region, and how this in turn impacts the policy of Western states, notably France and the United States.
The tensions with Mali’s central government are deep-seated. The Tuareg feel that the needs of the Azawad have been largely ignored since the independence of Mali in 1960, with little development money or political power sharing coming their way. As a result of a series of agreements unevenly applied by the central government in Bamako, the Tuareg struggle against the Malian government goes back decades. Failed Tuareg revolts in the past have resulted in indiscriminate retribution on the part of Malian forces, with many Tuareg killed as a consequence. The fears of more bloody retribution are not unfounded, and Tuareg villagers have recently been massacred in southern Mali.
So the position of the Mali government — which has been in disarray since a coup early this year overthrowing President Amadou Amani Toure that was precipitated by the MNLA actions in the North – is evident. Their nation has been split in two, and they blame the MNLA for the situation and by extension the populations the MNLA represents.
The imbroglio extends also to the activities of other countries in West Africa. The regional confederation of countries called ECOWAS, under the auspices of a UN initiative, is supposed to militarily intervene in Mali to oust the jihadists and reintegrate the Azawad into the former borders of Malian nation. This intervention will take place no sooner than September 2013. But from the perspective of the MNLA the ECOWAS intervention would cause manifold problems.
The Tuareg fear they will be caught between the jihadists and ECOWAS, and that massive killing and widespread atrocities will result. ECOWAS troops will be unable to distinguish the different populations in the region from the foreign (or indigenous) jihadists. Ethnic tensions, including those between darker skinned and lighter skinned Africans such as those that reached genocidal proportions in Sudan, could likewise emerge in northern Mali, where the lighter skinned Tuaregs are often loathed by darker skinned southerners. Moreover, the troops of ECOWAS are generally not trained for desert combat. The area that some 3,000 ECOWAS troops would cover is roughly the size of France and is largely harsh, arid wasteland. The militants will likely make a tactical retreat but continue to operate effectively, including the brutal imposition of their rule, in those areas where ECOWAS would be absent — which would be an extensive area.
The French and American governments in turn are seeking solutions, based on an ECOWAS military intervention, but are fearful of alienating regional governments needed for any intervention. The Transitional Council of the State of Azawad has had no contacts with the American government, aside from some humanitarian engagements, even though, it was clear to us, they are keen to have such contacts.
What to do? In the best of circumstances, present plans will only get us to status quo ante, with Mali back in nominal control of the North, and with the militant groups, including AQIM, remaining active in the desert regions outside the cities. The Tuareg, overwhelmingly civilian, will likely face terrible retribution and bear the brunt of lives lost.
What needs to happen is that the Western governments need to engage the Tuareg, including the MNLA, both for dealing with the immediate challenge of the jihadists, and for a more long-term solution to a decades long conflict. In the immediate challenge of defeating the jihadists, the Tuareg know the region and people (including the Songhai and Fulani people) and as such will be able to assist in better protecting the civilian populations. The ministers told us the MNLA has a large number of troops who would willingly wage battle against the jihadi terrorists if these troops were properly equipped and supported.
In the longer term, the Tuareg must be engaged to reach longer-term solutions in Mali–which in turn is essential to dealing with outside militant groups. The foreign minister, Hamma Ag Mahmoud, told us that, yes, the Tuareg wish for independence from Mali. But, he said explicitly, they recognize that the international community is not supportive of independence, and that they are willing to consider other forms of greater self-determination inside Mali. Niger, for example, has reached understandings with its own Tuareg population.
And yes, some regional governments will object to engaging the Tuareg as partners–but this is why we have diplomats, whose job is to pull different parties towards compromise. Unlike other seemingly interminable conflicts around the world, the Tuareg are displaying a more pragmatic approach. They also represent a pluralistically minded Islam based on Sufism, with deep roots in Africa. But presently they are falling in the shadows of diplomatic efforts–at enormous humanitarian risk, as well as a potentially lost opportunity for managing the conflicts in the region. The time available to act productively is, however, rapidly diminishing. Already, taking advantage of the vacuum created by indecisiveness, the three jihadist groups are conquering more cities in the Azawad, pushing the MNLA further into the wilderness, while at the same time applying a brutal form of Sharia in every locality under their control.
David Jacobson is the author of “Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict,” out on January 10, and director of the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida. Rafael Serrano is a researcher at the Citizenship Initiative. They are leading a study of tribes and religious militancy in West Africa.