18 January 2013


Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:01 am

Many years ago my traveler’s checks were stolen in Tangier by some English guy who later cashed them in Timbuktu, which happens to be in Mali. Other than that I had paid virtually no attention to the place until the French government’s recent military intervention. Here’s what I’ve pieced together:

Mali has undergone numerous political upheavals since France cut it loose in 1960. From 1992 a publicly elected government held office. Just before the scheduled 2012 elections the military seized power via a coup. The military say they took charge because the elected government was not maintaining a hard enough line against the Tuaregs of the north, who wanted to establish an Islamist state. I infer that the military was concerned about Islamist candidates doing well in the upcoming elections, as well as the possibility that the Tuaregs would be permitted to secede from Mali in order to form their own nation. Not surprisingly, a sizable proportion of the Malian populace is incensed that a stable, popularly-elected government has been deposed by military strongmen. Again not surprisingly, the resistance is being led by the Tuaregs.

So when France unleashes bombing sorties against the so-called Islamist extremist terrorists, it’s siding with the leaders of the military coup that only last year overthrew the democratically elected government. The Malian government has also called on neighboring Algeria to aid in suppressing the resistance. Algeria’s history is similar to Mali’s. In 1991 an Islamist coalition won the popular elections. In response a military coup ensued, deposing the elected government and triggering a civil war in which something like 200 thousand people were killed. A democratic republic has subsequently been installed, but it’s clear that the military still controls the Algerian government.

Again not surprisingly, not a few Algerians take exception to the Algerian military strongmen going to the aid of the Malian military strongmen. And so in protest an armed Islamist faction took control of a natural gas field, holding local and foreign energy workers as hostages. The Algerian military came charging in, guns blazing, mowing down captors and captives alike.

Is this largely an ethnic skirmish, limited to an uprising among the minority Tuaregs who also happen to be supporters of sharia law? Or are the Tuaregs standing on the front lines of a more widespread popular resistance against the military dictators that have seized power in the country? I don’t know. An estimated 90% of Malians are Islamic, but that doesn’t mean most of them support the establishment of an Islamic state. But I’d be surprised if most of them prefer a military dictatorship to the elected government which it overthrew just last year.



  1. Excerpts from this recent Al Jazeera article:

    Timbuktu is the gateway to the Sahara desert. North of here are vast seas of sand believed to be filled with oil and gas. Algeria, France and Qatar are exploring the Mauritanian side of the massive Taoudeni Basin, while Algeria holds exploration concessions on northern Mali’s side. The region’s indigenous Tuaregs believe this land also contains a mother lode of uranium, gold and more. But northern Mali is only rich in theory – it is one of the poorest regions on Earth, which the government of Mali has done little to develop. That is one of the reasons why the secular Tuareg rebel movement – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – rose up in January 2012 and swept the northern two-thirds of Mali, declaring an independent state called Azawad. But the MNLA rebels were soon sidelined by al-Qaeda and its local offshoots, which pushed them from the cities and took over the region, imposing Sharia. The MNLA declined to fight al-Qaeda and beat a tactical retreat. They say their primary enemy is Mali, and until the world recognises them, they cannot lose blood and treasure opening a second front…

    Al-Qaeda has based itself in northern Mali for 10 years, as part of an alleged secret agreement with Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), the president of Mali who was deposed in a military coup in March 2012 as northern cities were falling to Tuareg rebels. During ATT’s presidency, AQIM amassed an outrageous fortune in Mali – collecting up to $250m in hostage ransoms from Western governments for more than 50 European and Canadian hostages kidnapped over the past decade, usually from neighbouring Niger…

    For years Malian Tuaregs have been complaining that their government was in bed with al-Qaeda, but their cries fell on deaf ears. “Mali opened the field to Al Qaeda- to roam among the camps and villages, to build relationships with the people… Mali facilitated Al Qaeda” (Colonel Al Salat Ag Habi,Commander MNLA). According to numerous northern residents, AQIM fighters have been circulating openly in Tuareg towns, not for the past year, but for the past 10 years; shopping, attending weddings, and parading fully armed in the streets, in front of police stations and military barracks…

    This region has been dealing with Tuareg rebellions and Tuareg separatism for 50 years. Not a single country in the Sahel or Sahara supports the notion of a new state, especially not one that might fuel Berber aspirations in Algeria, or more seriously, spark Tuareg irredentism on the part of oil-rich southern Algeria’s Tuareg populace, or oil-rich southwest Libya’s Tuaregs, or uranium-rich northern Niger’s Tuaregs. The major existential threat to states like Mali, Niger and Algeria is Tuareg/Berber rebellion and separatism. The fact that Tuaregs are one of the world’s poorest and most isolated people living atop some of the world’s richest resources only fuels the fear, and the desire. Of the millions of dollars in US and EU support allocated to help the Malian army fight al-Qaeda, much of it was diverted to fight the Tuareg insurgency. Ighlas Ag Offin, a national security official in the Office of the President witnessed ATT ordering 55 military vehicles and a massive weapons cache to equip an Arab militia during the 2008 rebellion. “Those weapons had come to Mali as foreign aid to fight terrorism. All of it went north to fight the Tuaregs,” says Offin, “and to this day they are still in the hands of that militia.” Profits and kickbacks from drug smuggling were also allegedly thrown into the fight…

    The one armed force that has both the numbers and local knowledge to credibly expel al-Qaeda from a wide swath of the Sahara and keep them out over the long term would be the region’s indigenous Tuareg fighters. But giving them a mandate to do that would mean recognising and empowering them as a force with legitimate demands, which neither Mali, nor any neighbouring country wants to do. Meanwhile the Tuaregs have a sinking feeling: The fear that they are the ones who will be killed in any coming war, in the name of fighting al-Qaeda.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 January 2013 @ 8:56 am

  2. I think this is an accurate summary. Uranium and the promise of oil are what drive the Western interest in the Sahara.


    Comment by Sam Carr — 20 January 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  3. Uranium and oil also fuel sub-Saharan interests and the Arabs’ interest from the north and east. The Al Jazeera piece makes me curious about whether the Emir of Qatar, who is the power behind Al Jazeera, will step in as mediator in Mali. He’s been active in Egypt, Gaza, Libya, and Syria, bridging Western and Islamic interests.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 January 2013 @ 4:53 pm

  4. Yes, as you’ve noted, most accounts get a bit fuzzy when it comes to the topic of the coups. There were 2 successful ones and one failed one, I think.

    First, the one that overthrew Toure days before the election. I think you suggested that maybe the Islamist looked like winning, but I don’t think there was any Islamist party contending – not sure there. But whatever, that’s usually skimmed over, giving me the impression that no-one really knows what went on (or those that know ain’t telling). Then there’s a failed coup – who attempted it? And then there’s another coup, of the army against the army? How does this make sense?

    To be fair, I think I read one account that suggested the second coup may have been because the power group from the first coup wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about foreign intervention – that figures, but I could have thought of that for myself.

    So no-one in the MSM seems very curious about what’s going on. Oh well, we’re used to that.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 27 January 2013 @ 6:47 pm

  5. Mali seems to have receded from public view. The French-Malian forces swept through, the Islamists faded back into the desert like a mirage to regroup elsewhere, nothing changes except perhaps a more permanent military presence in Timbuktu and other oasis towns. It makes sense that the coup wouldn’t have been Islamist; more likely strong sub-Saharan Malian. The ousted elected prime minister doesn’t sound like a pinnacle of public accountability, but you have to start somewhere — better than military dictatorship or neocolonialism.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 January 2013 @ 8:02 pm

  6. It sounds as though most of the Tuaregs consider themselves well rid of the Salafi extremist extortionists. Neither the ousted elected government nor the coup-installed military government has been prepared to offer the Tuaregs more autonomy. Maybe that will change now, since an indigenous armed force constitutes the best bet for keeping the extremists at bay.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 January 2013 @ 6:38 am

  7. But now this:

    The UN anti-genocide envoy says he is “deeply disturbed” by reports of reprisal attacks by Malian troops as they retake control of the north. Such widespread and systematic abuses could “constitute atrocity crimes”, Adama Dieng said in a statement. The military is suspected of recruiting and arming proxy militia groups to kill Arabs and ethnic Tuaregs, he added.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 February 2013 @ 9:25 pm

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