April 12th, 2012
06:07 PM ET

Disaster looms for people of Mali as country is split by revolt

By Tim Lister

Africa has seen some ugly divorces in recent times: Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. Now Mali is threatened with partition as a rebellion flares in the north and political uncertainty grips the capital, Bamako. Mali’s neighbors and western governments are looking on anxiously as drug traffickers and Islamist groups affiliated with al Qaeda take advantage of the vacuum – in a region already blighted by hunger, poverty and weak government.

The origins of Mali’s collapse are two-fold. In January Tuareg rebels began attacking towns in the vast deserts of northern Mali. Many had recently returned from fighting for Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, bringing guns and vehicles with them. Then, on March 22, there was a coup by mid-ranking officers in Mali’s army angry with corruption and the lack of resources for fighting the rebellion.

A vast country of few inhabitants (15 million) and searing desert, Mali lies at an awkward intersection in Africa. To the north is a 1,200 kilometer border with Algeria; to the east Niger with its own restive Tuareg minority; to the west Mauritania. All four countries are dealing with the growing presence of Islamist groups affiliated with al Qaeda.

Tuareg revolts in Mali and Niger are nothing new. Long marginalized, the pastoral and nomadic Tuareg have frequently taken up arms, sometimes with Gadhafi’s backing. “The Tuareg feel like the outsiders of the national economy, completely excluded from the economic resources in many regions,” says Salma Belaala, a professor at Warwick University in England who studies jihad in the Sahel.

This revolt, launched by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is more serious than previous rebellions. Its fighters now control several important towns in the north, including Gao on the river Niger and the fabled city of Timbuktu, where the mayor has spoken of teenage boys strutting through the streets with AK-47s. An area the size of Texas is now beyond the government’s control. The MNLA has declared independence for Azawad.

Speaking to the U.N. Security Council last week, Mali’s envoy Omar Daou said: "Our people are divided. Our country is threatened with partition."

The vast areas involved – and some of the most inhospitable and scorched terrain on earth – make outside intervention risky. Western analysts say the plan by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to deploy some 3,000 troops to reclaim areas held by the rebels may just make the situation worse. The Tuareg rebels are hardened fighters. Their chief of staff, Mohammed Ag Najm, was a colonel in Libya, and several hundred other Tuareg served in Libyan uniforms.

Professor Jeremy Keenan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London says it’s difficult to know how many the MNLA has under arms and to separate its core force from hangers-on. "But who’s going to kick them out?" he asks. "Not the Malian army, and ECOWAS would be very unwise to try to do any more than draw a line in the sand."

The MNLA is a secular, nationalist movement opposed to al Qaeda. Its Paris representative, Moussa Ag Assarid, told CNN last week: "The biggest challenge now isn’t the military, it is to get rid of al Qaeda. We need schools and the people don’t have enough food, and that is because of al Qaeda making things unstable."

Al Qaeda? Really?

Even seasoned observers of Mali and AQIM admit that it’s difficult to unravel the links between Islamist extremists and Tuareg factions. But it’s clear the militants are at least fellow travelers in this revolt. One Tuareg group, Ansar Dine, aims to establish an Islamic state in northern Mali and is present in several newly "liberated" areas. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, has called on the people of Timbuktu to wage "jihad against those who resist Sharia"; there are unconfirmed reports that Ag Ghaly met three emirs of AQIM in Timbuktu on April 3rd.

Accounts from Timbuktu in the last week say the black flag associated with al Qaeda has been hoisted on pick-up trucks.

A journalist in the city, Yayha Tandina, says Islamists who arrived in the city are demanding the imposition of Sharia law. Tandina told CNN Thursday that Ansar Dine “pretty much has control of the entire city, and is attempting to destroy all signs of Christianity, shutting down bars that sell alcohol and harassing cigarette vendors.”

“What they want is to cut the hands of those who commit adultery….And they will no longer accept girls who are dressed in [what they call] a “disastrous” way,” Tandina said.

Other sources say the group has attracted teenage boys to its ranks with offers of food, now in short supply in many areas.

That’s set off alarm bells in the country that once ruled Mali. French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, says it “appears that this extreme Islamist-Jihadist faction is taking the upper hand among the different Tuareg factions."

But the MNLA’s Ag Assarid told CNN last week: "It is true that Ansar Dine have the black flags, but they are not al Qaeda. They want stability on the streets. Although they want Sharia law, they are against al Qaeda, too." Salma Belaala, a professor at Warwick University in England studying jihad in the Sahel region, supports that assessment. “We can’t make a systematic link between the AQIM and Tuareg. It’s completely false,” she told CNN.

Professor Keenan says there is another complicating factor, asserting that the Algerian security service, the DRS, is highly influential among leaders such as Ag Ghaly, with whom it has long had links, as well as with key regional leaders of AQIM (such as Abdelhamid abou Zaid). Keenan believes that the Algerians see some benefit in the “specter” of al Qaeda roaming the desert because it heightens their importance to the U.S, as a partner in counter-terrorism – even as they simultaneously lead regional efforts to co-operate against extremist groups. Algerian officials reject claims they have any links with AQIM.

AQIM’s hierarchy, reach and its links with Tuareg factions may be as clear as a sandstorm but it has certainly become more audacious in Mali. Intelligence sources in the region say it has makeshift camps in remote desert bordering Algeria and Mauritania. In November last year, it abducted three Europeans from a restaurant in Timbuktu, killing a German man who resisted. Two French geologists were kidnapped the same week. AQIM has threatened to kill all five if any rescue attempt is launched.

Some Tuareg leaders and military officers claim that AQIM benefited from the complicity or at least negligence of the previous civilian government – with some influential politicians allegedly profiting from the extremists’ connections to drug trafficking and ransoms paid to free western hostages.

A stormy outlook

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has persuaded coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to transfer power (if not leave the stage), and the Speaker of Mali’s National Assembly, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in as interim President Thursday. The U.S. State Department has described the transition as "not ideal" but also "a very important restoration of civilian rule."

Regional sources doubt that Traore can or wants to negotiate with the Tuareg. As he took his oath of office Thursday, he threatened “total war” against the rebels – a position that appears to have the support of other west African states.

"We prefer peace, but if war is the only way out, we will wage it," Traore said, according to Reuters in Bamako.

For now, it seems extremely unlikely that whoever is in charge in Bamako (Traore, a newly elected President or Sanogo) would implement past promises of autonomy and development for Tuareg areas, and reach an agreement with the MNLA to integrate its fighters into the army. The anti-Tuareg mood in Bamako has grown visceral; and the MNLA are unlikely to give up gains for pledges so often reneged on.

The nightmare scenario for western governments is that without the rapid re-establishment of civilian rule parts of northern Mali, southern Algeria and Mauritania could become a safe-haven for al Qaeda in the same way that the group has exploited power vacuums in Yemen and Somalia.

For ordinary Malians, Tuareg or not, the nightmare is very different. In one of the poorest countries in Africa, many already know hunger and insecurity. Their situation has just become more precarious.

NGO workers in Bamako tell CNN speak of widespread looting in Gao, with aid groups and government offices targeted and food stores looted. Olivier Vandecasteele of Medecins du Monde says the group’s property in Gao was ransacked and its vehicles stolen. MdM continues to work in two northern regions through local staff, stressing its independence from the Tuareg fighters there. But Vandecasteele says that with the onset of the dry season, child malnutrition could rise sharply. And an offensive against rebel-held areas would make the group’s work even more difficult.

Vandecasteele estimates that the fighting has already displaced upwards of 10,000 people.

His words were echoed Thursday by UN Human Rights Commissoner Naviy Pillay, who warned that Mali “may soon be plunged into a devastating food crisis with a risk of other shortages, including medical supplies, if the insurrections and insecurity persist.”

CNN’s Joseph Netto contributed to this report

Filed under: Africa • Al Qaeda • Gadhafi • Libya • Mali • US Africa Command
soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. reextGtv

    canadian pharmacies tadalafil canadian drugs without prescription legitimate canadian online pharmacies

    June 13, 2021 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  2. reextAni

    verify canadian pharmacy riteaid online pharmacy domperidone canada pharmacy

    June 13, 2021 at 11:49 am | Reply
  3. fipleVed

    when cialis generic cialis pill canada expired cialis

    June 13, 2021 at 12:28 am | Reply
  4. reextDev

    legit canadian pharmacy sites rx pharmacy richland online pharmacy tramadol

    June 12, 2021 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  5. fipleloh

    does cialis cause high blood pressure too much cialis how to take cialis 10mg

    June 12, 2021 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  6. VelmSwa

    dgeneric cialis cialis sell generic cialis 200 mg

    June 9, 2021 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  7. reextAni

    no prescription online pharmacy pharmacy online free shipping walmart pharmacy store number sangani

    June 9, 2021 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  8. tadalafil blood pressure

    research chemicals tadalafil tadalafil warnings tadalafil brands

    June 9, 2021 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  9. fipleloh

    purchase cheap cialis soft tabs cialis online reddit shop for cialis

    June 9, 2021 at 8:31 am | Reply
  10. clupsAsd

    buy brand cialis online cialis 36 hours cialis online

    June 9, 2021 at 7:01 am | Reply
  11. reextGtv

    cheap scripts pharmacy Zantac what to consider as budget when running pharmacy store

    June 9, 2021 at 4:51 am | Reply
  12. reextHtf

    buy cialis online with paypal cialis 2.5mg price cialis morning wood

    June 8, 2021 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  13. reextHtf

    cialis for women dosage buy original cialis 10 mg cialis alcohol interaction

    June 8, 2021 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  14. VelmSwa

    what color is cialis pill cheap cialis online generic 365 cialis

    June 8, 2021 at 7:13 am | Reply
  15. generic cialis

    tadalafil goodrx cialis tablets tadalafil medication

    June 8, 2021 at 12:51 am | Reply
  16. fipleVed

    cialis trial offer viagra vs cialis hardness how much does cialis cost per pill

    June 7, 2021 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  17. reextDev

    top rated canadian online pharmacies modafinil canada pharmacy my canadian pharmacy review

    June 7, 2021 at 10:29 am | Reply
  18. reextGtv

    is it legal to buy drugs from canada buy cialis from canadian pharmacy anyone know of a legit online pharmacy for oxycodone

    June 5, 2021 at 2:11 am | Reply
  19. reextAni

    rite aid pharmacy how many store walmart pharmacy order online online pharmacy technician certification

    June 4, 2021 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  20. fipleVed

    cost for cialis what happens if a woman takes cialis is cialis cheaper than viagra

    June 4, 2021 at 8:37 am | Reply
  21. reextDev

    health canada drugs and health products viagra pharmacy online top canada drugs reviews

    June 4, 2021 at 2:42 am | Reply
  22. fipleloh

    why is cialis so expensive 2017 generic cialis vs cialis cialis pills price

    June 3, 2021 at 11:12 pm | Reply
1 2 3

Leave a Reply to fipleloh


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.