On the 6th of April, 2012, Bilal Ag Acherif, the Secretary General of the nationalist organization of Tuareg rebels known as the MLNA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) who had just captured the historic city of Timbuktu, declared the independence of the state of Azawad in the northern deserts of Mali. This declaration was met with a chilly international reception: not a single country recognized the fledgling state.
Furthermore, much of the Western media refrained from characterizing the uprising as another domino in the string of revolutions known as the Arab Spring, which had since its beginnings in Tunisia spread far beyond the Arab world. Instead, the Tuaregs were never more than “rebels” or less glamorously “separatists” and their movement nothing more than an “uprising” or more insidiously an “insurgency”. The sole acknowledged connection to the Arab Spring was the short term impetus of this uprising: the flood of Tuareg soldiers from Libya who once served as mercenaries under Qaddaffi fleeing the country in the wake of his fall and bringing with them sophisticated military weapons and training that quickly overwhelmed the unprepared army of Mali.
In reality, the MNLA’s declaration of an independent state is another manifestation of the once Arab Spring, another attempt by a repressed population, in this case an ethnic minority, to achieve self-determination. Additionally, much like the revolution in Egypt, this Spring soon withered into an Islamist Winter as the MLNA’s nationalistic vision was superseded and ultimately destroyed by the visions of Ansar Dine and MOJWA (Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), two Islamist groups who were at first allied with the MLNA but later turned against the Tuareg nationalists and who seek to implement Sharia law across Mali.
The Tuareg are a nomadic and pastoral people inhabiting a large swathe of the Sahara desert and represent roughly 10% of Mali’s population, and their desire for an independent state is not new. They opposed French colonial rule on numerous occasions including in 1916 under the rebel leader Kaocen, and after Mali’s independence in 1960, they rebelled consistently, first from 1962-1964, then from 1990-1995, then 2007-2009, and most recently in 2012. Tuareg grievances are in many ways legitimate: under-representation in a government dominated by ethnic Mandé, as well as an opposition to the various mining industries operating in the Sahara which damage the environment and thus severely impact their nomadic way of life.
Their desire for an independent state is not without precedent either, despite the African Union’s general desire to protect the territorial integrity of its member states. Eritrea won a hard fought war for independence from Ethiopia in the 1990s, and South Sudan emerged in 2011 after almost half a century of civil war. Furthermore, Mali itself has only a short history as an independent state since 1960 and its current borders are the product of French colonial divisions that paid little attention to the ethnic groups of the region, and certainly not to the rebellious and nomadic Tuareg. In many ways the Tuareg nationalist uprising is a protest against the old colonial order and is an echo of the grievances of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, all of whom like the Tuaregs simply want a chance at self determination.
Sadly, however, the Tuareg nationalist uprising has been subsumed by the Islamist groups Asnar Dine and MOJWA. The leader of Ansar Dine is the enigmatic Iyad Ag Ghali, an ethnic Tuareg who was one of the primary leaders of the 1990 rebellion but who by 2012 was a fervent Islamist who had altered his nationalistic vision into one that sought the imposition of Sharia law across Mali and who maintained connections with the terrorist group AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magrehb). Soon after the declaration of an independent Azawad, Ansar Dine and MOJWA clashed with the MNLA in the town of Gao on 26 June, and after a protracted battle defeated them, wounded their leader Ag Acherif, and gained control of the Azawad territory.
Islamist rule in the Azawad was a chronicle of varying horrors, ranging from amputations to punish thievery to destruction of historic shrines in Timbuktu. Eventually, a UN resolution paved the way for French military intervention, and the Azawad was reclaimed in January 2013 from the Islamists, who fled back into the Sahara to regroup.
The MLNA, defeated but not destroyed, aligned itself with France and with the government of Mali during this intervention, determining that the Islamists represented the greater common threat and choosing to give up their dreams of an independent Azawad in exchange for greater autonomy within Mali. It remains to be seen, however, whether in the aftermath of the French victory the Tuaregs will be remembered at all, or whether their grievances will pushed aside and left to simmer once again, perhaps to boil over into yet another Tuareg Rebellion, perhaps one with even more disastrous consequences than 2012. What France and the government of Mali must realize is that stability in northern Mali cannot occur without a permanent solution to the Tuareg issue, if not with independence than with some guarantees to respect their traditional, nomadic way of life. But when the dust settles and France withdraws and the government of Mali reclaims the Azawad, will anyone remember that this conflict began with a legitimate nationalist dream?
The “insurgency” in Mali, therefore, really began as something greater – it was another cry for independence and dignity, like the cry echoing from Tunis and Cairo and Benghazi, and like those cries it was stifled and overshadowed by Islamic extremism. The Egyptians have currently returned to the barricades as Mosri and the Muslim Brotherhood threaten to impose strict Islamic guidelines on a multi-religious population, while in Tunisia the February 6th assassination of the secular leftist politician Chokri Belaid has galvanized the population into protests which now threaten to unseat the purportedly-moderate Islamist party of the nation where the whole “Arab” Spring started.
Mali is just another domino in the line of revolutions, one which is sadly following the pattern all to well: a burgeoning spring all too quickly frozen by the chill of Islamic extremism.