It was one year ago that Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized control of the vast desert north of Mali, and declared an independent state in the remote territory which had long been a sort of internal colony. But within weeks, control of Azawad was usurped by jihadist factions, who drove the MNLA from the territory. After months of harsh sharia rule in northern Mali, France intervened late last year, helped government forces drive back the jihadists, and established tenuous control over the north. Sporadic fighting continues, and the MNLA have joined the offensive against the Islamists, while stressing their independence from the French and government forces. The MNLA now have control of the town of Kidal, in an uneasy alliance with French-backed Chadian troops. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, visting the capital Bamako last week, said the MNLA will have to accept being disarmed and “confined.” An AP report of April 7 noted celebrations by Tuaregs on the anniversary of the MNLA’s takeover, but also implied that the rebel group has abandoned its separatist aspirations. Moussa ag-Assaride, the MNLA’s communications chief, was cited as saying he knew that many in northern Mali are not aware that the group officially is no longer seeking independence. “But that doesn’t stop the population from showing their joy,” he said.
The UN this week again expressed concern over continuing violence against ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs in Mali, where the two groups have faced reprisals since the jihadists were driven from power in the noth. UN under-secretary for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman said that while “arbitrary acts of violence” against Tuaregs and Arabs have recently slowed, there are continuing “retaliatory attacks based on ethnicity.” The UN estimates that about 470,000 people have fled the fighting—with more than 290,000 internally displaced within Mali, and some 177,000 now living as refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
In a report to the Security Council, Feltman also noted an alarming crisis of food insecurity in northern Mali. He said there are some 750,000 people in need of immediate food assistance within the country, and 660,000 children at risk of malnutrition this year.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed putting in place a UN “stabilization mission” mostly recruited from African troops already part of the International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), as well as a French-led “parallel force” to undertake continued “counter-terrorism” efforts. (Xinhua, April 13; AFP, April 4)
Human Rights Watch provides a grim example of continuing government attacks on Tuaregs, reporting that two Tuareg men who had been arrested on Feb. 15, and tortured by Malian soldiers in the town of Léré, Timbuktu region, have died in detention at the Central Prison in Bamako. HRW had documented the torture inflicted on seven Tuareg detainees, including the two who died, in a March 26 news release. They had been transferred on March 5 to Gendarme Camp 1 in Bamako, where they apparently received some medical attention. In late March, they were transferred to the Central Prison.
“The Malian government’s failure to investigate the torture of the seven men is made all the worse by the death of two of them in prison,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at HRW, who interviewed the men before their transfer to the central prison. “These men are the most recent to perish in custody on account of severely substandard conditions. The government needs to take concrete action to improve both treatment and conditions for all its detainees.”
The two died during the night of April 6 as a result of excessive heat, possibly combined with the injuries from their earlier mistreatment. While detained by the army, one of the deceased had been injected with a caustic substance, and had suffered a fractured rib and burns on his back. (HRW, April 11)
The food crisis in Mali also seems to be disproportionately affecting Tuaregs. Aid agencies say hunger in Mali has reached “crisis levels” in Kidal region, the principal Tuareg stronghold, compared to “critical levels” in Gao and Timbuktu regions. One in five households in Gao and Timbuktu are facing severe food shortages, while in Kidal one in five households faces severe malnutrition and increasing mortality. “The problem is that people are starting [the lean season] from an already highly deteriorated position. Assistance is not yet meeting needs, and even if security improves dramatically tomorrow it will take a long time for households to rebuild their livelihoods,” Cedric Charpentier, West Africa specialist for the World Food Program (WFP), told the UN news agency IRIN. (IRIN, April 12)