Timbuktu: who is in control?

A day after Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu fell to Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), it is now reported that Ansar Dine, an Islamist faction that had been cooperating with the rebels, has seized control there, raising its black flag at prominent points. Reports indicate a patchwork of loosely allied factions occupying the city, their ranks swelled by Tuareg and Arab defectors from Mali’s army. Gao, the other major northern city, also fell to the rebels over the weekend. (See map) (AP, BBC News, April 2; RFI, April 1)

At an emergency ECOWAS summit in Senegal, West African governments agreed to slap sanctions on the junta that has seized power in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and to seal the country’s borders. (AP, April 2) Amnesty International protested attacks by plainclothes thugs on protesters calling for the reinstatement of the country’s constitution. Coup leader Cpt. Amadou Sanogo pledged to launch a national dialogue. (AI, March 29) The junta did announce a restoration of the suspended constitution in response to the pressure. (RFI, April 1)

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  1. statement by the MNLA

    « Le MNLA a notifiĂ© son dĂ©saccord Ă  l’égard d’Ansar Adine, nous avons exprimĂ© l’opposition qui se trouve entre nos idĂ©es et celles des groupuscules islamiques.

    « Nous savons que certains ont intĂ©rĂȘt dans cette confusion, nous savons que certains ne sortiront grandis que quand le MNLA et son objectif seront compromis. Nous tenons Ă  leur dire que vous avez Ă©chouĂ© Ă  l’avance. Le MNLA a pris toute les dispositions pour se dĂ©marquer clairement des groupuscules islamiques aussi bien Al Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique qu’Ansar Adine dont nous ne partageons aucunement le combat.

    1. Wrong black flag
      Emphatically not “ours”!

      Thanks to Entdinglichung for posting the MNLA statement, which looks promising. Is an English translation available?

      1. constant coverage on Jura Libertaire
        regularly updated in French on http://juralib.noblogs.org/tag/azawad/ … according to http://juralib.noblogs.org/2012/04/03/vive-lazawad-libre-informations-sur-la-situation-a-tombouctou/ the MNLA tries to disarm the islamist and Moor militias in Timbuktu

        Il faut dire que le bureau politique du MNLA comprend en son sein des membres qui se laisseront aller Ă  tous les caprices d’Iyad Ag Ghaly Ă  cause de leur lien de parentĂ© et aussi Ă  cause de l’admiration aveugle et insensĂ©e que quelques jeunes naĂŻfs accordent Ă  ce criminel. En tout Ă©tat de cause, la menace Iyad Ag Ghaly et Ansar Adine sera probablement rĂ©glĂ© Ă  Tombouctou de maniĂšre diplomatique ou tout simplement par l’usage de la force. Un groupuscule criminel ne saurait jamais tenir tĂȘte aux centaines d’officiers supĂ©rieurs du MNLA et aux milliers de combattants du MNLA qui n’ont qu’un seul objectif : l’Azawad DĂ©mocratique et LaĂŻque.

        there is some older stuff in English on the MNLA webpage: http://www.mnlamov.net/english.html

        1. Tuareg coverage
          Thanks again for this. Somebody should really be translating these into English.

          Can you tell us what “Moors” (Maures) refers to in this context? In general English usage, that’s a rather sweeping term that can apply to a wide spectrum of North African peoples (Arab, Berber, Tuareg, admixtures thereof).

          And does the word Jura in the URL refer to the French mountain range?

          1. Moors do mean…
            Moors do mean the Arab-speaking inhabitants of the North-West of Mali bordering Mauritania and Algeria, in this area existed during the uprising in the early 1990ies already an islamist group, the Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azawad (FIAA), Jura Libertaire is, as far as I know, made by some people in the East of France close to the Jura mountains but I think, it also refers to the historic anarchist “Jura Federation” (which was based more on the Western Swiss side of the Jura)

  2. Grim vindication on Tuaregs
    At this time last year, your blogger, speaking at a public forum on the Libya crisis, cited the potential for the Libya conflict “to spread south into the Sahara and become internaitonalized”—with the Tuaregs, their homeland divided by post-colonial borders, the critical factor. A year later, we feel grimly vindicated.

    1. Rein in the enthusiasm
      ww4report.com has been quite good/factual/sober on this, but I would caution westerners to rein in their enthusiasm a bit for this “cause”. The fact is there is quite a large lobby in the former colonial power – France – and neighboring nations for “the Touareg cause”. This is not new: it comes from the colonial period and reflects their preference for/romantic attachment to these communities (in theory).

      But let me take this opportunity to put some mythology to rest.

      The well organized PR campaign for this latest insurgency misses most important points, and many perhaps well meaning westerners have eaten it up. The Touareg (or Kel Tamasheq) were treated by the French much like the United States treated American indians. First they killed as many as possible, then they bought one group off to fight another, then — when safely “pacified” — the French began to romanticize every element of Touareg culture and life. Unlike the Arabs or the Blacks, who the French actually had to deal with (and oppress) on a more regular basis, French society has developed a “noble savage” complex around the Touareg. What they have always most admired are the minority ruling classes of Touareg societies: free warriors who roam the desert, making war, writing poetry, and incidentally living off the enslavement of other Touareg castes and neighboring sedentary communities. That the French perceived Touareg nobility with whiteness didn’t hurt either.

      Neighboring communities and many Touareg saw free versus slave in skin color associations, although the number of dark skinned high caste Touaregs show that they view this more in the idea of slave versus free family histories. Still, race, broadly understood, is a huge unspoken contribution both to this conflict, and Europeans tremendous romanticism of the Touareg.

      This, like simple geography and demographics, is entirely absent from the propaganda many in the west repeat about this conflict. Touareg form a minority in northern Mali, even if the area is reduced from the rather ludicrous maps drawn in the diaspora. But they do not form anything like a majority in the northern half of Mali. The “Azawad” region now claimed as an ancestral home land, was until the 1990s a term for either the 150 km stretch of desert just north of Tombouctou, or (as “Adawagh”) a seasonal pasture area in Tahoua, Niger, hundreds of kilometers to the east. During the 1990 rebellion, several groups adopted the name as a collective term for the lands of pastoralsit Touareg and Arabs/”Maures” in Mali, but this was usually considered to only be the far north desert, some third of the region which has since late 2011 appeared on a series of foreign created maps. Prior to October 2011 no one had distributed maps of Azawad, and the title was meaningless to most Malians. That some of these maps include area with relatively tiny Touareg populations like Mopti Region, and all include the entire Songhai populated Niger River bend, shows how either how speculative such maps are.

      Members of Touareg and Arab/Maure communities in Mali (combined in their census) make up between 8% and 12% of Mali’s population of 15 million, and many live outside these northern areas. The far northeastern Kidal Region (created as an area of self governance for former rebel leaders from the Ifoghas nobility) is the area with the greatest pastoralist population. It has a population of fewer than 90,000, spread over an area the size of France. By contrast the majority black / sedentary northern regions of Tombouctou and Gao also claimed by the Paris based rebel group have populations between 500,000 and 300,000. The majority Songhai city of Gao (abandoned by the army and now being looted by a variety of rebel factions from the north) has a population alone larger than that of Kidal Region. So the notion that this is a “Touareg homeland” is simply untrue. Malians generally see it as an attempt by a small elite to pillage and control the nation they so long fought to build.

      The local majority — black — population equate light skinned pastorlists in general (and the upper classes of Touareg society specifically) with the slavery/serfdom many desert side communities experienced until Mali’s independence. The Songhai and other sedentary communities (including formerly bonded Touareg communities) are in fact quite hostile to this “Azawad” project, as are large portions of the Touareg pastoralist communities in the area. This is seen by the one group as an attempt to recapture communal/racial domination, and the other as an attempt by specific noble factions based around Kidal to impose dominance over other Touareg factions. That the MNLA and Ancar-Dine’s leaders are almost entirely drawn from just three of the many tribes in the region speaks to this being an internal power struggle rather than a national liberation movement.

      The French government had floated a plan to hive off Saharan areas prior to independence, and this was backed strongly by the leading Touareg noble leaders of the day. This plan, known by the French acronym OCRS, was penned after French officials began prospecting for oil and uranium in the area. Many noble lineage and ethnic nationalist Touareg still remember the failure of this plan with bitterness.

      The Ifoghas confederation was formed by French colonial rule, attaching to them tributary tribes from other Touareg tribes who had resisted colonial rule in other areas. These tributary groups are lumped into the catch all title Imghad. Their leaders formed the majority of government forces in Kidal, until support from the Army collapsed with the coup. Imghad groups make up something like half the Touareg in Kidal region.

      Malians did not miss that this new revolt has its politcal headquarters in Paris, or that the French foreign ministry admitted that it held high level meetings in its offices with MNLA leaders in the month prior to the rebels first attacks on Malian towns. The French government , about to face elections, have several nationals held hostage by Algerian jihadist somewhere in the remote border regions where Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania meet. France has long accused Mali of not doing enough to get them back, while Mali claims that the tens of millions of Euros European governments paid to hostage takers in the Sahara have created a big business among the smuggling community, resident in this remote area. Further, the 1990s and 2006 rebellion put in place agreements whereby new constituencies would be created for certain Touareg politicians in the north, and that all Touareg staff, locally commanded, and Malian funded military units would provide security.

      So many Malians suspect the initial rebellion was a confluence of interests between on faction of local Touareg notables and the French, in which once the rebellion took place, French forces would be allowed access to track down their hostages, and in return the French would mediate the next peace process (read: division of spoils). Note also that this part of Mali is the theater of competition over as yet unproven oil, manganese, gold, and perhaps uranium deposits. France and most other world or regional powers have a pressing interest in who will be in charge of this region in the coming years. Local notables and politicians are vying for a slice of these coming deals, just as a presidential election that was scheduled for 29 April might have caused a renegotiation of the networks of influence that snake through Malian government at all levels. Or even the loss of office so carefully negotiated. Again, many of these office holders have been claimed by the MNLA as their supporters.

      One thing I often hear from westerners is that this is a popular national struggle that has been driven to violence and unrelenting oppression. They likely do not know that there have been exactly two marches/rallies held by the MNLA and it’s predecessor the MNA in the year prior to their first attacks. The largest, in Kidal, brought out a crowd the MNA itself numbered at 300, while opponents claimed it was much smaller. As folks are no doubt now aware, the Malian state had little direct control in the north. Most political and security force leaders were themselves leaders in the 1990 and 2006 rebellion. Many are now claimed by the MNLA as supporters. So who exactly was suppressing their political struggle to such a degree that they were left with no choice but to begin shooting up other peoples towns?

      The political leadership of the MNLA were almost entirely relatives of the late Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a 1990s rebel who defected from the army unit he was given a job in as part of the peace process in the late 90s. Since 1999 he carried out attacks on truck traffic and army posts, and joined the 2006 rebellion, only to break from it when they signed peace agreements. He and his supporters have long carried out a lucrative smuggling operation in the far east of Kidal region, from a commune specifically created by the government to give him his own fiefdom (in exchange for peace). Ag Bahanga was killed in August 2011 returning from fighting for Gaddafi in Libya. At the time his father in law (now lead spokesman for the MNLA) said he died in a late night road accident.

      As with previous rebellions there has been no attempt to peruse goals through politics, or even call for the northern population to decide on these questions: no mention of referendums came from the MNLA press supporters until two months after their first armed attacks.

      No, this is neither a popular struggle, a national struggle, nor a progressive struggle.

      It is a small intra-ethnic conflict which local elites use to extort wealth for an already incredibly poor and often hopelessly corrupt Malian government. A series of unlucky circumstances have meant that what was planned as a short demonstrative but of political pressure has gotten away from those who started it.

      With over a million people already suffering food shortages this year, rural Malians are trying to stretch grains and forage to last until the rains that will come in May or June. Two hundred thousand Malians have been made homeless by the fighting so far. Bandit, criminal, and Algerian led jihadist armed groups, numbering less than a few thousand, have taken advantage of the chaos to control large sections of the north. The MNLA, despite its press releases, is outnumbered by even these small groups, and seems more and more likely to begin turning on one another, as its constituent commanders fall into disagreement. Other ethnic groups and communities have formed their own militias to protect their homes, and wholesale communal violence seems unavoidable at this time.

      To the middle class MNLA propagandists of Europa and America I say: if you want to be a rebel, do it in your own damn country, where you at least understand what’s going on. It may be sexy and romantic for westerns to view it as a noble struggle of right versus might. But you don’t have to pay any of the costs the Malian people are paying right now.

      1. “Sober” enthusiasm for Tuaregs?
        That was way longer than what our Posting Policy prescribes, but the political and factual content was so high that we’ll let it stand. Strange that you acknowledge our coverage has been “sober” and yet advise us to “rein in the enthusiasm.”

        Very interesting angle on the OCRS, an episode I had not been aware of. I did some Googling and found further details. From a UNHCR factsheet:

        The French established a fortress at Kidal in the Adrar des Ifoghas in 1908, but struggled to win recognition from the more entrenched Tuareg leaders, who resented France’s attempts to take over trans-Saharan trade, impose punitive taxation, and interfere in the Tuaregs’ relations with sedentary communities. There were accusations from Kidal and Gao of the colonialists using divide-and-rule tactics, and exploiting long-standing feuds and territorial disputes between different Tuareg confederations.

        Having seen off a small uprising in MĂ©naka in 1911, the French faced a much more significant insurrection in 1916 – the so-called ‘Kaocen Revolt’, named after its leader, Kaocen Ag Mohamed – when a Tuareg force, strongly influenced by Sufi anti-colonial religious leaders and suffering from the effects of severe drought, occupied large parts of what is now northern Niger before losing ground and being brutally countered by the French military the following year.

        In the run-up to independence in 1960, there were hints from Paris that the Organisation Commune des RĂ©gions Sahariennes (or Organization of the Saharan Regions, OCRS), could maintain control of desert areas in Mali and surrounding states. The OCRS was dissolved, but the sporadic recurrence of similar proposals has fuelled suspicions in Bamako of French plots to destabilize Mali and work for a mineral-rich, pliant Saharan state, occupied by Tuaregs but controlled by Paris.

        Instead, France started backing the government at Bamako, despite the Marxist leanings of the first post-independence leader, Modibo Keita. They had a common interest in containing the Tuaregs, it seems:

        The rebellion that broke out in 1962, known as the Alfellaga, was launched from Kidal, and featured a low-intensity campaign of hit-and-run attacks, but triggered an all-out response from Keita’s military. Thousands fled. The well-documented massacres of civilians, poisoning of wells and destruction of livestock have been repeatedly referenced in Tuareg literature and music, and in the manifestoes and programmes of later rebel movements. An Open Letter from Tuareg Women to the European Parliament in 1994 catalogued a series of atrocities from this period, “from the extermination of entire camps to public executions, the burning alive of civilians, and the deaths of women and children in prison”.

        From another factsheet, this one by the International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD):

        The Tuareg rebellion represents a constant and recurring issue that surfaced with French colonization. The conflict between state power and nation building in the African context appears to be well illustrated by the constant rejection by Tuareg of any state government over their traditional structure. They resisted colonization, but they have remained powerless in regards to how their Saharan and Sahelian lands were divided between Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. During the independences of the early sixties, their dreams of having their own territory faded as each one of those countries became independent, in spite of France’s attempt to recoup Tuareg domains from established countries to form one territory that would remain under French control. A colonial law, introduced by late Houphouet Boigny (while he was working for the colonial power France) in 1956 and passed into law on January 10 1957, briefly created a common organization for Saharan regions (OCRS), including territories from Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mali. The OCRS was liquidated a few years later, in 1963, after Algeria gained its independence in 1962. Even though France created the region for economic, military and geopolitical strategic reasons, the Tuareg people saw the law as a legal basis for the creation of their own territory. It is worth mentioning that the north of Mali is also populated by other tribes with different cultures, including the Peuls and Arabs, and they are not enthusiastic about secession from Mali, even though they are disappointed by broken promises of development coming from Bamako.

        Houphouet Boigny would be the first post-independence president of Ivory Coast, and was far more conciliatory to French interests even as president than most of the West African independence leadership. The Peuls are the Fulani, who have been involved in similar conflicts elsewhere in the Sahel, but I wasn’t aware that they extended that far north. In any case… even if the French attempted to manipulate the Tuareg to undermine the independence movement two generations ago, they are clearly backing Bamako and the neighboring governments against the Tuareg now. (Colonial powers have pulled such flip-flops before—e.g. the Belgians in Rwanda, to notoriously disastrous results…)

        As for rebelling in “our own damn country”… We’re doing our best.