Tuaregs wait for other jackboot to drop…

It is a sign of just how far things have deteriorated in Mali that weeks after Tuareg rebels seized the northern half of the country—with its precious uranium deposits—no move has been made by the central government to try to take it back. What happened to the multinational intervention that was supposedly being planned? Some possible explanations for the delay: 1. They are waiting for the French elections to be over with, and to see if Paris will be as eager for military action after Sarkozy’s now seemingly inevitable defeat; 2. They are waiting for the MNLA to consolidate greater control of the territory, sparing the central government, France and ECOWAS the trouble of putting down the Islamists; 3. The central government doesn’t really exist.

This last thesis is loaned credibility by the most recent reports. After offering us virtually nothing on Mali since the Tuaregs declared independence two weeks ago, Reuters now informs us (emphasis added):

About 200 soldiers claiming to be government loyalists have moved back into northern Mali saying they will fight to take it back from Tuareg-led separatist and Islamist rebels that routed the army across the region three weeks ago… [A] Reuters witness saw as many as 200 soldiers and dozens of vehicles under the command of Colonel El Hadj Gamou appear in the town of Lebezanga, near the border with Niger. Gamou, a Tuareg, for weeks led Bamako’s efforts to repel rebels before saying earlier this month he had joined the rebel ranks, only to reappear in Niger last week to announce he was in fact ready to lead a counter-attack with 500 men.

Could this be any murkier? If Mali still has a functioning army, what is with this “claiming to be government loyalists” jazz? And if Col. Gamou is acting under the orders of the junta in Bamako, why is he attacking from Niger’s territory? And 200 soldiers is a pathetic number to try to take a vast desert territory controlled by Tuareg fighters (and other factions) that must number in the thousands. This sounds like a tacit admission that the Malian state has collapsed. Which means that when the intervention does come, it is likely to be even bigger and messier than we had anticipated…

In another very bad sign, Reuters (dateline Bamako, not Timbuktu) tells us:

The troop movement just inside Mali’s eastern border with Niger came as witnesses said gunmen in rebel-held Timbuktu, near the northwestern border with Mauritania, opened fire to disperse residents protesting against the occupation of their town.

It was the first reported sign of local resistance to rebels in Mali’s remote north, which experts say has become a safe haven for al Qaeda cells and smugglers.

Actually, Timbuktu is about 300 kilometers from the Mauritanian border (look at a map), and the “safe haven for al-Qaeda” is just ritual filler that is de rigueur in any wire service account from the region. But if the MNLA (or some Islamist faction) is firing on protesters, the world needs to know more about it. The MNLA website has posted no new communiques since April 16, and that was just more of the self-congratulatory crowing about how their “brave freedom fighters” have liberated Azawad.

In the only other wire service report out of Mali in recent days, AFP tells us that a Swiss woman who had been abducted in Timbuktu by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was counter-abducted by the rival Islamist faction Ansar Dine, who intend to free her. An anonymous source is quoted saying that AQIM “sub-contractors” were ambushed by Ansar Dine fighters, who seized the captive.

We’d sure love to know what is going on here. A week ago we just weren’t sure who controlled Mali’s north. Now we aren’t sure who controls the south either…

See our last post on the struggle in Mali.

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with its precious uranium deposits

  1. Towards a federative Mali?
    OK, a more optimistic fourth explanation for the lack of action against liberated Azawad is a provided by Rene Wadlow in Toward Freedom. He informs us (without giving his source) that “there have been some discussions among Tuareg leaders and a former Malian government leader in Nouahchott, Mauritania. There have been no official statements coming from these talks, in part because both north and south Mali are in administrative disorder. No one knows how much authority the persons involved have. For the moment, it is probably at best ‘Track II’ diplomacy, trying to see what are the aspirations, the limits of the acceptable, and the degree of the willingness to compromise…” The implication seems to be that the MNLA and Bamako both may accept a federative solution—given that the MNLA is unlikely to win international recognition for Azawad, and Bamako is unlikely to win back the territory without a long and costly war. Maybe the junta in Bamako (and France and ECOWAS) are giving this “track II” diplomatic solution time before plunging into the abyss… If these negotiations are really taking place, let’s wish them luck…

  2. Arab Spring comes to Mauritania
    In the past weeks, more than 55,000 refugees from northern Mali have fled across the border to Mauritania, establishing camps in the desert, and they are still coming. They are mostly Tuaregs, despite the fact it is Tuareg rebels that have ostensibly taken power in north Mali. (VOA, Angola Press, April 20) Coincidentally or not, on April 22 mass protests broke out in Nouahchott, the capital, demanding the resignation of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who took power in a 2008 coup (and later had his rule legitimized in a questionable election). (AFP, April 22)

    Embarrassingly for the regime, CNN last month released an in-depth story on the persistence of slavery in Mauritania (“Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” March 17). We hope pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital are making common cause with the country’s traditionally excluded (and sometimes enslaved) Black Africans.

    The Pentagon, White House and Élysée Palace are doubtless fearing proverbial “falling dominos” across North Africa and the Sahel. They were happy to see Qaddafi destabilized, but the collapse of his regime in turn destabilized Western client state Mali (as we predicted a year ago)—and now Mauritania, another Western client state, could be next… Imperialism’s risky bid to control the political trajectory of the Arab Spring through the Libya intervention may have backfired…

  3. Why no counter attack yet? Answer Money!
    I think everyone is waiting for the outcome in France before comitting themselves to a very expensive war, and I mean expensive in Dollars not blood. The cost of mounting a credible counter offensive in the north would most likely bankrupt the Mali Government (per person GDP is 1,200 each and I think that is an optomistic number) so somebody else is going to have to pay for this campaign or it’s over before it begins. ECOWAS is broke and France is being squeezed by America to pay part of the on going funding for the Afghan army so I doubt much will be left in the bank when that is over. And even if someone does write the cheque the question of how much of the money is raked off the top prior to the fuel food ,spare parts and ammo being purchased and trucked to the front lines is also still to be answered. Going into this fight and losing is a real possibility for the Mali Army and a smart commander will not do that as this is an army which has already deposed one leader this year and the guy in charge knows if he messes up then he is the next one out the door so until a man with a very big wallet turns up nothing is going to happen, other than the constant passing around of a very empty hat.

  4. Bill, is there any possibility of…
    getting some of those guys from N. Africa you used to interview on your radio show to give interviews about what’s happening there now?
    The situation all over the Sahara seems confusing now.
    War and revolution seems to be breaking out all over the desert.