Tuareg Rebels Eye Azawad Secession

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Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 22:23 PM EDT, 2 April 2012

Tuareg with Sword, Niger, Photo by Swiatoslaw WojkowiakAZAWAD, Mali - The stability of Mali continues to be a grave issue for its citizens and neighboring countries.  West African leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an organization comprised of 15 countries, have brought to bear the strictest economic sanctions available to them against the Malian military usurpers.

Alassane Ouattara, the President of Ivory Coast and Chairman of ECOWAS, stated on Monday at the summit being held in Dakar, that a complete embargo against diplomatic relations, trade and freezing access to the country's bank accounts, would go into effect immediately.

The desired outcome is the restoration of constitutional order, as was promised in a televised announcement by Lt. Amadou Konare following last month’s coup which ousted former President Amadou Touré. Ironically, the military’s overthrow of Touré was in response to his government’s perceived ineffectiveness in handling the latest Tuareg uprising, but they have yet to subdue the rebels or quell the conflict.

In fact, the Tuareg remain steadfast in their determination to succeed from country. According to Akli Souleymane, a senior official at the Azawad separatist movement, they will not cease this revolution until they have achieved this objective. They do not recognize the current military coup orchestrators, and reject all negotiations with them as they did with the Touré government.

Unlike previous uprisings in which the Tuareg were ill-equipped and untrained, the mercenaries returning from Libya have significant insurgency experience. Fierce warriors, the Tuareg appear unafraid to die, which is an attribute that has kept their culture alive despite high infant mortality rates, and lack of access to potable water or education.

“Estimates of the number of returning Tuareg fighters range between 800 and 4,000. On their return to Mali, many stopped short of Kidal in the mountainous region around Ti-n-Asselak in the Abeibara district where they linked up with the fighters of former rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga's (who died in August 2011) Mouvement Touareg du Nord Mali (MTNM). On October 16, these and various other groups merged to form the Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA).” (Source: Aljazeera)

Prior to 2011, the Tuareg have initiated four rebellions to establish the Azawad territory as a separate country. Azawad is the Tuareg name for the region north of Timbuktu that today covers the regions of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. They have launched several attempts to secede from Mali which led to wars which lasted from 1916-1917, 1962-64, 1990-95, and 2007-2009.

It is estimated that there are roughly 5.7MTuareg living in the Sahara Desert region. Also, known as the Sahel, the majority of Tuareg, about 1.4M live in Mali, while the remaining occupy areas of Libya, Mauritania, northern Niger, southern Algeria, Chad, Burkino Faso, and parts of Nigeria.

According to the website North Africa United, the Tuareg culture is nomadic and up until the 20th Century, they lived an existence as traders following ancient caravan routes which they annually traveled from Sub-Saharan Africa to the north and the Mediterranean.

“The Tuareg came to control the Sahara caravan trade routes from the great centres of Sub-Saharan Africa to the north and the Mediterranean. They provided protection and also supervised the slave trade from West Africa. This continued till well into the mid-20th Century.

'Tuareg’ is an arabic term meaning abandoned by God and they call themselves themselves ‘Imohag’ which translates as Free Men. They are an ancient warrior race and their language is Tamashek, their writing script is Tifinagh which is said to have come from ancient Libya. As road and rail infrastructure took over, the Tuareg have largely abandoned their previous nomadic existence and have settled but have never had their own homeland.”

In prior conflicts the Malian government was successful in its efforts to subdue Tuareg rebellions by attacking civilians using some of the most atrocious tactics witnessed in many ethnic cleansing conflicts across the globe. In order to protect their vulnerable populations, the rebels ultimately surrendered and laid down their arms.

However, military gains by the rebels, especially the capture of Kidal and Gao in recent days, and yesterday’s capture of Timbuktu, have embolden the MNLA, giving them the confidence they need to push to the mark and finally achieve their separatist goal.

Since Tessalit fell to the MNLA several weeks ago, the Malian army, already dispirited and ill-equipped, may no longer be in a position to maintain control of the Azawad region. In a territory this vast, it was difficult to police with a democratically elected government. The interim military government has more pressing issues at hand, and may choose to abdicate control of Azawad in the face of increased desertions and MNLA gains.

It shall remain to be seen what the outcome of this confluence of events shall yield, but it certainly looks like Mali, much like Sudan before it, could be headed toward an unwilling succession.

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Twitter: @nahmias_report Editor: @ayannanahmias

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