As France’s air strikes in Mali push back Islamist militants, the challenge now is to secure peace in the arid north by enlisting the support of nomadic Touaregs whose bid for a separate homeland sparked the year-long crisis.
Talks with the Touaregs are considered crucial by France to find a long-term solution for a nomadic tribe that staged four uprisings in five decades over complaints the central government neglects them.
“The hardest is yet to come,” French President Francois Hollande told the European Parliament in Strasbourg today. “The Touareg problem which has lasted so long has to be dealt with.”
Interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore said he’s ready to negotiate with the rebels such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad if they renounce separatism. Finding common ground may prove elusive. Touareg leaders are divided on tribal, generational and ideological lines, and the need to establish a separate state.
A cattle-raising Berber people whose members often don’t recognize national borders or tax laws, the Touaregs have been romanticized in the west as the “blue men of the desert” for their indigo-dyed cotton robes. Others have moved into mainstream life, opening shops or taking up government jobs.
“The Touareg communities do not speak with one voice, and the MNLA represents a small minority,” Mamadou Fadiala Ba, an independent political analyst, said in an interview in Bamako, the capital. “Touaregs in the south may feel some sort of solidarity, but they strongly reject the idea of breaking up the Malian state.”
The authorities in Mali, which vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, and Touareg rebels have agreed to peace before, in 2006, only for it to collapse.
“A touchstone of the last negotiated peace was integration of Touaregs into the security forces,” Hannah Armstrong, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, said in an interview in Bamako. “Last year there were mass defections of Touaregs to join the rebellion so the Malians will be extremely reluctant to reintegrate them.”
The latest MNLA uprising was bolstered by fighters and weapons from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. Once the insurgents defeated the Malian army and declared independence in the north, they were pushed aside by rivals such as Ansar ud-Din, founded by a Malian Touareg who served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Both groups imposed Shariah law in the north.
“There is certainly a wish of people in the north to have a certain autonomy, yet it’s clear from their reaction to the arrival of the French that they don’t want to be under Islamist rule either,” Atmane Tazaghart, an Algerian who has written two books about AQIM, told reporters in Paris on Feb. 1.
The MNLA leadership, which fled abroad after the Islamists’ push, has dropped claims of independence.
The rebellion triggered an exodus of Malians last year, including thousands of Touaregs who found shelter in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Some are reluctant to return because they fear revenge attacks, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week.
“Mali has to negotiate with us; it doesn’t have a choice,” Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a spokesman for the MNLA, said by phone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. “We have political, economic, infrastructural and cultural demands.”
Resentment among Malians toward the MNLA is strong, especially among the ethnic Songhai who live in the north, Moussa Traore, a social worker whose mother is a Touareg, said in an interview in Bamako.
“The MNLA has disqualified itself because in the eyes of the Malians, they are the cause of this mess,” he said. “If it had tried to get other northern communities on its side to press for more development, there would be some goodwill left. But with the crisis, that intercommunal spirit is gone.”
Mali’s tourist industry, already affected by kidnappings of western visitors to the north, collapsed completely as the insurgencies spread. Northern Mali is home to the desert city of Timbuktu, a World Heritage Site and historic center of ancient Islamic scholarship where retreating militants burned manuscripts last week.
Mali’s $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It’s expected to expand 4.5 percent this year, the IMF said on Jan. 28, as gold mining in the government-held south continued during the conflict. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the miners in Mali.
After seizing control of Timbuktu and Gao, French troops are occupying the airport in Kidal, the last major rebel stronghold. About 1,800 Chadian troops are entering the town to secure it, the French Defense Ministry said late yesterday on its website.
France has about 4,000 soldiers in Mali, while Africa nations have sent 3,800 troops, it said.
The MNLA said late yesterday it arrested two senior Islamist commanders, including Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed of the Ansar ud-Din group and Ould Baba Ahmed of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, as they fled French air strikes toward the Algerian border.
Malians of Touareg origin have served and still serve in the army, the civil service and in top government positions, including the vice-presidency of the National Assembly.
The remote northern region Touareg separatists consider their homeland contains 4.2 percent of Mali’s population, with a little more than 600,000 residents of a total of 14.5 million people, according to the National Statistics Institute.
Many northern Touareg families are competing for revenue generated by decades-old smuggling networks in the desert that expanded as drugs from South America began transiting through West Africa to Europe, said Jolyon Ford, a senior analyst at Oxford Analytica, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“Some wish for greater political autonomy, but do not want to be cut off from official and illicit sources of income,” Ford said.
The UN, France and the U.S. are pushing for elections to replace an interim leadership appointed after a March coup by a group of soldiers that said the army didn’t have weapons or equipment to fight the Touareg insurgency. Traore, who will not be allowed to stand, said this week a vote may be held before the end of July.
Mali needs more than a vote to “solve our problems,” Ba said. “As a society we need to first ask ourselves how we got into this situation and find out why previous talks and peace deals didn’t work.”