The establishment of an independent Azawad, depending on how long it lasts, is bad for Mali, bad for Africa, and bad for the world. Here is a rundown of what has happened, what it means, and what might happen next.
For the first time since the birth of the Republic of South Sudan in July 2011, there is a newly independent country as of this week, and it is also in Africa. But, unlike South Sudan, no one is recognizing or welcoming this new state, and it certainly won’t be joining the United Nations General Assembly any time soon. It also has the unwelcome distinction of being perhaps the first independent state run by an affiliate of al-Qaeda (unless you count the al-Qaeda-ruled portions of southern Somalia and northern Yemen as nascent states, or unless you regard the Taliban’s Afghanistan as, in its final years, al-Qaeda-run). This new state is the Islamic Republic of Azawad, and it might not be around for very long.
In February of this year, I wrote an article for this blog on the latest Tuareg rebellion in the Republic of Mali. Since Mali’s military coup d’état on March 22nd, this has become very nearly the most widely read article in the blog. Turns out there weren’t that many people blogging about Mali yet.
The Azawad, the northern part of the area that is now Mali, as I discussed in that article, has seen repeated rebellions by the Tuareg minority in its vast northern deserts, some of them asking for outright independence. A revolt against France’s colonial rule in 1916-17 was smothered by the French military and resulted in thousands of deaths. After the Republic of Niger and the Federation of Mali (a brief-lived union of what are now Mali and the Republic of Senegal) broke free from France in 1960, Tuaregs fought to establish a state for themselves in northern Mali, but the newly established Malian military responded with savage finality, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring Algeria and a resentment of the central government that would burn in the Azawad region for decades. In the early 1990s, Tuaregs who had been devastated by the famine that had raged across the Sahel in the 1980s (most famously in Ethiopia and Somalia) agitated again for a separate state. Some of these separatists operated from bases in Moammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya to the north. A smaller rebellion occurred in 2007-09 when Tuaregs who had dispersed to other countries in the 1990s rebellion returned and ended up in conflict with other groups.
Flag of the N.M.L.A., and of the Islamic Republic of Azawad
Tuareg mercenaries in Libya
The Tuareg region
For most of February and March, Mali’s war against the N.M.L.A. and Ansar Eddine was going badly, but they weren’t losing. Then, things changed on March 22nd, when a military uprising in Bamako, Mali’s capital, became a full-blown coup d’état. The new junta’s main grievance was that soldiers fighting Tuaregs in the north were undersupplied. The coup put a nobody, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo in charge, brought the condemnation of the international community, and led quickly to crippling economic sanctions by the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). The rest of the world had been counting on Mali to at least keep the al-Qaeda-allied Tuareg uprising at bay. But now that was not possible.
The N.M.L.A. and Ansar Eddine took advantage of the power vacuum. On March 30th, they took Kidal. On March 31st, Gao fell to the rebels. And on April 1st, the ancient city of Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage Site, fell as well. That took care of the main three cities of the Azawad region, and the bulk of its population. Reports were filtering to the outside world that it was not the N.M.L.A. but Ansar Eddine who planted their ominous black flag in downtown Timbuktu, in an elaborate ceremony. And gunmen were going from shop to shop in all three cities demanding that any images of unveiled women be taken down. Shari’a law is now in full force there. Within a few days, the N.M.L.A. had announced control of the Azawad and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Azawad. An N.M.L.A. spokesman, Hama ag Mahmoud, explained, “Our objective is not to go further than the Azawad borders. We don’t want to create problems for the government of Mali, and even less create problems for the sub-region. We don’t want to give anyone the impression that we are gung-ho for the war, so for now we have liberated our territories and our objective is achieved, we stop there.” But this was no comfort to Capt. Sanogo, panicky and out of his depth with this latest turn of events. Today (April 5th), he begged Western countries to intervene and turn back the Islamists, saying, “The enemy is known and it is not in Bamako,” adding, “If the great powers are able to cross oceans to battle fundamentalist structures in Afghanistan, what’s stopping them coming to us?” Sanogo had been surprised to learn that in the modern era coups in Africa are not tolerated by the international, or even regional community. But, for him, the loss of Azawad is worse yet: the international community really doesn’t like coups that allow for the creation of an al-Qaeda state smack dab in the middle of north Africa. He is trying, a little too late, to distance himself from events in the north and to ingratiate himself with the international community.
The flag of the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
For the time being, Azawad has now joined the ranks not of partially recognized states like the Northern Cyprus, Kosovo, or Abkhazia, but of de facto sovereign but utterly unrecognized states like the Republic of Somaliland or the former Chechnya (1992-2000).
Keeping that in mind—okay, we’re done with complex, nuanced geopolitical analysis, the rest of this article is just for geography geeks—this week has seen a sudden rejigging of the rankings of largest country in the world. Mali, up until last week, was, at 1,240,192 square kilometers, the 24th-largest country in the world. As of this week, however, the Azawad separatists control three of Mali’s eight regions—Tombouctou, Kidal, and Gao—and, although they claim Mopti as well, they don’t control it, or only control about half of it, depending on whom you believe. Let’s split the difference, grant them half of Mopti’s 79,017 square kilometers, for a total of 859,436.5 square kilometers. This places it between Venezuela (the new no. 32) and Namibia (the new no. 34) as the 33rd-largest country in the world. What’s left of Mali, meanwhile, is now, at 380,755.5 square kilometers, way down at no. 61, between Zimbabwe and Japan.
This is the first change to the top-25 ranking since South Sudan replaced Algeria as no. 10 last year, which also knocked what was left of Sudan to no. 45, between the Central African Republic and Ukraine. (It would be no. 46, if Somalia were to be counted as one country, but if what the world calls Mali is treated as two countries then what the world calls Somalia is at least seven or eight.) That, in turn, was the first modification of the top-25 list, or indeed of the top-10, since Kazakhstan entered the list at no. 9 in 1991. To find a modification to the top-10 list before that, we’d have to go to 1964, when the United Kingdom dropped from no. 7 to no. 16 by granting independence to Zambia, Tanzania, and Malawi.
More importantly, Azawad is now the only country whose dominant language (Tuareg) uses (like Berber) the Tifinagh script, which looks like this (see below). I must say, al-Qaeda or no al-Qaeda, that’s pretty darn cool.
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. Look for it in spring 2013. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]