Monday, August 12, 2013

On Election Eve, Mali’s Tuaregs Vow: Autonomy or War

Not a single hanging chad in sight
Votes are still being counted from the Republic of Mali’s runoff election yesterday, with huge implications for the unity of the country.  Tuareg rebels, in league for a while with Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda, controlled the northern three-fifths or so of the country for about a year until February of this year, when invading French troops put the Malian government in control of the region’s cities.  But the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its acronym in French, M.N.L.A.) says it will restart the war if any new government does not respect the autonomy of the large, sparsely-populated northern desert region called Azawad.

Map of Mali, showing the formerly de facto independent republic of Azawad in purple
The M.N.L.A. raised the stakes after the July 28th Malian elections it grudgingly recognized and yesterday’s runoff, the results from which are still inconclusive.  The group’s main European spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid, said August 4th at a conference in Corsica organized by the local separatist Corsa Libera party that the Tuareg rebel group would take up arms against any new government in Bamako that did not guarantee autonomy to Azawad.  A peace deal reached in June stipulates that Bamako will open negotiations with the M.N.L.A. within 60 days of forming a cabinet following these elections.

Moussa Ag Assarid (right) speaking alongside a Berber separatist at a rally in Paris. 
If things do come to that, the M.N.L.A. may not be alone.  On August 9th, in neighboring Mauritania, the M.N.L.A. announced that they had patched things up with two rival Azawadi militias: the High Unity Council of Azawad and the anti-Islamist Arab Movement of the Azawad (M.A.A., formerly known as the National Liberation Front of Azawad, or F.L.N.A.).  This buries the hatchet following remote desert clashes between the groups in April.  Although French and Malian troops control Azawad’s cities, rebels still control areas of northern Mali’s vast deserts—it is not clear entirely how much.  Azawad’s “Arabs”—actually ethnic Berbers who have been speaking Arabic for centuries—are often also called “Moors”—in French Maures, hence the name Mauritania, where they are the largest ethnic group.  These Moors are the main inhabitants of most of Azawad’s territory but are only a small part of the population (perhaps 10-15%, though figures are unreliable), with little presence in the Tuareg-dominated cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao.  (The Tuareg language is somewhat close to Berber but only very distantly related to Arabic.)

Facing off for the presidency are the Rally for Mali party’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, a former prime minister of Mali (1994-2000), who got 40% of the vote in the July 28th round, and a former finance minister, Soumaïla “Sumy” Cissé, current president of the West African Monetary Union, who got 20%.  Cissé, who faces an uphill battle, is a native of Niafunké, the town in the far south of Azawad’s Timbuktu province, which is also the home town of possibly the world’s most famous Malian, the late musician Ali Farka Touré.  Both Keïta and Cissé have campaigned on vows to end the Azawad conflict without partitioning the country.  If they are not prepared to allow the 10% of the Malian population who are Tuareg and Moor a quasi-state in the north, that may be an impossible promise to keep.

If Keïta wins, he will have the perhaps impossible task of keeping Mali together.
[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 some time in 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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