Source: Daily Trust
Last month, Tuareg rebels launched attacks on a number of towns in northern Mali resulting in the loss of lives of rebels and Malian soldiers. The rebels, battle-hardened from the war in Libya, are said to be fuelling the latest rebellion against the government. They had crossed over from Libya into Mali after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power to launch the rebellion. This is potentially a double blow for Mali, a country that is already grappling with the effects of drought. There are fears that the uprising could disrupt relief efforts by the government and international aid agencies in distributing food to the needy across the country.
Thousands of Malians have fled into the neighbouring countries in Niger and Mauritania. In a reaction to the attacks in the north, Malians held protests in the capital Bamako, and principal towns of Segou and Sikasso, denouncing the authorities’ handling the rebellion. They accused the government of not providing adequate ammunition and equipment to the army to put down the rebellion. President Toumani Toure, addressing the nation, appealed for calm. There are fears the rebellion could escalate into ethnic conflicts between the north and south amid reports that properties belonging to the Tuaregs were vandalised in Bamako.
There have been several Tuareg rebellions against the central government since Mali gained independence from France in 1960. The Tuaregs, who inhabit the Sahel regions in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya and Algeria, have long complained of marginalisation. Like the Kurds found in a number of countries in the Middle East, the Tuaregs have been fighting for autonomy for some time.
This time around in Mali, they are agitating for an independent homeland called Azawad to be created out of three regions in the north, Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, according to the main rebel organisation the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Emboldened by the independence of South Sudan in July 2011 a spokesman of the MNLA was quoted as saying: ’’It is now or never’’. Mali is, of course, opposed to the dismemberment of its territory.
It is unlikely that the rebels would get support from Mali’s neighbours who are themselves grappling with their own internal challenges. For instance, the new regime in Tripoli is too preoccupied with trying to stabilise Libya to dabble into the affairs of Mali. Niger has its own Tuareg populations to contend with. They’ve also had a history of rebellion which the government in Niamey has so far been able to contain. Moreover the threat of sponsoring an uprising against the regime in Libya, issued by Saadi, Gaddafi’s son who fled to Niger, is being taken sufficiently seriously that Tripoli has asked for his extradition to Libya.
The situation in Mali is being viewed with mounting concern by government in the entire Sahel regions of West Africa, given the security implications. For one thing, it has heightened the already high sense of insecurity in West Africa, a wakeup call for countries in the region to cooperate in facing a common threat. The ECOWAS Commission has dispatched a fact-finding mission to Mali to assess the situation there.
West Africa has increasingly acquired an unenviable reputation as a region rife with drug trafficking and insurgencies, chiefly attributed to Islamic fundamentalists believed to be affiliated to al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), which has carried out attacks in North Africa particularly in Algeria. It is increasingly active in countries such as Mali, Mauritania and recently Niger, where a number of Europeans have been killed or taken hostage in exchange for ransom.
This is worrying development for the entire West African region in general, but particularly Nigeria, where a series of the bombings and targeted attacks have been claimed by the Boko Haram sect. Given Nigeria’s porous borders, it is imperative that Nigeria and the countries in West Africa to step up cooperation, including intelligence gathering and sharing of information, for their collective security. That concern may have informed Nigeria’s recent decision to have military attaches in Mali and Niger republic.
While the Malian army is engaging the Tuareg insurgents in the north, the government should continue to explore the possibility of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict that would address the claims of marginalisation.