Azawad and conflict in the Sahara and Western Sahel

Despite the insistence of western governments on framing the conflict within the ‘war on terror’ narrative, recent events in Mali are part of decades long struggle for Azawadi independence and the geopolitical manoeuvrings of regional and world powers.

Negotiations are underway between Tuareg and Arab rebel groups and the Malian government following the signing of the Algiers Declaration, calling for peace talks, in June by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Supreme Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA). The talks are aimed at bringing an end to the renewed fighting between separatists and the Malian government that broke out in May and saw the MNLA and its allies inflict successive defeats on the Malian armed forces[1]. The Malian government has ruled out any move towards federalism but will likely have to make some concessions regarding Azawadi autonomy and decentralisation of powers if the talks are to bring about lasting peace.

The latest rising in Azawad began in early 2012 when the MNLA led an offensive that drove the Malian army out of the north of the country. This was followed by a coup d’état in which the elected government of Mali was ousted by the then Captain Amadou Sanogo. Taking advantage of the absence of a constitutional government in Bamako, the MNLA unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad in Gao on 6th April 2012. However over the next few months Salafist Islamist groups Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din , who had previously concentrated their efforts against the Malian army, turned on the MNLA and other separatists and wrested control of key towns such as Timbuktu from the pro-independence fighters. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also increased its activities over this period. Professor and Sahel expert Jeremy Keenan has argued that the rapid advance of the Islamists indicates that they were aided by a foreign state, suggesting that Algeria (which had infiltrated AQIM’s forerunner during its civil war in the 1990s) helped the Islamist groups establish a foothold in Mali, to thwart Tuareg separatism in its backyard[2].

Separatists have accused the Malian government of tolerating the presence of Islamist groups in Mali’s north as a means of hindering the democratic aspirations of the Tuareg[3]. The covert nature of military and intelligence activities makes it difficult to prove or disprove such theories but what is certain is that the success of Islamist groups in Northern Mali prompted the French military intervention in January 2013. The Islamists were swiftly driven out of the towns and back into the mountains of northern Mali by a French-led coalition including Chadian and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) forces. Whilst French troops did not engage the MNLA militarily and in fact cooperated with them against Ansar al-Din once fighting broke out between the separatists and Islamists, the intervention did put an end to the separatist advance and allowed the Malian government to galvanise its forces.

Social and historical context

Ultimately the drawn out struggle in Azawad is part of the legacy of French colonialism and the denial of the right to self-determination of the Tuareg and other Azawadi peoples. The Tuareg majority in Azawad find themselves spread across Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Mauritania. The chronic impoverishment of the Saharan peoples and the hostile approach of regional governments to the Tuareg have also fuelled the numerous rebellions that have occurred since 1963 in Mali and its neighbours. Water scarcity is a major problem facing the peoples of the Sahara-Sahel, a problem that has worsened as a result of political decisions as well as environmental factors. When the French water company Veolia bought the Nigerien water sector following its privatisation they hiked prices and contributed to the discontent that led to the 2007 Tuareg revolt in Niger[4]. Livelihoods in the desert north were also hit by the collapse of tourism that followed the start of the ‘war on terror’. Extreme poverty has forced many pastoralists in Northern Mali and Niger to take up work smuggling and acting as guides to traffickers. Youth unemployment in the Tuareg-dominated Kidal region in Northern Mali is 80%[5]. During the revolution in Libya significant numbers of Tuaregs were employed as mercenaries by the Gaddafi regime, the return of these fighters with weapons from Libya was one of the factors that precipitated the 2012 rising in Mali. Decades of abuse by successive governments and a dire economic situation in the north have meant many of Mali’s Tuaregs feel a deep animosity towards the central government and have no stake in the country.

France and its sphere of influence

With the completion of ‘Operation Serval’ in Mali, France has announced a new region-wide, long-term military deployment. The new ‘counter-terrorism’ initiative, ‘Operation Barkhane’ will see the deployment of three-thousand troops, as well as drones, jets and helicopters, across the Sahel in Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger[6]. The stated aim of the operation is to root out armed Islamist groups, deny them a permanent area of operations in the region and prevent the movement of weapons and fighters between the Sahel and Libya. The presence of gas and mineral reserves in the Sahel has led some analysts to argue that French military intervention in the region is aimed at securing energy resources. France is dependent on nuclear energy for over 75% of its electricity and 33% of the uranium needed for this is imported from Niger[7]. Three-hundred kilometres from the porous Malian-Niger border is a major Areva facility that the French government are anxious to protect. However French intervention in the Sahel cannot simply be explained in terms of energy security. The economic and military links between France and its former colonies in Africa is crucial to the standing of the French state in the modern world-system. To this day France’s former colonies in Africa use the CFA franc (of which there are two variants), granting France considerable influence over the monetary policies of these countries and allowing it to benefit from a fixed exchange rate with these countries, and the interest earned on holding much of their monetary reserves[8]. France has also adopted a highly interventionist stance militarily towards Africa since formal decolonisation. The 2013 French intervention in Mali and ‘Operation Barkhane’ should be seen as a French effort to reassert itself in an unstable region that it considers as being within its sphere of influence.

The US and the ‘War on Terror’

Historically the United States has not been heavily involved in this region of Africa. However since the designation of the Sahara-Sahel region as a new front in the ‘war on terror’ its engagement there has increased. Whilst the extent of this engagement is disputed the US was open about its assistance to the French armed forces during ‘Operation Serval’ in 2013. The US possesses a surveillance drone base in Niger with which it can monitor the activities of armed groups in the Sahara. Keenan argues that regional governments have been extracting what he calls “terrorism rents”[9] whereby the US provides military and financial support in order to fight Islamist groups supposedly operating on their territory and then use their bolstered militaries and the ‘war on terror’ narrative to suppress internal dissent and in the case of Niger and Mali, fight Tuareg and Arab separatists. As part of the ‘Pan-Sahel Initiative’ aimed at combatting terrorism the US has provided training to troops across the region including Nigerien troops accused of atrocities against civilians in the north. Intentionally or otherwise the US, through designating the region a terror zone, has helped facilitate crackdowns on the Tuareg by regional governments seeking to thwart Azawadi aspirations for self-determination.

Prospects for Azawad

So what chance is there for Azawadi independence or at least a cessation of the fighting? For the time being the existence of so many regional stakeholders with conflicting interests the construction of an internationally recognised state of Azawad appears highly unlikely. At the same time the Malian army has proven itself to be incapable of militarily defeating the MNLA and the French (who have such capacity) have hitherto opted not to engage them and have focused on hunting down Islamist forces and protecting their assets in the region. The success or failure of the on-going peace talks in Algeria depends on the willingness of the Malian government to grant concessions and the extent to which it is willing to do so is unclear for now. With things as they stand perhaps the support of a major world power, either France or the US, in a manner similar to the support lent by the US to the Iraqi Kurds, is what would be required for the long-term maintenance of even de facto Azawadi self-governance. However since the US and France have already thrown their lot in with the existing regional governments and already have access to energy resources in Southern Algeria and Northern Niger respectively it is doubtful that they would lend support to the separatists.

By Callum Williamson

[1] “Northern Mali Clashes Pose Threat of Regional Conflict”, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, 26/06/2014

[2] Jeremy Keenan, The Dying Sahara, Pluto Press, London, 2013

[3] “Orphans of the Sahara – Episode 2 – Rebellion”, Al Jazeera, 16/01/2014, [accessed 22/07/2014]

[4] Keenan, The Dying Sahara, p40

[5] Daniel Ozoukou, “The road to peace in Mali: political roadblocks and other obstacles”, Insight on Conflict, 03/07/2014

[6] Umberto Bacchi, “France Launches New Sahel Counter-Terrorism Operation Barkhane”, International Business Times, 14/07/2014

[7] Ines Bresler, “Mali: Why France is fighting for West Africa”, The Foreign Report, 09/02/13

[8] Christoff Lehmann, “French Africa policy damages African and European economies”, NSNBC, 12/10/12

[9] Keenan, The Dying Sahara, p28

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Categories: Africa

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