In March, soldiers in Mali launched a coup in the capital of Bamako. The government there needs international assistance both in restoring its authority in the northern provinces and in engaging the long-simmering grievances of its population. And restoring credible democracy in Mali is a prerequisite for stabilizing the country.
The justification of the coup that toppled the democratic order in Mali included valid complaints about an uneven war: Malian armed forces were sent to fight against a better-equipped enemy. The Tuareg rebels of northern Mali, who have been fighting the central government intermittently since 1958, saw their ranks swell and their equipment upgraded as a direct result of the 2011 Libyan uprising and ensuing NATO intervention. In 1990, Tuareg fighters joined Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s eclectic mercenary army in the aftermath of a truce deal he helped broker between them and the Bamako government. But upon returning to their homeland, they upset the precarious balance of power through which Bamako maintained its nominal control over the northern provinces.
A sparsely populated vast desert region, northern Mali had long fallen from Bamako’s list of priorities—and capacity. Instead, the region was subjected to three intersecting perennial problems that have resulted in the current vexing situation: indigenous ethnic separatism, international radical militancy and illicit trafficking activity.
Despite evident foreign meddling, the Tuareg rebellion constituted a bona fide national liberation movement of an ethnic minority with long-standing demands for autonomy in a nation-state that lacked equitable integration. A product of colonial history, the incorporation of the Tuareg areas into Mali had yet to translate into a shared conviction of a national commonwealth. The successive Tuareg rebellions since Mali’s independence in 1958, with the revolt of the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) as its latest manifestation, were both a symptom and a reinforcement of this fact.
In the past decade, the political and security vacuum experienced by the region made it a haven for militants of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib group—the primarily Algerian franchise of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, which had been successfully contained in its previous North African area of operation. As destructive as is the physical presence of these militants, it is their presentation of religious doctrine as a way out of the region’s plight that may prove to have done more lasting damage. Their reductionist ideology now has struck local roots, with competing Tuareg organizations reflecting the internal debate within radical Islamism on the primacy of establishing a religiously compliant social reality—as opposed to a religiously sanctioned political order.
Ansar Dine, founded by veteran Tuareg nationalist Iyad Ag Ghali, espouses the former view, seeking the implementation of its restrictive understanding of sharia as a fundamental goal, and it has considerable support in some Tuareg circles. The al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad group, which was brought to the fore by its recent takeover of the regional capital of Goa, adheres to the latter view, openly presenting the northern territory of Azawad as the West African counterpart to the Shabab’s Somalia and the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Beyond solemn but otherwise unfulfillable declarations of “irrevocable” independence or the imposition of sharia, none of the forces on the ground in northern Mali is in a position to impose its will on its own. This fact may have prompted the MNLA to seek a compromise with Ansar Dine, hoping to cement the notion of an independent Azawad, even at the price of subverting its intended secular character. The contradictions between the secular and religiously framed views, as well as the differences within the latter, would insure that no compromise is viable. Despite the apparent success of Ansar Dine in integrating other activists and imposing its will on the territory, the precarious alliances that dominated the recent past of the region are likely to continue, albeit with new ingredients: between the Tuareg plurality and other ethnic groups; between traditional Muslims and ideological Islamists; and within the camp of the Islamists, between social and political activists.
However, the potency of the declared separation from Bamako cannot be ignored; even if merely symbolic, the action provides the plurality Tuareg population of the region with a new baseline and a sense of cultural, if not political, empowerment. While the new sense of regional identity may be welcome for segments of the population, the excesses of Ansar Dine, in its attempt at imposing its reductionist understanding of Islamic law—from the destruction of venerated shrines to the stoning of adulterers—is inevitably leading to the attrition of any ethnically induced support.
While the temptation to act swiftly against what is presented as a nascent Al Qaeda-linked statelet is prompting calls for an immediate military intervention, a more effective approach may be to complete the process of restoration of democracy in Bamako while Ansar Dine proves to northern Malians that the alternative it offers is even more alien than the linguistic and cultural divide between North and South, not to mention far more destructive. Northern Mali thus will be eager to rejoin the nation and engage in long-overdue local-governance talks.
Recent events notwithstanding, Mali has achieved considerable milestones in confirming the democratic commitment of its society. Helping it strengthen and expand this commitment may be the best path out of the consolidation of another radical pseudo-state.
Hassan Mneimneh is the Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the Middle East, North Africa and the Islamic World at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC.