Category Archives: Mali

Maybe ECOWAS isn’t the solution to Mali’s political crisis

After last month’s “transition” to civilian rule, the military junta’s statements undermining the spirit of said transition, the subsequent arrests of key political, military, and business leaders, and this week’s attempted counter-coup in Mali, it occurred to me that perhaps ECOWAS isn’t capable of providing a solution to Mali’s political crisis. Sure, ECOWAS was able to put a civilian face on what essentially remains a military regime, but it is increasingly clear that Interim President Dioncounda Traoré and Interim Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra are the heads of the interim government, but the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE) is the neck.

But if ECOWAS is unable to solve the political crisis in Bamako (which is a necessary precondition for solving the crisis of territorial integrity in the north), what’s the next step? My international security bias came out when I tried to think through which international organizations might be capable of coercing the CNRDRE to return to the barracks. What about the African Union? No, they’re too busy with Somalia and the Sudans. What about the United Nations? No, they’re too busy with Syria et al. Then it occurred to me that because of my background, I might be thinking about it all wrong. What if the solution to Mali’s political crisis lies inside Mali – particularly within civil society? (This may be a no-brainer to most people, but again, my focus is security: death, destruction, world domination, etc).

Not knowing much about the chances of a domestic backlash to the CNRDRE leading to the military’s marginalization and the true transition to civilian rule, I posted the following question as a comment on Bruce Whitehouse’s post “Fears, foreigners, and falsehoods”:

One thing that’s starting to occur to me is that ECOWAS appears to have no teeth in its dealings with the CNRDRE. Does that mean that… it may ultimately fall to civil society to get them to return to the barracks? I can’t get a good sense of the balance of support for/opposition to the CNRDRE, but do you think there’s a threshold the junta will cross that would get the population to apply pressure on them?

I’ve copied Bruce’s response below because I think he highlights some important points:

For now I’d say the junta still has significant popular support at least in Bamako, strong enough for it to withstand pressure from both Malian civil society and ECOWAS. Many ordinary Bamakois have zero faith not only in their political class but in their political institutions too, which in their view have never served the people’s needs. Hence the idea of throwing out the whole state apparatus and starting over from scratch is something they find appealing. Especially after the events of this week, and given that nobody here supports an ECOWAS intervention, it won’t be easy to sideline Captain Sanogo in the weeks and months to come.

I do think, however, that there are two interrelated sources of pressure on the junta now from the population. One, Malians are starting to get the impression that junta leaders are uninterested in addressing pressing national problems, and are only concerned with shoring up their own power. Two, Malians are growing impatient with the junta’s lack of action in addressing Mali’s de facto partition. The army’s primary responsibility is to protect the nation’s territorial integrity, yet since early April it has been exclusively focused on protecting the junta and arresting its enemies. If these trends continue, the CNRDRE will find itself in trouble.

Therefore, if the CNRDRE continues to prioritize staying in control and Mali remains de facto partitioned, domestic resistance to the junta could emerge. However, the downside of this pathway is that we don’t know how long it will take for the junta to wear out its welcome in Bamako, or whether civil society would actually be more effective at pressuring the junta to stand down than ECOWAS has been to date. Regardless of these political issues getting resolved, the longer the government and military ignore the situation in the north, the more difficult it will be to reassemble what was once the Malian state.

Mali: Arrested Civilian Transition Portends Additional Challenges in Addressing Tuareg Rebellion

In spite of last week’s inauguration of Dioncounda Traoré as interim President, Mali’s military junta is still calling the shots, as evidenced by the arrests of several members of Mali’s political and military elite earlier this week. I won’t go into too much detail on the civilian transition and these arrests, as such analysis has been offered elsewhere. However, I would like to posit that this incident is an indication of how, under the status quo, the junta could potentially stonewall the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international partners to address the Tuareg rebellion in the north.

In the aftermath of last month’s coup in Mali, ECOWAS was faced with two competing, but related problems: 1) how to restore civilian rule, and 2) how to resolve the Tuareg rebellion in the north. In the context of the rapid post-coup expulsion of Malian government and military authorities from the northern part of the country, it was clear that resolving the country’s political crisis was a necessary precursor to restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. Accordingly, ECOWAS acted with haste to coerce the military into accepting a transition to constitutional rule, which was understandable considering the multiple crises that the regional organization had on its plate in Mali alone (i.e., the de facto partition of the Malian state, resultant surge of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, the emergence of Islamist armed groups in northern Mali, and the food crisis in the Sahel). For better or worse, a solid political transition was sacrificed to facilitate the resolution of the situation in the north – which arguably has broader regional and international implications. Thus, a quick political transition in which Mali could operate under the guise of civilian rule allowed ECOWAS to refine its mission there. Specifically, rather than simultaneously focusing on the political crisis AND the Tuareg rebellion, the regional organization could now concentrate on its response to the rebellion.

Clearly, negotiation with Tuareg rebel groups is an option on the table, but this may be difficult, due to the Malian authorities’ relatively weak status and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’s (MNLA) aspiration for independence. ECOWAS’ Mediation and Security Council is also considering the deployment of a regional force intended to assist Mali in securing its territorial integrity. However, coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo is opposed to the use of foreign military forces. In lieu of an ECOWAS force, Sanogo has said that Mali will accept equipment and logistical assistance. I suspect that this may be an issue of pride, given that the original stated goal of the coup leaders had been to more effectively wage the war in the north. (This was, of course, thwarted by international condemnation of the coup, cuts in security assistance, and the chaos and lack of cohesion within the military that allowed the rebels to conquer the north in a matter of days). I suspect that it is more likely, however, that Sanogo wants fewer eyes watching how he manipulates the reins of power and continues to undermine the political transition.

It is possible that the junta will continue its ongoing machinations to undermine civilian authority. However, any efforts to obstruct an effective solution to the crises in the north might be a step too far for the various regional and international stakeholders who have an interest in containing the potential fallout from these crises.

How to Create Your Own State: Lessons for the MNLA from Africa’s Successful Irredentist Movements

Today, the MNLA released a statement that they “irrevocably declare, as of this day Friday, April 6, 2012, the independent state of Azawad.” However a cursory look at post-colonial African history demonstrates that a declaration alone does not a state make. Signed in 1963, Article III of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) states that “The Member States…solemnly affirm and declare their adherence to the…respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence.” It is this part of the OAU Charter that cemented the subsequent practice by the OAU and its successor organization of rejecting attempts by irredentist movements or predatory nation-states to alter the borders of African countries as they existed at the time of their independence from European powers. Nonetheless, two examples stand out – Eritrea and South Sudan, which gained independence from Ethiopia and Sudan in 1993 and 2011, respectively. In thinking about these two cases, a few thoughts come to mind.

  • It can be very difficult for an irredentist movement to secure foreign support and/or recognition from the international community. Many countries do not wish to be accused of destabilizing the region, and some fear that other countries might support irredentist movements in their own country. I am more familiar with the case of South Sudan than I am with Eritrea, so I will use the former as an example. The late Southern People’ Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang espoused, at least in rhetoric, a vision of “New Sudan” which was essentially a reformed Sudan in which all of Sudan’s people could live in a pluralistic democratic state. He was not only able to garner support from Sudan’s other peripheries for the SPLA’s vision, but he was also able to gain foreign support, since he did not openly agitate for independence. (The internal politics of the South during the second civil war are outside the scope of this commentary, but the “New Sudan” vision created numerous divisions within the South and largely faded away with Garang’s death in 2005 and the South’s vote for independence in 2011.) The lesson the MNLA can take from the case of the SPLA is that they might have been better off couching their struggle in terms of a war of liberation for all of Mali’s peripheries, as opposed to a purely regional independence struggle. The former could have been taken seriously as a legitimate struggle for human rights and civil liberties, while the latter is perceived as a threat to the international community’s notion of de jure statehood.
  • It not only takes a region to aspire to independence, but it also takes the acquiescence of the national government and the international community to make these aspirations a reality. In both Eritrea and South Sudan, independence came at the end of decades-long civil wars, was agreed to by Ethiopia and Sudan, and was the result of an internationally negotiated and moderated process that culminated in an internationally monitored referendum on self-determination. One difference between these cases is that Ethiopia agreed to the referendum and subsequent separation because they had been militarily defeated in Eritrea. In contrast, one of the reasons Sudan agreed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was in order to facilitate its access the oil in the South during the time between the signing of the agreement in 2005 and the South’s independence in 2012. The lesson for the MNLA is that whether or not the Malian government is able to regain control over the Azawad region (doubtful), the group will need the government to agree to an internationally supported process that results in a referendum on self-determination in order for the international community to recognize the independent state of Azawad.
  • Previous cases of post-colonial state creation in Africa demonstrate that the success stories were administered as separate entities during the colonial period. Eritrea became an Italian colony, then a governorate of Italian East Africa, then a UN-mandated British protectorate, then an autonomous unit federated to Ethiopia in 1950 by a UN-resolution, and then was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962. The case of South Sudan is a bit different. As part of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1955), southern Sudan was administered separately from the northern part of Sudan between 1922 and 1946 as a result of the Closed Districts Ordinance (also known as the “Southern Policy”), but was then reintegrated with northern Sudan during preparations for independence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With respect to this point on a region’s history of administration by colonial powers, Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, is a slight exception. This region was administered as British Somaliland (with the exception of a few years as part of Italian East Africa), and then united with the Trust Territory of Somalia in 1960 to become the Somali Republic. Despite remaining relatively more stable than the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has been unable to secure international recognition as an independent state for the past 21 years. (This is complicated by the border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland – the autonomous region of Somalia to the east. Somaliland’s claims to legitimacy and territorial sovereignty are based on the colonial borders of British Somaliland, which are at odds with the borders of the clan-based, mainly Majerteen administration in Puntland). The MNLA’s state of Azawad is different from Somaliland because it lacks the legitimacy Somaliland claims in terms of colonial boundaries. However, Azawad is similar to Somaliland in that both territories lack the acquiescence of the central government (to the extent that they exist) and have secured no agreement with the international community for a referendum on self-determination.

The bottom line is, in spite of the international community making an exception for the independence of Eritrea and South Sudan, a line has been drawn that dictates which irredentist movements get their own state and which do not. Countries that are above the line, like Eritrea and South Sudan, were able to either defeat the original state or negotiate a separation, and were able to get the international community to agree to a referendum on self-determination. Aspiring countries like Somaliland and now Azawad, are below the line, as they have not been able to check the necessary boxes for international support. Despite the complete fabrication of many African countries’ borders, there is tremendous danger in diverting from this de facto pathway of negotiated and agreed upon independence that follows a war of liberation. Otherwise, we have no way of drawing the line between recognizing entities like Eritrea and South Sudan and not recognizing others such as Azawad, Somaliland, Cabinda, Katanga, Biafra…

Instability in Mali Complicates Regional Approach to AQIM

(Originally published in World Politics Review on April 5, 2012)

Over the weekend, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three major cities of northern Mali that lie within the region the Tuareg rebel group refers to as “Azawad.” This development highlights the inability of the military-led junta currently ruling the country, the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), to stem the MNLA’s advance, despite having deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré for his anemic response to this latest round of Tuareg rebellion. Before his overthrow, Touré had also come under fire from regional and international critics for his inability to definitively address the presence in Mali of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been increasingly active in the northern part of the country since 2007. With Mali’s territorial integrity under threat, the military in disarray and the CNRDR increasingly subject to significant diplomatic and economic pressures, there are concerns that AQIM may benefit from the mayhem reigning in the country.

AQIM is a descendant of jihadi terrorist groups that sought to replace the Algerian government with an Islamic state during the 1991-2002 Algerian civil war. Due to the effective targeting of these groups by the Algerian security forces, AQIM was largely pushed out of the country, but it found safe havens in northern Mali near the Algerian border and in the Wagadou forest near the border with Mauritania. …

(You can find the rest on or at

After the loss of Kidal and Gao, what next for the MNLA and CNRDR?

As anticipated, the MNLA has seized upon the confusion in Bamako to advance from more rural targets such as Ménaka and Tessalit to those that are more heavily populated and strategically important. In the last two days, Tuareg rebels have seized the northeastern Malian towns of Kidal and Gao, along with their military garrisons, making Timbuktu the only major town that remains under the control of the Malian army within the region the rebels refer to as Azawad. As the military headquarters for northern Mali, the loss of Gao is yet another obstacle for the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) to overcome in order to prove that it, rather than the civilian government of ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré, can find a more effective solution to the Tuareg rebellion. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the threats levied by the 15-member Economic Community of West and Central African States (ECOWAS) to impose sanctions on Mali unless the CNRDR steps aside in favor of civilian rule by Monday.

In addition to the MNLA’s ability to benefit from the state of affairs in the capital, it has also benefitted from a change in fortune as a result of last year’s events in Libya. Unable to trust his own military, the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi believed Tuareg migrants from Mali and Niger to be immune to the tribal politics of Libya’s Arab-Berber tribes. Due to droughts in these countries during the 1970s and 1980s, these Sahelian minorities immigrated to Libya, where Qadhafi used them as fighters in sensitive positions within the Libyan armed forces. In exchange for their loyalty, Qadhafi gave them financial and military assistance which was then used to foment Tuareg insurrections in Mali and Niger in the 1980s and 1990s. In Mali, the Tuareg rebellions had been resolved through negotiated peace, and government promises for decentralization, regional development, and the integration of Tuareg fighters into the national military. However, many Tuaregs have felt betrayed by the government’s inability to deliver on these promises. Armed with machine guns, mortars, antitank and antiaircraft weapons liberated from Qadhafi’s arsenals, the MNLA has presented a threat to Mali’s territorial integrity that previous Tuareg rebellions were unable to pose. In fact, it is largely this massive weapons flow and Touré’s inability to anticipate the magnitude of tactical imbalance between the rebels and the army that explains how Mali ended up in the situation it faces today. At present, there are two factors that could affect this imbalance. The first is the CNRDR’s ability to secure military assistance from states or international organizations alarmed by the MNLA’s recent progress, which appears unlikely, given the condemnations of the coup by key international partners and ECOWAS’ pending ultimatum. The second will be the MNLA’s ability to sustain the supply of arms and ammunition into Azawad. As of yet, the group has no known sources of foreign support – but that may be a small hitch in a region awash with small arms and light weapons.

With the campaign against the MNLA now under the command of the CNRDR, the Malian army is bound to face the same challenges it did under Touré, given its relatively small size (roughly 7,000 soldiers) and the difficulty of mounting and sustaining operations across a broad swath of territory. Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, while imploring the international community for help to halt the Tuareg advance, has simultaneously called for negotiations with the rebels. With increasing uncertainty surrounding Mali’s future security assistance, and the morale of soldiers on the frontlines likely plummeting, it appears that a negotiated peace may be the most expedient way of settling this most recent round of Tuareg discontent. Yet, even this comes with its own set of complications. The MNLA insists that the only basis for negotiations must be self-determination, while granting any concessions that would negatively impact Mali’s territorial integrity would make Sanogo’s position untenable. Moreover, although the MNLA claims to represent the marginalized populations of Azawad, we do not yet have a good understanding of whether or not the MNLA has popular support – either from within the Tuareg community in northeastern Mali or from other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Songhai, Peul, and Moors. As the MNLA continues to seize territory, we may begin to see evidence of cleavages within the rebel movement, and within the region, as it attempts to administer these areas as the Government of Azawad.

%d bloggers like this: