Category Archives: Tuareg

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.

Three Takeaways from Last Week’s Coup in Mali

Last week in Mali, mid-level military officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo declared themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and deposed democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré in a bloodless coup. Known as the “soldier of democracy” Touré had himself launched a coup in 1991 against the military regime of General Moussa Traoré. Touré, then stepped aside the following year, allowing elections to usher in two decades of multiparty democracy. Having retired from the military, Touré was elected president in 2002, and was due to step down next month at the end of his second term. Presidential elections scheduled for April 29 would have marked the third successful transition of power from one democratically elected Malian president to his successor, and the further consolidation of the country’s democracy. Yet the spillover from the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya gave elements of the armed forces a pretext to oust Touré from power.

Battle-hardened and heavily armed Tuaregs who had fought in the military of the late Muammar al-Qadhafi began to return to their countries of origin – Mali and Niger – in the summer and fall of 2011. For those well-versed in the conflict dynamics of the Sahel, it was only a matter of time before the impact of this Tuareg exodus would be felt in the region. In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began to launch attacks in Azawad, a region encompassing the administrative regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Despite having fought two previous Tuareg rebellions (1962-1964 and 1990-1995) since independence, the Malian armed forces were caught off balance. In just over two months, the MNLA seized several northern towns and killed an undisclosed number of Malian soldiers, leading to the perception among lower ranking officers that Mali’s civilian government has mishandled its response to the conflict.

Touré has not been seen in public since last week’s coup, and much remains uncertain about the CNRDR’s seizure of power. However, there are three takeaways that are immediately apparent:

  1. The coup appears more opportunistic than it does rational. By seizing power a little over a month before scheduled elections, the military junta has precluded an alternative civilian approach to fighting the conflict in the north.
  2. As there have been no expressions of support from the upper echelons of the Malian armed forces, the coup may be a setback in terms of the military’s cohesion and effectiveness at dealing with the Tuareg rebellion. This may allow the MNLA to capitalize on the current state of affairs, and could similarly create a security vacuum for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to exploit.
  3. The rationale for the coup is in direct contradiction to the CNRDR’s stated objective to defeat the Tuareg insurgency and restore constitutional order. Due to the CNRDR’s unconstitutional actions, several countries and international organizations have suspended assistance to the Malian government until civilian rule is restored. Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. State Department suspended non-humanitarian assistance to Mali pending a resolution of events on the ground. According to Section 7008 of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, the U.S. government restricts security assistance to the “government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Under this determination, it appears that Mali is now subject to Section 7008, making it illegal for the U.S. government to continue the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) that Mali received, as well as Mali’s participation in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). Ironically, although the CNRDR claims to lack adequate arms and supplies to confront Tuareg rebels, they have disqualified Mali from receiving security assistance from the United States and other key partners – without which it may actually be more difficult to reverse the momentum of the MNLA. This is significant, because it means that Mali’s return to civilian rule may be prolonged, which prompts the question of how long the CNRDR will be able to stay in power before it must resort to the use of force in order to quell civilian discontent.
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