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Mischief in Mali

A model African country confronts subversion—with U.S. help.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Indeed, there is no mistaking the international dimension of the Tuareg question. They are a nomadic people who were left on the sidelines of history when the end of the colonial period created borders that made no sense to them. Mali’s foreign minister was in Algiers almost as soon as the crisis began in January, seeking a way to jump-start Algeria’s longstanding mediation efforts. The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore, met with Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré and called for “dialogue.” Touré is all for it, but the MNLA has said it will talk only about secession. 

While Mali hardliners claim the popular “President ATT” encouraged the rebellion through years of neglect of the army’s fighting mission and an inability to focus on security in the north, the Tuareg rebels claim that talk is cheap, as the experience of failed peace accords (the most recent one signed in 2008) and broken truces over the past 50 years shows. If they cannot get what they feel they need for the well-being of their region, they say, they prefer to keep fighting. But southerners respond that sponging off the south is cheap too, and happens to be the usual m.o. of the Tuareg. “They are either sponging or stealing, when they are not killing,” one told me. “But you will never see them working.”

This view surely reflects the intensity of the current crisis. Malians, in fact, have evolved a remarkably consensual and laid-back attitude toward the multitribalism that characterizes their country (like others in the region). The anger directed at the Tuareg has a certain tribal or even racial basis that it would be vain to blame on one side or another, but in the current context it reflects disappointment more than hatred. Even severe critics of President ATT give him credit for promoting a united Mali and not playing the tribal card, just as he rejected the single-party card of previous postcolonial regimes and insisted that pluralistic democracy, however flawed, was a basic requirement for progress. Progress, however, comes slowly. Most Malians do not vote in elections and live on scarcely a dollar a day. USAID is building the country’s first highway linking north and south. In the north, where poverty is most acute, leaders of the Songh  ai group have said change is inhibited by Tuareg banditry. Indeed, during the 1990s the Songhai organized their own self-defense militias; these evolved into improvement associations during the years of democratic opening promoted by Touré, and they are at present among the main supporters of hardliners in the army. 

The Tuareg, however, are much set upon and much maligned. In common with other Saharan tribes, they have a bad rap as a result of historical circumstances they never made. They have beautiful music—introduced to many Americans through the success of the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen at this year’s Grammy Awards—an admirably spare cuisine, astonishing resilience in a harsh environment, and, pertinent to the present context, one of the most intensely tribal cultures in the world. 

The significance of this characteristic is that it underscores the need for caution in referring to a “Tuareg problem.” Many Malians deny there is such a thing, pointing to the perfectly successful integration of Tuareg in areas outside the Sahara. They say rather that small numbers of militants have a problem, and some observers note that the militants come repeatedly from the same tribes, who usually have no more love for neighboring Tuareg tribes (or such nomadic Saharans as the Sahrawis of the desert’s far west, themselves involved in a decades-old dispute over territory with Morocco) than they have for other Malian groups. 

The other regional presidents play their own parts. The strategy of Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel-aziz is regarded with suspicion in Bamako. A proponent of a hard line against the jihadist bands from AQIM and other remnants of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, Abdelaziz is thought by leaders of Mali’s southern groups (who distrust him as a “white Moor”) to want to use the Tuareg against the jihadists. But Malian hardliners disagree, deeming both Tuareg and jihadists little more than criminal bands specialized in kidnapping and drug-running. 

The Moroccans’ hard line toward the Sahrawis, and the Algerians’ contrasting support for their demand for a referendum on their status, show how difficult it is to forge a political consensus on the Sahara. 

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