Potential Hot Spots: Mali Cursed With Competing Rebellions

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April 3, 2012: Mali, a land-locked African country south of Algeria, is in chaos. In January thousands of Tuareg tribesmen in the north resumed their rebellion and began attacking towns and military bases. Last month soldiers in the capital deposed the elected government, complaining that the politicians had not sufficiently supported the military in its efforts to deal with the Tuareg uprising.  This is the fourth Tuareg uprising since the first in 1963 and the most successful. In the last four days Tuareg rebels have seized the three major towns in the north (Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu) as well as military bases in the area. In effect, the Tuareg rebels have seized the entire desert north and it's now up to the more numerous southerners to try and take it back. But first the army coup must be undone, the army restored to some semblance of order, and then sent north to recapture the major towns and deal with the Tuareg.

The Tuareg rebels were assisted by a hundred or so al Qaeda plus some smuggler gangs. Apparently deals were made to make life easier for the terrorists and gangsters if the Tuareg gained control of the north. Already, the al Qaeda gunmen are going around shutting down places that sell alcohol or video and telling people they must act like "proper" Moslems (beards for men and covering up for women). This sort of thing is not popular among the Tuareg and may cause friction with the mainline Tuareg (who might still rebel against the rebels).

The Tuaregs have been a problem for centuries, as they are ethnically distinct from the Malian majority in the south. Mali is as large as South Africa but less than a third the population. Most (90 percent) of the 14.5 million live in the southern third of the country, which gets more water. The north is largely desert and most of the population up there are Tuareg (most of them not rebelling). Until the French arrived in the 19th century and created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali", the black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north.

These ethnic differences are complicated by Tuareg participation in smuggling cocaine and hashish north, through Algeria, to Europe. The drug smuggling is actually handled by Arab gangsters that are not terrorists. Al Qaeda gets paid lots of money to provide security for the drugs as they make the long run through forests, then the Sahara. The Tuareg provide local knowledge of the terrain, and people, at least in the far south. The Algerian government is afraid that the Tuareg will be tempted, by a big payday, to provide sanctuary for al Qaeda, as well as providing new recruits for Islamic terrorist operations (especially those that raise a lot of cash, like kidnapping Westerners). While the Tuareg are not fond of Islamic terrorism, young Tuareg are allowed to work with al Qaeda as hired guns. The pay is good and, so far, not too dangerous. But the young Tuareg are picking up some radical ideas from their al Qaeda bosses and that is causing some tension with tribal leaders. The mere fact that Tuareg are working for al Qaeda in southern Algeria has angered Algerian officials. Most of the 1.5 million Tuareg in the region are living in nations bordering Algeria (Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger). Mali has faced rebellious Tuareg for a long time and made peace with most of them in 2007. The current bunch of Tuareg rebels insist that they have no connection with al Qaeda or MOJWA, but many other Tuaregs do and there's no denying that. On the southern border of Algeria the Sahara desert turns into the semi-desert Maghreb, a band of barely livable land stretching from the Atlantic coast to Somalia.

The situation remains chaotic since members of the 7,000 man army staged a coup in the capital and the president went into hiding among loyal troops. News of the coup caused demoralization among the troops in the north, where several thousand Tuareg tribesmen are trying to establish a separate state. As troops withdrew to the south the Tuaregs began advancing and occupying towns and military bases. There was some resistance by pro-government tribal militias, but these were overwhelmed and pushed aside by the more heavily armed Tuareg rebels. The coup leaders down south have used most of the troops they command to occupy government ministries and provide security for the capital. There are few pro-coup troops to send north to stop the Tuareg rebels.

The coup is led by mid ranking officers who insist that new presidential elections will be held as soon as "national unity" (all opposition is silenced) and "territorial integrity" (the Tuareg rebels are defeated) is taken care of. No word on how long that might take, but it appears that the scheduled presidential elections next month are not going to happen. The mutinous soldiers were upset at a perceived lack of support by the government. The troops wanted more weapons and equipment to deal with the Tuareg rebels up north. The government preferred more emphasis on negotiation. The coup has apparently divided the army and not all troops back the coup leaders.

Despite the coup and rebellion several large mining operations, staffed by locals and foreigners, continue to operate. These mines are a major source of income for the government.  

April 2, 2012: ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) agreed to close their borders with Mali and threatened military intervention if the army rebels do not restore the elected government within 72 hours.

April 1, 2012: The coup leaders now promise to restore the elected government but said new elections would not be held for 40 days and left many other details vague. This did not satisfy critics in neighboring countries and ECOWAS (who want the existing elected government restored).

March 31, 2012: In the north soldiers abandoned their bases around Gao when they came under fire by Tuareg rebels.

March 30, 2012:  The coup leaders are now appealing to their neighbors for help in defeating the Tuareg rebels. That help won't be possible until the coup leaders restore the elected government. This would likely mean prison for the coup leaders, something that discourages backing down. The United States and other Western aid donors have halted their aid, at least until the elected government is installed.

March 29, 2012: ECOWAS gave the Mali army rebels three days to restore the elected government, or sanctions, and possibly military intervention, would be used. Four leaders from neighboring nations (Ivory Coast, Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso) tried to fly into the capital to personally negotiate with the coup leaders but pro-coup demonstrators occupied the airstrip at the main airport and the aircraft carrying the foreign leaders turned back.

March 27, 2012: Neighboring nations threatened sanctions and military intervention if the Mali coup is not undone and the elected government restored. The coup leaders are finding that most of the country does not back them.

March 26, 2012: Opposition to the coup is widespread, and 38 political parties have formed an anti-coup coalition.

March 23, 2012: The African Union has suspended Mali's membership until the elected government returns to power.

March 22, 2012: Soldiers mutinied in the capital and seized the presidential palace (but not the elected president) and TV station. The troops announced they were taking over because the military had not been allowed to deal with the Tuareg tribal rebellion in the north, where the rebels had seized some towns and villages. The current fighting in the north has caused over 100,000 people to flee their homes to get away from the violence.

March 11, 2012: The military base at Tessalit, under siege since late January, fell to the Tuareg rebels. An army attempt to break through the siege last week failed.

January 17, 2012: Tuareg rebels in the northeast renounce the 2009 peace deal and declare a new rebellion to establish an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali. Rebels advance on the military base at Tessalit and besiege it.

 

 

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