Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mali's Taureg rebellion stalemates

The tension in Mali and Niger has grown to a boiling point over a rebellion started by the region’s most populace people-group, the Tauregs. The Malian government attempted to control the most recent Taureg uprising in the north east but couldn’t move quickly enough in the back-lands and appeared to stumble. Junior army officers overthrew the elected government March 21, allegedly because of this failure to control the Tuaregs in the north.

Soldiers loyal to the former government in Mali tried to stage a countercoup April 30, a spokesman for Mali’s military junta said, The Washington Post reported. Junta spokesman Bakary Mariko said they are trying to take control of the airport, adding that anti-junta forces have the support of mercenaries from the region. 

He said the idea is to try to take control of the airport so they can fly in Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops. A senior Western diplomat based in Bamako said he believed the fighting started when forces loyal to the junta attempted to arrest the former head of the presidential guard.

Mali has faced a new growing insurrection in its north east provinces since the summer of 2011. The instability in this sparsely populated, west Saharan country was difficult to deal with for the government in Bamako. 

Few roads connect villages in the hour-glass shaped country, and those roads capable of holding a four-wheel drive car seasonally wash out with floods making rapid troop deployment all but impossible. The country has borders, but to the people living there, they mean very little. Human movement between Niger, Mali, Algeria, and to some extent Libya, is relatively unimpeded and unregulated.

The porous nature of these West African borderlands favours the lifestyles of current antagonists in the region, the Tauregs. The nomadic pastoralist tribesmen, of which census data number around 1.5 million individuals in Mali alone, is renowned for their knowledge of the landscape and ability to navigate in impossible terrain almost intuitively. 

Tales from western Special Forces would have us believe they might swap a GPS for a Taureg for better navigation, so strong are their skills. Their services have been employed for generations by governments and regional strongmen. During the Libyan war at the tail end of 2011, Taureg mercenaries fought for Moammar Gaddafi against the uprising in Benghazi and other cities.

But since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Taureg militias made their way back to their homes in Mali, Niger and Algeria taking their weapons and military experience with them. 

A Tuareg group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), in Mali recently wrested control of its traditional homeland, known as Azawad, from the Malian government. Much as they did in 2007 to 2009, the Taureg tribesmen seek to create an autonomous state separate from the Bamako government.

Neighbouring countries have called on Bamako to immediately resolve the uprising in Mali’s north east. The region produces large quantities of uranium from some of the world’s biggest mines, at which many ethnic Taureg are employed to mine. France and Nigeria, two countries operating large mines in the Taureg regions, have suggested military intervention from the Economic Community of West African States but do not plan to insert their own troops yet.

The Taureg militants have pointed to several factors for their current actions. Their experiences in the mines have left many with significant radiation poisoning and a dearth of sufficient compensation to remedy this. The distinct feeling of “colonialism” the Nigerian and Malian Tauregs associate with the large foreign presence in this region, lands many Taureg consider ‘holy’, has spread as a grievance among the youth population.   

A spokesman for the Malian junta said April 27 it would resist any ECOWAS soldiers deployed in Mali and would treat any soldiers as enemies, Reuters reported. The spokesman said the junta did not need extra men and that it only needed to provide the army with logistics in order to defeat the separatists and rebels in the north. 

But after seizing Gao and Timbuktu the MNLA are unlikely to extend any campaign south to Bamako. The ceasefire in April 5 is strategic for the rebels as their main goal has been successful; the government troops are unable to dislodge them. The inability of the junta troops to deploy quickly in the north due to poor access and the lack of MNLA motivation to push further south appears to be holdiing the sides in stalemate for the time being.

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