With the Fall of Timbukutu, Is there an Azawad in Mali’s Future?


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Timbuktu was once a metaphor for the middle of nowhere.  Now it is in the middle of a struggle that has important implications for the whole Sahel zone that runs from Senegal to Sudan.  Tuareg armed forces coming from further north have taken control of the key towns of northern Mali: Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, largely cutting the country in two.

What could be called the “Central Government” of Mali in Bamako was overthrown on 21 March by a coup of young military officers claiming that the government was incompetent in its struggle against the Tuareg.  The coup is more or less led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who had been trained by the US Marine Corps, but  Sanogo is probably acting on his own and not on behalf of the US Marines.  He had shown himself able to control the government buildings in Bamako but little else.

On 4 April, the UN Security Council issued a President’s Statement demanding a return to the previous civilian government.  It is not likely that the civilian-led government of former President Amadou Trouré will be restored.  Touré was himself a former general who had come to power in a coup, then governed in a fairly democratic way but without making many socio-economic advances.  The country now faces a food crisis due in part to drought and in part due to the lack of improvements in its agricultural production and distribution system.

The Tuareg are largely a Berber people whose ancestors had moved south to avoid the Arabic conquests of North Africa.  To this Berber stock have been integrated a good number of former slaves who are now agricultural workers. Tuareg society is structured on a strong system of castes based on socio-economic functions.  They follow a nearly exclusive pastoral-camel nomad mode of life.  They largely stayed beyond the control of French colonial administrations, and since independence in 1960, they are usually beyond the control of the central government.

There have been periodic rebellions  during the First and Second World War when colonial troops had been largely withdrawn usually coupled with demands for the creation of an independent Tuareg state to be called Azawad.  There was a strong wave of violence in 1964 when the Tuareg realized that they had no influence in the newly independent government.  There were again rebellions during the 1970s when the drought situation was particularly critical.  Rebellions are often linked to socio-economic difficulties usually related to drought.

However, the current rebellion is more linked to the availability of a large number of weapons from the armories of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya.  Qaddafi had at one stage incorporated a number of Tuareg into his militia system, so they were trained to use modern weapons.  As the Qaddafi government disintegrated, a large number of weapons became available and the new Libyan militias, largely based on tribal groups, had no longer any use for Tuareg fighters. Thus there was a return to Mali and other Sahel states  such as Niger of Tuareg fighters and their families, as well as with a mixture of people from other groups who had been working in Libya.

With an influx of militarily-trained men and a large number of weapons, the Tuareg rebellion has flaired up again, primarily in Mali, but there are signs of it spreading.  The other West African governments are worried.  After a special meeting on 2 April 2012 of the 15-member Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) all the frontiers with Mali have been officially closed.  Since the Tuareg rarely pass by official frontier posts, the closing of frontiers is symbolic, but it does have an impact on food and energy supplies of people living in Bamako and none on the Tuareg.  At the ECOWAS conference there was some talk of sending military aid to Mali, and the ECOWAS armies have been put on “alert” but meaningful military intervention is unlikely.Nevertheless, Captain Amadou Sanongo saw the “handwriting on the wall” and agreed to turn over the government to the President of the National Assembly who is the constitutional replacement when the President is absent.

The Tuareg movement is divided on ideological lines, which may also be on tribal lines. As for the moment, there are no journalists or other observers among the Tuareg, it is difficult to analyse the composition and strength of the factions.  What seems to be the largest faction, Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA)  led by its Secretary-General Bilal Ag Cherif focuses on an independent state of Azawad comprising northern Mali (and probably part of northern Niger). Now that the Tuareg hold virtually all the territory of a future Azawad, about the size of France but lightly populated, he has called for a ceasefire and international protection of nothern Mali from attacks by the Malian Army. Another, probably smaller faction, the Ansar Dine, led by Ag Ghaly, is more islamist and claims to want to create an Islamic state  for all of Mali. Within (or along side) Ansar Dine are islamists from Algeria and Mauritania and probably others who had been in Libya.The aim of moving south toward non-Tuareg areas is, no doubt, unrealistic as Ansar Dine has no support in the more densely-populated south, inhabited by Bambara and Malenke ethnic groups. However, the military in Bamako do not seem organized or willing to die to retake northern Mail, especially that most of the Mali military are from the Bambara ethnic group with little attachment to northern Mali in any case.

The French government has urged its 5000 citizens in Mali to leave, but most are French-Malian dual nationals and are permanent residents of Mali. Most are unlikely to leave unless the situation degenerates badly.

The creation of a Tuareg state seems unlikely, but after the recent creation of South Sudan, the idea of carving out a new state is no longer impossible. It took fighting from 1982 to 2005 for there to be an agreement to create a South Sudan state and for other African states to agree to the division  The future of Mali is uncertain, but an Azawad can not be ruled out in advance.


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Apr 2012.

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