IntroductionThe latest armed conflict in Mali erupted in theaftermath of the Libyan civil war. In this context, it became easy for radical religiousand ethnic armed groups to proliferate in Northern Mali, including the Tuareg-ledNational Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). But the group’s claimsand rebellions can be traced back to the post-colonial Malian state, and stillpose a security threat to the regions of West Africa and Sahel. Attention is oftenfocused on the jihadist groups only and appears to have lost sight of the so-called’Tuareg Factor’, which is crucial to put the MNLA’s formation and evolutioninto context and to frame long-term conflict prevention and resolutioninitiatives1.Firstly, this paper contextualizes Tuareg separatism; it highlights its strategiesand objectives; and finally examines its role in the 2012 crisis, arguing thatits position must be understood from a historical perspective of collective localgrievances. The background of the Malian armed conflictThe events unfolding in the 2012 Malian crisis are theconsequences of the government’s failed control of its territories in itscritical location between Arab and Black Africa. In fact, the Malian central statedelegates a high degree of autonomy to local communities through triballeaders, which facilitates ethnic identities’ polarization.
The Northernnomadic communities, in particular, have suffered and resisted a ‘dualcolonisation’ from the colonial powers and the post-colonial governments2. Theybelieve to have been forgotten by the Malian rulers and to have been thevictims of its inefficiency. While the south was growing thanks tointernational aid, the north was witnessing the collapse of the state. TheTuaregs have consistently asked for some autonomy from Bamako and even proved ableto provide effective governance for themselves3.The combination of perceived marginalisation, socio-economic deprivation, andstigmatization of their nomadic and Berber identity has fostered a cycle ofviolence since 1960, and created a legacy that still affects the relations withthe government, and that has shaped their desire of independence in all therebellions4.It is in this context of insurgencies and aggressive retaliatory measures fromthe state, which increasingly targeted civilians, that many took sides with thearmed Tuaregs and later formed the MNLA5.
These structural problems connected with geopoliticalfactors: the Arab spring and jihadism. Mali depended both in terms of securityand economy on Qaddafi’s regime: he used the Tuaregs as an instrument toconsolidate its patronage over the weak region. Many Tuaregs served in theLibyan army and when returned to Mali, they were either integrated in theMalian forces or joined the MNLA6. Plus,the involvement of Islamic non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda in the IslamicMaghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Divine Unity and Jihad in WestAfrica (MUJAO) has made Mali a central player for regional security andstability7. The MNLA’s strategies and objectivesThe MNLA emerged in October 2011 and mainly consistedof members of former Tuareg opposition movements, which had led the uprisingsin the past8.It was the first Tuareg separatist group to publicly declare its aim ofindependence and to adopt a nationalist rhetoric9. AFree Azawad was declared in 2012, but it was not recognised by theinternational community despite the group’s alleged strategic support for theFrench and Malian troops against the jihadists.
The MNLA wanted a democraticrepublic and a constitution, and it intended to respect existing nationalborders in order to persuade neighbouring countries of its good intentions.However, no country recognised the Free Azawad as they all backed a one-statesolution, including West African states fearing revolts within their bordersbased on pan-Tuareg nationalism10. The MNLA’s initial success was facilitated by the coupd’état that ousted President Touré and prevented the government from deployingtroops to the North, and by the strategic military alliances with the jihadistslocated in Northern Mali. These alliances were instrumental to battlefield expediencyand soon turned into open rivalries.
It should not come as a surprise as thegroups had contrasting agendas and Ansar Dine even stood against the FreeAzawad fearing it would endanger the spread of Islamism in the region11. TheMNLA’s separatist project revealed premature: the group wasoverwhelmed by the Islamists’ brutality and outnumbered by foreign fighters, sothey withdrew and requested international assistance to defeat the jihadists inexchange for negotiations with the Malian state and military collaboration withthe French forces12. The Tuaregs’ role in the Malian crisisThe MNLA remains the heart of Tuareg nationalism inmodern days. It emerged as a more determined movement with a well-structuredpolitical agenda. It was the result of Tuareg fighters returning from Libyawith impressive military expertise and sophisticated weapons, which, coupledwith their resentment toward the state’s inefficiency, encouraged the uprisingin 201213. Some scholars believe that the argument ofmarginalisation by the government has been abused by the Tuaregs, arguing thatit fails to consider other causes of instability in the country.
The challengesfaced by the post-colonial state were enormous given the poverty raging in thecountry and the difficulties in meeting the most basic needs of the population.Still, in several occasions the state has made significant efforts to meet theinterests of the Tuaregs by reintegrating fighters, establishing jointcommissions for national consultation and development initiatives, and finally implementinga special programme for peace, security and development in the attempt to relievetensions with the Tuaregs and counter the recruitment of AQIM. These efforts areevidence that the state attempted to improve the relationship with the Tuaregs14.
Consequently, many Malian soldiers and civiliansreportedly believed that the government was making compromises with the rebels,preferring them over other communities living in harsh conditions across thecountry. The MNLA was considered a ‘Trojan horse’ as its intention of defeatingthe jihadists appeared deceitful, and a Free Azawad as a threat to nationalsecurity and a cause of instability15. Thereis no consensus on the legitimacy of the MNLA, as many believe it was notrepresentative of the whole Tuareg community, and many question thesignificance of the movement, its local support base in Northern Mali, itsopportunistic cooperation with jihadists, and its subtle sense of superiority towardsthe government16.
These arguments sharply contrast with the accusationsof governmental inefficiency and negligence against the Tuaregs. In fact, otherscholars have a diverging opinion on the issue. They believe that theinternational community should support Tuaregs’ independence as, despite beinghistorically seen as too primitive to govern a modern state, they have proved ableto efficiently administer their communities, while the government has failed tomeet their most basic demands. As many observers state, the Malian governmenthas lost its legitimacy outside French-speaking elites and urban areas, but thedisenchanted relation between the state and the rural Tuareg communities is notan exception in sub-Saharan Africa.
The literature shows that this phenomenonis widely spread across the continent, as governments are unable to assist theperipheral areas resulting in ungoverned spaces taken over by militias. Thisbranch of literature supports international funding for a Free Azawad tocounter the spreading of extremist jihadist ideologies and put an end to theungoverned spaces in the region17. ConclusionsDiscussions of the “Tuareg factor” have often led tohazard generalizations about the government neglecting the nomadic communities.With many Malians accusing the Tuaregs of being the cause of the collapse ofthe country, it is indeed true that the insurgencies in Northern Mali have allbeen Tuareg-centred since 1960. In light of contrasting views on the legitimacyof the Tuaregs’ claims, I argue that it is not possible to understand theorigin of the MNLA without considering the historical Tuaregs’ perceivedmarginalization and its interconnection with the Sahel’s fragile order.
AsTuareg-led insurrections are not a new phenomenon, it is crucial to understandtheir background in the framework of the state’s socio-political inefficiency-either due to post-colonial challenges or its discriminatory stance- tocounter the deteriorating situation in Northern Mali and successfully implementthe 2015 peace agreement18.Furthermore, I argue that the Libyan crisis and the spread of jihadism served asa catalyst for the MNLA’s emergence, and the unstable regional security orderhas further worsened since then.1 Zounmenou D., The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad factor in the Malicrisis 2013, p.2 Cristiani D., Fabiani R., The Malian Crisis and its Actors 2013,p.
813 Livermore D., The case for Azawad 2013, p.2834 Zounmenou D., The National Movement for the Liberation ofAzawad factor in the Mali crisis 2013, pp.168-1695 KluteG.
, Lecocq B., Tuareg separatism in Mali2013, p.4266 Ibid., pp. 429-4307 Kone K.
, A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali 2017, p.558 Cristiani D., Fabiani R., The Malian Crisis and its Actors 2013,p.879 KluteG., Lecocq B., Tuareg separatism in Mali2013, p.
43010 Livermore D., The case for Azawad 2013, pp.288-28911 Ibid., pp.
431-43212 Livermore D., The case for Azawad 2013, p.28913 Cocodia J., Nationalist sentiment, terrorist incursions and the survival of theMalian State 2017, pp.54-5514 Zounmenou D., The National Movement for the Liberation ofAzawad factor in the Mali crisis 2013, pp.168-16915 Ibid., pp.170-17216 Ibid., pp.170-17217 Livermore D., The case for Azawad 201318 Cocodia J., Nationalist sentiment, terrorist incursions and the survival of theMalian state 2017, pp.60-61