Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 April 2012
Issue No. 1093
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Saharan quicksand

The latest newly declared state in Africa, Azawad, will be short-lived, but will have long-term ramifications, predicts Gamal Nkrumah

It was not that noticeable amid all the razzmatazz. Nevertheless, the kidnapping of Algeria's consul and six other of the consulate staff from its mission in the northern Malian city of Gao took place last week. Is it yet another insignificant piece of information, or another milestone?

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Malians demand a return to constitutional democracy

There appears to be no let up in the frenetic pace of the political transformation of the Sahara. Perhaps, under the circumstances one ought to pause and pose the question: why would Algeria have a consulate in a god-forsaken backwater such as Gao?

In the spirit of openness now sweeping Africa's Saharan and Sahelian regions, the reader may well ask who exactly is Boualem Sias, the Algerian consul in Gao? His capture points to the intricate web of relationships that bind the countries of the Sahara. The political stability of Algeria's sprawling south is inextricably intertwined with those of its southern neighbours -- Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Yet the question remains why an entrenched military force such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is so keen on independence from Mali, and is in such a hurry to proclaim independence.

No army wants to be at war with their own people. And then there is the mysterious case of Movement for Monotheism and Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), the group that allegedly kidnapped the Algerian diplomat. Their appeal stems from their ability to deliver swift justice and settlement of disputes, tribal-style under the cover of religious jurisdiction.

Many presumed that the abduction of the Algerian diplomat and his staff in Gao has nothing to do with the fact that the headquarters of the Joint Military Staff Committee for Combating Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb is located in the Algerian oasis town of Tamanrasset. Ironically, Tamanrasset, formerly Fort Laperrine, the centre of operations of the French Legionnaires in the Sahara, is a Tuareg stronghold.

Tamanrasset, perched up high in the Hoggar Mountains, is the focus of much anti- American agitation. The Algerian government has emerged as the key United States ally in the combating of terrorism in the Sahara and Sahelian belts.

In more ways than one, matters are hotting up in the Sahara. First, the Mali coup d'état, then the proclamation of independence of Azawad by the MNLA, and the regional rejection of the ethnic Tuareg secession, and the kidnapping and later release of the Algerian diplomats in Gao.

Incidentally, it later transpired that the emir of the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) Moukhtar Belmoukhtar was the chief abductor. The Algerian daily Al-Watan declared a few days thereafter that the abductors had released the Algerian diplomats and that they were well treated. The GSPC carried out what was essentially its publicity-seeking deed in conjunction with the militant Islamist Defenders of the Faith, or Ansar Al-Din, the group that hoisted the black flag with "There is No God but Allah" bespangled across it.

In the crumbling sleepy seaside capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, leaders and military commanders of the leaders of several Saharan countries convened to discuss the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Mali and the Saharan and Sahelian belt in general. Way back in 2004, the Egyptian-born leader of Al-Qaeda Ayman El-Zawahri predicted that the GSPC would emerge as "the bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders". The GSPC has had a long history of attacking Algerian authority targets. In December 2006, the GSPC claimed responsibility for an attack on employees of the notorious US firm Halliburton in Algeria. The militant Islamist group has also kidnapped foreign tourists in southern Algeria and northern Mali. Yet most Malians see no future in it.

The spread of a stricter form of Islam has been disguised by claims for independence. Malians are suspicious of the militant Islamists and especially in the most impoverished and least developed parts of the country are especially interested in food and jobs as well as personal security.

The reason that secession is talked about so often is not just that it has happened before. The MNLA are secularists, mostly but not exclusively ethnic Tuareg. And, they are not particularly keen on sharing power with militant Islamists.

So now might not be a bad time to make another push for a Saharan settlement. Mali's ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure resigned on Sunday paving the way for the military junta that overthrew his democratically-elected government to adhere to the tenets of a deal struck with civil society and political parties to restore civilian rule to the country. According to the deal, the junta is obliged to hand over power to the president of the National Assembly Dioucounda Traore. It was therefore agreed that the speaker of the Malian Parliament was to be declared interim president.

"I am doing it without any pressure, I am doing it in good faith and most of all for the love that I have for this country," Mali's ex- president Traore declare.

The Tuareg people feel that they have been betrayed by successive Malian governments and by the regional powers and international community at large. Azawad, at any rate is not exclusively Tuareg territory. The Tuareg's failed bid to form a state of their own will only exacerbate regional instability and accentuate terrorism and arms smuggling across the Sahara.

A humanitarian catastrophe is in the making with 200,000 starving civilians fleeing northern Mali, an area desperately short of food and healthcare. Moreover, Timbuktu houses around 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 12th century and preserved in family homes and private collections. The region's largest city Gao, too, is home is a rich cultural heritage.

It all seems like ancient history. Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister and leading mediator for West African states Djibril Bassole is heading a flurry of diplomatic activity between Saharan and Sahelian countries.

The Tuareg is not the name they call themselves by. The folk etymology "tawariq" is derived from the Arabic and often used derisively as the people "Abandasned by God". They are also known as the "People of the Veil" or "The Blue People" a reference to the blue indigo they dye their clothes with, the various hues of blues from navy or midnight blue to the most eye-catching cerulean and azure blues, the colours of their veils.

The Sahara to them is Tinariwen, The Deserts, also the name of one of the region's most popular musical bands. People, especially in the sub-Saharan African countries where they are found in large numbers such as Mali, Niger, and Nigeria mistake them for Arabs. However, the Tuareg are Amazigh, that is to say they are of indigenous North African so-called Berber, non-Arab stock.

The Tuareg speak Tamashek and refer to themselves as the Imuhagh. There are an estimated six million Tamashek speakers across the Saharan wastelands from Nigeria and Niger to the southeast to Mali and Burkina Faso in the southwest and across the Sahara into Algeria and Libya. And, some Tuareg are found as far afield as the southern tip of Tunisia.

Other explanations are needed for the public mood in the countries of the Saharan fringe. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is in an awkward position. It is all part of a carefully calibrated campaign of bluff and rumour intended to return Mali to democracy.

ECOWAS would raise no objections to working more closely with Algeria, the most powerful military regional player. ECOWAS plans to deploy some 3,000 troops in Mali if political instability continues.

The West's main concern in the Sahara now probably mirrors ECOWAS's and Algeria's. The export of Islamist-inspired violence across the Sahara is cause for concern. The Malian army is believed to have culled potentially disloyal ethnic Tuareg from the most active units fighting in the Sahara.

The Tuareg are not particularly interested in political Islam. What they want is freedom and a semblance of autonomy, if not outright independence. They couch their anger in terms of social justice.

There are huge obstacles to this yearning for independence. The area is landlocked. Attacking the case for waiting to assess the impact of the latest round of sanctions, the international community is awakening to the deplorable humanitarian situation in northern Mali.

It is no accident that areas that have fallen under the control of the three main rebel groups are among the most underdeveloped and dispossessed of all of Mali. Given its disastrous history, notably the brutal war that led to the assassination of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the area is a hotbed of revolution and insurrection especially now that it is awash with arms.

Of all the assertions, the one that annoyed the Tuareg the most is that they are Gaddafi loyalists. They are not Arabs, but their cause is part and parcel of the "Arab Spring".

Arabs and non-Arabs now need to work more closely together in the Saharan and Sahelian belts, where Islamic culture blends with the traditional African.

All the same, it is a relationship based on mutual interests. Secularists in the region have a vested interest in fighting political Islam. Priceless Islamic treasures, rare medieval manuscripts mostly stored in private collections in Timbuktu and Gao, are better secured by a secular, civilian administration in Mali.

Ultimately, the Tuareg's tragedy is their colonial legacy. Prior to French colonialism, the Tuareg were the lords of the desert, roaming freely. Now they are confined to the colonial-defined boundaries as second-class citizens.

Azawad is unsustainable as an independent state. Like Turkey and Iraq and the Kurds, the neighbours of the Tuareg will not permit an independent state for this beleaguered minority straddling different nation states, because they all have their own ethnic Tuareg minorities to contain and placate. Constitutional and legal wrangling would haunt the new landlocked state. Abalessa, the spot in the Sahara where the skeleton of Tin Hinan, the legendary or mythical ancestral goddess of the Tuareg peoples was located is revered today even as the very notion of Azawad is sacred.

All told, the GSPC will remain a formidable force, as El-Zawahri foretold. And MUJWA, a splinter group of Al-Qaeda's North African wing, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, is a force not easily dismissed.

The reason that secession is talked about so often is that it has happened before. However, a civilian administration will be restored, no doubt. Azawad will be re- integrated into Mali. The army is still widely seen as the country's most effective and disciplined organisation and will be looked to to bring Mali back to civilian rule, as it has done in the past. After all, Toure was a military man.

So the nascent democracy in Mali and Africa will prevail. Poverty and ethnic tensions will continue for the time being. But the story is not over. The only answer is more equitable economic development. That would probably suit the Tuareg quite well. There is an economic interest too in keeping Mali intact. But the friendship has limits.

So, are the "Blue People" bluffing? The failed bid to create a new state by the Tuareg people will have further repercussions in the region, including the spread of the late Gaddafi's Green Resistance.

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