Mali in Crisis: Timbuktu Taken by Tuareg Forces

by Abayomi Azikiwe

The ancient city of Timbuktu is embroiled in a conflict that is a spillover of last year’s NATO assault on Libya. “With the political & economic situation in Libya becoming extremely hostile towards Black Libyans & Africans from other parts of the continent, thousands of Tuaregs relocated back inside of Mali.” Tuareg forces stated “they want a separate homeland for the people of the north of the country.” while, Mali’s military, which overthrew the country’s elected president, faces sanctions from its West African neighbors.

Mali in Crisis: Timbuktu Taken by Tuareg Forces

by Abayomi Azikiwe

This article previously appeared in Pan-African News Wire.

The MNLA is led by the Tuareg people who have been marginalized since the post-independence period of the last five decades.”

Timbuktu, the ancient city in northern Mali, has been taken by the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The ongoing war for the control of the northern regions of this West African state has created a strong reaction from throughout the region.

A military coup took place in the capital of Bamako on March 21 deposing President Amadou Toumani Toure. The coup has drawn condemnation from the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States, the European Union and other international bodies.

Under pressure from outside and inside the country, the military junta headed by Capt. Amadou Sanogo announced on April 1 that they would re-instate the national constitution and hold elections aimed at a transition back to civilian rule. This came in the aftermath of a failed trip to Bamako by a group of ECOWAS leaders headed by Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso.

The ECOWAS airline carrying a delegation of West African leaders was returned in mid-air amid reports of demonstrations in the capital in favor of the military regime. Later on April 2, the ECOWAS regional organization met in Dakar, Senegal for several hours to discuss the situation in Mali.

According to the Associated Press, “The head of the body representing West African nations says the bloc is imposing financial sanctions on Mali because the junior officers that seized power in a coup 12 days ago have failed to restore constitutional order.” (April 2) After the meeting, the regional ECOWAS leader Alassane Ouattara emerged stating “that sanctions, including the closing of Mali’s land borders and the cutting off of the nation’s access to the regional central bank, would go into effect immediately.”

Significance of the Seizure of Timbuktu

With the capture of Timbuktu by the MNLA, the consolidation of their forces in the north of the country appeared to have been completed. The MNLA is led by the Tuareg people who have been marginalized since the post-independence period of the last five decades.

Since the war began in Libya during February 2011 and the intervention of the U.S. and NATO who imposed regime change and the rule of the National Transitional Council (NTC) rebel army, the situation in North and West Africa has witnessed greater instability. Many Tuaregs had lived in Libya for years and maintained close ties with former Jamahiriya leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who was brutally assassinated at the aegis of Washington on October 20. With the political and economic situation in Libya becoming extremely hostile towards Black Libyans and Africans from other parts of the continent, thousands of Tuaregs relocated back inside of Mali.

These Tuaregs were well armed and trained having fought alongside the Libyan government in the war to protect the sovereignty of the North Africa state. Upon re-entering northern Mali, a new re-configured movement was formed known as the MNLA which made rapid gains in their aims of taking control of the north of the country.

Many Tuaregs had lived in Libya for years and maintained close ties with former Jamahiriya leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi.”

The impact of the fighting in northern Mali since January has created even greater instability and dislocation of civilians. It is estimated that some 200,000 Malians have been displaced, many of whom are fleeing the country.

Although the military junta in Bamako said that the precipitating factor in their seizure of power from President Toure was the inadequate performance of the administration in handling the war in the north against the MNLA, since March 21, the Tuareg fighters have made tremendous gains on the battlefield. Malian troops have abandoned their posts in Gao and were easily overrun in Timbuktu.

In an article published in the Associated Press on April 2, it states that “In Gao, the largest city in the north which fell to the amalgam of rebel groups on Saturday (March 31), residents said that they no longer know who is in charge.”

One student in the city, Ahmed Ould Fneiny, said that “In Gao, its chaos. We don’t even know who controls the city, and who is doing what. We see Ansar Dine with their flag. We see the MNLA. We are seeing other Tuareg and Arab groups which deserted from the Malian army.” Fneiny went on to say “There are people in military uniforms who have stolen all the cars, even the private cars of civilians. We can’t leave the city. One liter of gasoline is now 1,000 franc ($2) whereas it was 650 francs ($1.3) yesterday.”

Ansar Dine, an Islamic group in the north of Mali, is said to have links with al-Qaeda. It has been characterized by its belief in sharia law.

The relationship between Ansar Dine and the MNLA is not yet clear. It appears that the MNLA includes both secular and religious factions.

Reports indicate that Ansar Dine have been seen in a convoy of 10 cars carrying the Black Flag, its symbol. At the Cheikh Fort Sidi Elbakaye military camp in Timbuktu they are said to have planted their flag as well.

Malian troops have abandoned their posts in Gao and were easily overrun in Timbuktu.”

An Associated Press article stated that “In Kidal and Gao, the Islamist faction took the lead early on, and shopkeepers reported that the rebels went from business to business telling merchants to take down pictures deemed un-Islamic. A hairdresser said he was made to take down the photographs he had put up showing different hairstyles because the images showed uncovered women.” (April 2)

A Reuters journalist indicated that “in the northern city of Gao, seized by rebels on Saturday (March 31), Islamists there were ransacking bars and hotels serving alcohol. In Kidal, the third main city of the region, one resident told reporters that music had been barred from radio stations and Western-style clothes had been banned.” (Reuters, April 2)

Timbuktu is an ancient city of African culture and Islamic education. It has also been a tourist attraction for westerners seeking to witness the historic center of traditional Africa prior to the
intervention of European slavery and colonialism.

The changing of its character will have a profound impact on the nation of Mali. It remains to be seen what effect the ECOWAS sanctions and the backtracking of the rebel military junta will have on the political will of the people of the south to re-group their forces to take back the cities in the north of the country.
Also if the sanctions are imposed on Mali by ECOWAS and other western states, will this further exacerbate the conflict inside the country? Is ECOWAS prepared to send a regional military force into Mali aimed at both quelling the rebellion in the north as well as putting down the military coup in Bamako?

Prospects for Malian Security and the Role of Imperialism

Since the war in Libya has brought about greater instability inside the country as well as in neighboring Mali, it demonstrates clearly the failed character of imperialism in North and West Africa. Inside of Libya, the country remains lawless with efforts underway in the east and the south which could lead to the partitioning of the country.
In Mali, the fighting intensified after the war in Libya created massive dislocation of several million people including thousands of Tuaregs who had supported the Gaddafi government. The Malian government under President Toure was a strong participant in the U.S. so-called “anti-terrorism” initiatives in West Africa.

The U.S. has provided training, joint-military exercises, military education and direct payments to soldiers in Mali. It has been reported that approximately $140 million in annual assistance is provided to the country.

The aims of the Tuaregs organizations may vary between the MNLA and Ansar Dine. The MNLA in a statement indicated that they want a separate homeland for the people of the north of the country. The MNLA said that their “mission is defending and securing the territory of the Azawad for the happiness of the people.”

The Malian government under President Toure was a strong participant in the U.S. so-called “anti-terrorism” initiatives in West Africa.”

Two major figures in the MNLA are General Secretary Bila Ag Cherif and Mohamed Ag Najim, who leads the military wing. Inside the Ansar Dine, the leading personality appears to be Iyad Ag Ghali who has been active in Tuareg resistance efforts for many years.

The Ansar Dine may not want a separate homeland for the Tuareg people but have indicated their desire to impose sharia law on the entire country. There may be increased tensions between both the MNLA and Ansar Dine as the political and military situations unfold inside the north as well as throughout Mali as a whole.

France, which is the former colonial power in Mali, has stated that it is not interested in engaging in a direct military intervention in the country. Nonetheless, France is involved in other African states such as Ivory Coast, Gabon, Libya and Somalia.

Alain Juppe, the foreign minister in Paris, said that he would consult with the United Nations Security Council about developments in Mali. Based on the recent history of France, the U.S. and the United Nations in Africa, it would not be wise to rule out possible direct or indirect military intervention by the imperialist states in Mali.

Abayomi Azikiwe is editor of Pan-African News Wire.