Ein Gastbeitrag von Alex Thurston
Mali’s presidential elections, now little more than two months away, were supposed to mark the country’s triumph as a young and stable democracy. Mali approaches a milestone – the second peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another – that many political scientists consider the definition of a consolidated democracy. Outgoing President Amadou Toumani Touré, who has served since 2002, had hoped to leave his country a legacy of peace, infrastructural development, and prosperity derived from mining and other growth industries. Touré, often known by the abbreviation “ATT,” has faced serious political and security crises during his rule, including a bitter row over the country’s new family code and attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Yet as of this fall, ATT’s legacy appeared basically intact.
In January, the country that ATT will pass to his successor grew more violent and less stable. Tuaregs in the north, under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA), launched a rebellion on January 17. The NMLA says it wants to establish an independent state in what it views as the Tuareg homeland, called Azawad. The rebellion responds to longstanding Tuareg grievances concerning their perceived neglect and marginalization by the government in the south. The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi also set the stage for the uprising; his side’s loss in Libya’s civil war removed a powerful mediator in conflicts between Tuaregs and Sahelian governments (in 2009, Qadhafi had mediated the settlement of the last Tuareg uprising in Mali) and sent Tuareg fighters who had been loyal to Qadhafi back home to Mali and its neighbors. The NMLA is a serious military force. Since fighting began, the rebels have been occupying towns in northern Mali. The Malian army, for its part, has focused on defending strategic sites and targeting the rebels with airstrikes.
The rebellion has caused a political crisis in the south. Frustrated military families have protested in the capital Bamako and other cities. Demonstrations have sometimes verged on becoming pogroms against Tuaregs who reside in the south, a development that could presage a larger wave of inter-ethnic conflict. The president and his representatives have tried to negotiate with both the protesters and the Tuaregs, but so far without definitive success. The rebellion itself is in some sense a rejection of ATT’s strategy for peace in the north, which included a special regional development and security program.
The rebellion is also causing humanitarian crises. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled into neighboring countries. An estimated 30,000 people are internally displaced. Displaced Malians, in and outside the country, are struggling to meet their basic needs. Caring for them in the short term will strain the capacities of governments and aid agencies, and resettling them will present a long-term challenge. The war and the refugee crisis also exacerbate the threat of food insecurity that troubles the entire Sahel region. Drought, increases in food prices, and shortages of aid could create mass starvation for Mali and its neighbors, even without the other problems currently at work. The fighting will hinder aid agencies from reaching the hungry, and will distract the government from the needs of civilians.
These developments have complicated Mali’s relations with key partners. The rebellion is a matter of concern not just for Mali, but also for its neighbors and for France. Different actors have taken different approaches. Regional power Algeria, declaring it hopes to encourage a peaceful solution to the conflict, has withdrawn some military support from Mali. France and Mali, meanwhile, have jointly denounced reported rebel atrocities, but on other points the two governments diverge: France would prefer an immediate ceasefire, while Mali appears to want to continue using force, at least in the short-term. Finally, claims of AQIM involvement in the rebellion are circulating, raising the possibility that the rebellion will come to be understood by Western governments as a dangerous opportunity for terrorists to expand their foothold in the region. One potential long-term trajectory for the war involves substantial Western military support for Mali’s government, though for now Paris seemingly hopes to avoid that scenario.
Mali’s government recently stated it aims to crush the rebellion before April’s elections. Previous rebellions, however, have lasted years. Prolonged and intense fighting could compel the government to delay the elections, or face the unappealing alternative of holding the vote at a time when large portions of the country could not fully participate. Whenever the transition comes, it seems ATT may leave his successor a Mali riven by conflict and plagued by humanitarian problems.
Alex Thurston promoviert an der Northwestern University (Chicago) über Islam in Afrika. Thurston betreibt den Sahelblog, den größten englischsprachigen Fachblog über die Staaten der Sahel-Zone. Als Gastkommentator schreibt er u.a. für The Guardian und Foreign Policy.