The Taureg struggle to create an independent multi-ethnic homeland

The Taureg struggle to create an independent multi-ethnic homeland

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John Ahni Schertow
June 22, 2012
 

June 22, 2012 – Less than a month ago, the media charged forward with reports that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement National De Liberation de l’Azawad – MNLA) had agreed to join forces with the Islamist group the Ansar Dine to create an Islamist state across the recently-liberated territory of Azawad.

The agreement didn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, both groups had been fighting side by side since January. However, the media failed to consider the nature of that working relationship. They also failed to observe one key difference that would go on to betray their headlines in just a few short day.

The Taureg may be willing to stand beside Ansar Dine to secure their ancestral territory; but  they are not so willing to sacrifice their struggle in order to maintain that alliance.

The Tuareg, who have been trying to reclaim their ancestral land since it was taken from them in the late 1800s, are trying to establish an independent multi-ethnic state. The Ansar Dine wants to turn Azawad into an Islamic State that adheres to sharia law. Neither side seems willing to concede to the other. This irreconcilable difference in goals was enough to pull apart the agreement. The MNLA would not accept the Ansar Dine’s plan

Now, according to Nationalia, there is considerable tension “within MNLA on the strategy that should be followed vis-à-vis Ansar Dine. Some members of MNLA are clearly advocating to put [an] end to any kind of collaboration with this Al-Qaida-linked Islamist organization, but some others are willing to reach a deal with them.”

“Some MNLA leaders have vehemently rejected an alliance with Ansar Dine during the last days in several interviews with local media”, Nationalia continues. “MNLA commissary for communication Mossa Ag Attaher is one of the leading voices in this respect: ‘Applying the Sharia and Arabizing our people are grave violations of our culture and of our identity'”, he says. MNLA political wing spokesman Hama Ag Mahmoud has explained that the rapprochement of his movement to Ansar Dine was a ‘temporary strategy’ and that under no circumstances could both organizations agree on a longstanding alliance. And he insists on the idea that Tuaregs are the most capable people in the region to stop Islamists.”

Again, the media doesn’t seem interested in talking about this. They would much rather feeding the prospect that Azawad could be taken over by the Ansar Dine with the purported funding and military support of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

There are many others in Azawad who have their own take on all this, who aren’t connected to MNLA or the Ansar Dine–who are also being ignored by the press.

In Early June, a landmark three-day conference brought together representatives of more than 120 tribal communities across Azawad to discuss the situation. The main organizer of the conference was the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (FNLA), a group that formed on April 8, 2012, two days after the MNLA declared formal independence for Azawad.

“Our goal is to reach a position that would express our views because we have become the victim of a conflict between two bitter enemies – the Malian state on the one hand and Touaregs and terrorist groups on the other hand,” explained Ould Ramzan, the conference spokesperson.

“Meanwhile, all of these developments are taking place on our own land, in Timbuktu and its suburbs. The terrorist groups have even become the main spokesperson in our lives,” he said.

“We reject the unilateral decision of independence which was declared by Touaregs groups,” he added. “We also realise that the Malian state no longer exists in the region. Therefore, we want to come up with a compromise position represented in securing an autonomy that guarantees us independence in running our land.”

The spokesperson adds, “We’ve started forming a military force and we’re about to consolidate it. The goal is to expel these terrorist groups that came to our land from outside it, and to restore our city, Timbuktu, and control it either peacefully or by force,” the FNLA spokesperson said. He added that it would “only be done through the armament of our young people and supplying them with the necessary logistical means”.

The MNLA, meanwhile, is moving ahead with their initial plans. On June 15, Tuareg leaders swore in an interim government. “The inauguration ceremony, which featured a military parade, was attended by political elites, and important Azawadi and Amazigh religious and tribal figures who came from both inside and outside the region, as well as some diplomats and journalists, relays Magharebia.

During the inauguration, Belal Ag Charif, the leader of the interim government, “extended a hand of co-operation to all local and international parties ‘based on a non-negotiable Azawad principle, which is represented in the Azawadi people’s right to self-determination and to running their own affairs themselves”, continues Magharebia.

The interim leader went on to lay out the interim government’s priorities, including establishing security, forging an Azawad army, and creating a new charter “that would establish the main principles of an Azawad constitution, which would consider the Qur’an and Sunnah as the source of legislation and stress respect for cultural diversity, opinion and political orientations of Azawad citizens”.

He also called for “serious negotiations with Mali’s legitimate representatives on outstanding issues between the two states” and urged all armed Azawad groups to take part in a comprehensive national project without the use military intervention, saying calls for such an approach were irresponsible.

So far, the interim government has been met mostly with scepticism and outright opposition from Ansar Dine.

The Malian government, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are also opposing the interim government. In fact, ECOWAS has even announced plans to send in a military force of 3,000 troops to the region. ECOWAS is now seeking permission and support from the United Nations.

Mali, of course, is still reeling from the March 22nd coup led by low- and mid-ranking military officers who were, at the time, fed up with Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré’s handling of the Tuareg-initiated uprising.

The ill-timed coup arrived just a few weeks before a new election was supposed to take place in the impoverished country. Toure was not going to be running in that election.

In the days following the coup, Mali was hammered with sanctions by the European Union, the United States and the World Bank. ECOWAS also announced that it would impose its own sanctions unless the junta stepped down. The junta eventually responded by agreeing to restore the country’s constitution and pave the way for elections. But before that happened, MNLA and Ansar Dine managed to secure Azawad little or no resistance from the Malian army.

In retrospect, the easy victory was only the beginning of the newest chapter in this 130-year old story.

The Tuareg have been trying to reclaim Azawad ever since the so-called “Scramble for Africa” began in the 1880s. Back then, the Taureg did everything in their power to resist the French colonial invasion of their homeland; but they were ultimately defeated. And in the case of in Mali in 1905 and Niger in 1917, the Tuareg were forced to sign treaties with the French.

A few decades later, the big “rush for independence” began in Africa. This UN-sanctioned process of political decolonization divided the Taureg’s homeland into several Nation States including Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Morocco.

Since then, the Tuareg have led four major rebellions to reclaim what was illegally taken from them. But it is only now that the Taureg are in reach of their long-sought-after victory. And they have no intention of letting it slip out of their hands, whether it means laying down their arms or their lives.

Unfortunately, it looks like Mali isn’t willing to accept either option. Now that the junta has stepped down, Mali and ECOWAS intend to carry out, in the words of Ivory Coast’s army chief, a “re-conquest of the north.”

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