Azawad: A potentially problematic African ethnic territory

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On April 6, Tuareg rebels in the West African city of Timbuktu unilaterally declared their independence from Mali and announced the birth of a new nation called Azawad. The declaration was widely ignored or condemned by neighboring African states and the international community. However, considering the arbitrary nature of many national borders in Africa which date to the colonial era, and the likelihood of protracted strife in a hunger prone area if rebel claims are simply dismissed, the international community ought to think carefully about how best to engage with this potential new African country known as Azawad.

Border dilemmas

The history of contemporary African borders is problematic to say the least. The European colonial powers carved up Africa, and capriciously set territorial borders, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 in which no Africans were present. These borders, which largely continued to exist long after independence, often split tribes, lumped incompatible ethnic groups together, or created countries which struggled economically because they were too big, too small, or landlocked. Given the problematic way in which African borders were originally set, it is not surprising that we see struggles to redefine national boundaries in the contemporary era.

On the surface, the solution to the ‘African border problem’ may appear simple. That is, as opportunities arise, one should always seek to create more ethnically homogeneous states. The problem is that ethnic territories have never really existed in much of Africa. Rather the African landscape is often wonderfully diverse with different groups pursuing distinct, and often complementary, livelihood strategies: farmers, herders and fishers to name a few. As such, countries created with an ethnic rationale typically result in the majority group being privileged over others. These states may also have limited financial viability as they tend to be smaller and less economically diverse.

Azawad, while not a new idea, is the latest ethnic-territorial state to seek recognition. The Tuaregs are a lighter skinned nomadic peoples, historically dependent on animal husbandry, that are spread across the drylands of West Africa between Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. The Tuaregs have long aspired to have an independent state as they were often marginalized by governments in the region that favored more sedentary agriculturalists. The one exception to this was Libya where the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi actively recruited immigrant Tuaregs and trained them to be part of his personal defense force.

Problematic birth

Whither, then, this newly proclaimed African state? Four inter-linked phenomenon simultaneously gave rise to the new Tuareg state and also undermine its longer term viability.

The first problem is that Mali has had an uneasy relationship with its Tuareg population given a history of governance by southern agriculturalists who marginalized this nomadic pastoral group. Particularly notable rebellions occurred in the early 1960s and early 1990s, followed by substantial reconciliation during a series of negotiations in the late 1990s. As a result, the Malian government promised larger amounts of aid for the northern regions, a new province (known as Kidal) was created to give the Tuaregs greater representation, and several Tuareg ministers were appointed. While all was not perfect, the situation remained relatively calm until heavily armed Tuareg fighters returned to Mali late last year following the death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

The second problem is that Azawad emerged by force, not a referendum, just as its parent state, the Republic of Mali, nearly imploded. Gaddafi’s former fighters re-emboldened the secular Malian Tuareg resistance group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or MNLA). The MNLA then began to successfully attack Malian military installations in the north of the country. These military defeats, along with widespread government corruption, led to the toppling of the democratically elected government of Mali on March 22 by a young and disorganized military junta, only a few months away from the next election.

The resulting power vacuum in the South of the country allowed the MNLA to take a series of important northern towns and to declare independence on April 6. The secular MNLA has been accused of potential ties to the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and to more conservative Muslim groups such as Ansar Dine, but has continued to distinguish its cause from that of these organizations.

Due to successful economic sanctions imposed by the regional trading block known as ECOWAS, the military junta which temporarily took control in the southern part of the country has now stepped down and handed governance back to civilian leaders. With an internationally recognized government now back in control of the southern part of the country, and neighboring countries who are fearful of an independent Azawad, one potential scenario is that the Malian military, with the support of troops from ECOWAS, will fight with a vengeance to reclaim its northern territories.

The third problem is that it is not at all clear if the majority of peoples within the proposed state of Azawad support its existence. Mali’s northern provinces include many non-Tuaregs, most notably Songhay and Fulani who likely have little interest in joining a new state that is strongly affiliated with one ethnic group. Furthermore, the borders of Azawad are disputed, with some configurations including areas where the Tuareg are a clear minority. Finally, even some Tuareg people residing within the proposed country of Azawad may be fearful of a more fundamentalist Islam or realize that the desert nation has a problematic economic future when it is not connected to a wealthier southern region which produces surpluses of food and exports gold and cotton.

The fourth problem is that the region in dispute is also on the brink of famine due to sequential drought years and instability which has interrupted normal household coping strategies. As such, attempts to resolve the situation militarily will likely make an unfolding humanitarian crisis even worse and do little to address underlying tensions.

Dialogue over force

A better approach would be for the South (and the international community) to engage with the MNLA in dialogue. The South continues to need to better understand the history of marginalization of the Tuareg peoples. Furthermore, the South must also consider how important it is to hold on to the North at all costs. The truth of the matter is that many people in the South of the country may not believe it is worth waging an all out wore to retain a desolate, sparsely populated area of the country.

As for the Azawad coalition, the MNLA needs to understand that separation must be decided by a referendum and not military force (and that they might even lose such a vote). Whether or not Azawad becomes an independent state or a more autonomous region, all of these issues could be discussed if the international community chooses to engage with MNLA in dialogue rather than an a priori refusal to recognize any incipient nation. The use of military force should only be contemplated after the MNLA refuses to consider a democratic process of new state creation.

William G. Moseley is a Professor of Geography and African Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and, currently, visiting scholar at the University of Botswana in Gaborone. He has worked and undertaken research in Mali, on and off, since 1987.

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