The battle for Mali’s north

By Bram Posthumus in Dakar – Since January 17th this year, the north of Mali is at war.  It started as an attack of armed Tuaregs on a Malian army barracks in Ménaka, near the border with Niger and has spread across all of Mali’s three desert regions: Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.  The war zone is hundreds of kilometres large.


It’s an armed rebellion whose driving force is the MNLA, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (the name the MNLA uses for the three northern regions of Mali). Its spokesman, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, spells out what they want.

‘Our movement is very clear about its aspirations. We demand self-determination for Azawad. That means: independence. Is our action a challenge to Mali’s sovereignty? Well, when you look at the matter in more depth, you will find that Azawad and Mali have never been united. We have been asking for freedom in our own state for a long time. But it has never been taken into consideration.’

The MNLA is at pains to paint itself as an inclusive movement for all the peoples living in the region, Arabs, Songhai, Peul and Tuareg. But there is no mistaking that the Tuareg drive for independence is the prime motive behind the MNLA. A former Tuareg colonel in Libya’s army, Mohamed Ag Najm is in charge of the movement’s military wing and it is Tuaregs who speak on behalf of the movement.

A century-old conflict

The Tuaregs have been fighting foreign occupation since the French encroached on their territory during the last century. Since independence in 1960, the enemy has been the Malian army.

The first post-independence rebellion (in 1963) was violently repressed. Another major uprising ended symbolically in March 1996, when a pile of arms was set ablaze in Timbuktu. The Malian authorities promised some degree of autonomy, more active northern participation in national institutions (such as the army) plus roads, schools, hospitals, in short: development. The Tuaregs say that the government simply never delivers on its promises.


It’s a good thing (and perhaps not even a coincidence) that the new rebellion started just one week after Timbuktu’s biggest annual event: the Festival in the Desert. The festival, a direct outflow of the 1996 Flame of Peace, attracts thousands of foreign visitors every year. Mali has been selling itself as a major and authentic tourist destination but parts of the country have now been declared no-go by the French, American and Dutch foreign ministries. This is going to hurt – badly.

There are other economic motives at play, too. Since time immemorial, the desert folks run large smuggling operations and, naturally, they want the Malian authorities to keep its nose out of their business. Second, oil is suspected under the sand, which turns this war into a resource conflict much in the same way as the uranium in neighbouring Niger is pitting Tuareg groups there against the Niger government and French uranium business interests. We covered this story here:’etat-and-electricity-french-homes


The fight over resource revenue feeds directly into the resentment over promises not kept. And this time around, as the MNLA makes clear, the wait for the Malian government to keep its side of the bargain, is over. Independence is the rallying cry even though not all Tuaregs in Mali march behind the same banner.


The Malian government has been quick to make the link with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Immediately, Western media like Libération and the New York Times jumped on the War On Terror bandwagon. The assumption is highly questionable, for three reasons. First, AQIM emerged from the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. Different background – different ambitions. Second, AQIM brandishes the kind of Salafist Islam that is deeply unpopular in the region. Thirdly, in military terms, AQIM is more of a nuisance than a help. Granted, there may be overlaps in strictly business terms (both do kidnapping and smuggling) – but the stated aim of the MNLA is clear: no AQIM in Azawad.


The MNLA is very well armed, thanks to the arms it brought in from Libya. It is also better organised and has a well-oiled communications arm with a website and a Facebook page.

The press in the capital Bamako, meanwhile, uses extraordinary violent language against the rebels. There are reports from Bamako of reprisal attacks against people who look “northern”. Some of have fled because they fear being attacked. The current incarnation of this old conflict is likely to last longer than the previous ones.

Source: Radio Netherlands Worldwide (


Read more:  “Eyewitness report offers rare insight into critical situation of Malian refugees in Niger

[The ongoing fighting between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels has forced refugees to flee the country en masse and seek refuge in neighbouring countries. France 24‘s observer went to see a group of refugees in the town of Mangaize, in northern Niger. What he found was a dire humanitarian crisis, far away from the media spotlight]







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