It’s getting hot in Mali. Every day this week Timbuktu temperatures will top 100 degrees (F). This is typical for the season in the land-locked Saharan country, but a drought that has been building for months means Malians will feel the heat more than ever.
Even before the coup, the rebellion, the sanctions, Malians were struggling to maintain their herds, farms and water supplies. Over 200,000 refugees have fled the north, heading to food-insecure Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and to destinations within Mali. Since January the mounting Tuareg rebellion—and the ensuing embassy travel warnings—effectively killed the economically essential tourist trade. Today the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has closed the borders and imposed sanctions on the country. Hunger will soon join heat, and devastating consequences may follow.
As covered last week in this blog, less than two weeks ago mid-ranking Malian army officers seized power, claiming the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure was insufficiently supporting the army’s efforts to quell rebellion in the north. International pressure mounted against the junta, and while coup-leader Captain Amadou Sanogo attempted to appease ECOWAS ahead of a Monday deadline to reinstate constitutional order, rebels took over three major northern cities: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. “The trigger happy NCOs of the Malian Army are now too busy trying to legitimize their coup to even think of fighting the rebels,” wryly noted Tuareg scholar Baz Lecoq. ECOWAS leaders were unconvinced by Sanogo’s unsubstantiated claim on Sunday that he would reinstate the constitution and begin the transition back to the democracy.
So while coup leaders squabbled and struggled to legitimate themselves in the south, northern rebel leaders took advantage of the leadership vacuum and won major prizes in the north. But despite their more effective actions, significant squabbles have erupted in the rebel camp as well.
The largest and most well-known Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) says it is ready to negotiate—though with whom, given the lack of credible government in the country, is a legitimate question. MNLA’s stated goal is to establish an independent homeland for the nomadic Tuaregs (called Azawad for Tamashek speaking Tuaregs). They considered Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu to be central military targets, so maintaining their hold on these cities can be an important step towards their larger goals. But even their immediate victory is being challenged by Ansar Dine, an Islamist rebel group that aims to institute Shari’a law in the north. They have already made inroads towards this goal: forcing hairdressers to remove photos of unveiled women in Kidal and Gao, and calling nervous local imams to meet in Timbuktu.
In the longer term the question remains as to what the MNLA intends to do with their advances. Mali is an impoverished land-locked country with few proven natural resources. The Tuareg-dominated north is open, barren desert. Mali’s agriculture is concentrated in the South, and droughts have been recurring with increasing frequency in the northern region. The Tuareg lifestyle is nomadic, and spans the Sahara. Some observers wonder if the Tuareg’s intention is not in fact to secede, but to negotiate for more resources, improved rights and greater autonomy within the Malian state. If they do in fact attempt secession they may face fierce international opposition from African countries loath to change borders and fearful of rebellion spreading to Tuareg populations in neighboring states.
But while the rebel groups and the junta grab at land and power, Malian civilians are left vulnerable to violence, drought and hunger. The sanctions will only make the situation worse. Fuel supplies will quickly dwindle, leading to price spikes for gas and food. Infighting in the north, on top of the conflict between the rebels and the army may lead to civilian casualties and further refugees. Political instability may soon become a full-on humanitarian disaster.