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In Mali, Now Comes the Hard Part - un-soldat-du-mnla-le-26-fevrier-a-kidal

An MNLA sentry in Kidal, February 2013 (credit:

Beginning in January, French and Malian forces took just over a month to rid Mali’s north of Islamic militants. The Tuareg-dominated MNLA however claims a remote, remaining area. With elections scheduled the end of July, most Malians are refusing to compromise

Kidal, a city in the far north-east, is the hub of Kidal province, bordering Algeria and part of the tribal Tuareg’s traditional homeland. The Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) a year ago claimed Mali’s vast north, roughly the size of France. Islamic militants then co-opted some Tuaregs but mostly displaced the MNLA. After the Islamic militants (of two or three distinct groups) were chased out of the region by March of this year, the MNLA was left with Kidal.

Wikimedia Commons N_Mali_conflict

(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This recent conflict — putting aside for now the abrupt unfolding of Islamic Salafists intending to take the capital last January — is just the latest episode of Mali’s Tuaregs seeking self-determination. To simplify a stage of seemingly many characters, the situation is now a negotiation between the Malian government and the MNLA, a political group (though nominally Muslim).

Since French colonial rule, there has been a rift between the majority ethnic groups in Mali’s south and the capital, Bamako, and the nomadic Tuareg practicing pastoral lifestyles in the desert region that also traverses Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Libya. This is what Tuareg refer to as Azawad, in their language “land of the pastoralists.”

le monde map - Tuareg area Mali and Libya - edited

(credit: Le Monde)

While trying to administer the distant north from Bamako, there is a history of Malian state officials discriminating against Tuareg regarding employment and land use. Some Tuareg had to abandon their traditional lifestyles due to new economic governance, alienating them from creeping domestic regulations. Many Tuareg are today journeymen laborers with little attachment to their traditions.

One expert attributes this rift to the historic autonomy that the French gave the Tuareg. Sarah Knopp describes how military control did not extend to the desert, where Tuareg were at home, and so they were granted immunity from conscription, generous land use, and other privileges not extended to majority ethnic groups in the south. Even though Mali became independent in 1960, as a primary supporter and aid donor, French policies have extended to the present.

Such are reasons for Tuareg independence, but the UN and African bodies are having none of it. Some Malian political parties are dismissive and outwardly denounce French policy as a reason for the impasse in Kidal.

wikimedia commons Kidal_topo_map

(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago in Gao, one of the northern cities re-taken in February, youth gathered to urge the ouster of the MNLA from Kidal. Chants such as “Monsieur Hollande, thank you for liberty, and now — justice” and “no elections without confidence” could be heard.

The MNLA in Kidal has also dug in their heels. They have long refused to lay down their arms as a condition for a peace agreement. They moreover refuse to have a Malian army presence in the city. One observer remarked that “the Malian army has never realized that here, they have only perpetuated the [French] colonial system.”

Half as much gets you closer but never reaches

Neighboring Burkina Faso has hosted official ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) talks for months between the provisional Malian government and the MNLA. Now that territorial fighting ceased, the MNLA is being pressured to accept — even in Kidal — the expected July presidential elections.

Key weaknesses persist. The Malian military that could not repel the militants in 2012 remains under-prepared and, left on their own, outmaneuvered. The army’s poor equipment and entrenched corruption could be the subject of its own case study.

Dorothée Thiénot, a journalist covering the Malian army, quotes a soldier, Bokar, on his travails:

“Anyone who hasn’t done the north and the desert, and faced attacks by rebels and drug traffickers, simply can’t understand.” And about nepotism: “It’s not a question of money, it’s the unfairness. Promotion has nothing to do with ability. Nine officers out of ten are the sons of officers; they’ve inherited their jobs.”

Chadian troops, known for their desert fighting skills, contributed greatly to the ouster of the militants and yet are being recalled.

(The French are drawing down from 3900 troops to about 1000. A UN peacekeeping force of some 12,500 will take the security lead in the north July 1st. Yet as counter-insurgency experts note, capable, native forces keep a country safest.)

Bamako’s ability to foster a reform-minded government is also in question. After a military coup last March, the junta publicized expensive objects accumulated by the former president. The Minister of Justice, Malick Coulibaly, admitted recently that corruption has stood in the way of any steps toward democracy. “The proliferation of wrongdoings to the country’s economy by unscrupulous servants wanting to get rich quickly is still a serious problem.”

For the time being Mali appears to be a successful counter-insurgency, though neighboring states remain at risk of Islamic militants and, if they choose to take action, other Tuareg groups, notably in Niger. Any multilateral efforts toward stability need to consider the region as a whole.

At a Brussels conference in May, international donors pledged $4.2 billion of aid to the country, expected to be disbursed after the July elections. While this was more than expected, some wonder whether such hefty funds might fuel an already rampant disease.

As shared on, Moussa Traoré, a former politician, recounted that “I was a parliament member from 2002 to 2007, and I witnessed how public money was misused. People become rich using the country’s financial resources intended for development projects.”



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.