This is the second post about the conflict in Northern Mali. The first post looked at historical background that resulted in the ethnic split in the independent Mali.
Within two years of the formation of Mali the Turaegs rebelled. The response of the Malian army was swift, savage and merciless. The rebellion was crushed with brutal force. There were allegations that the Malian army, ex cathedra, indulged in torture, imprisonment and extra-judicial killings of the suspected Turaeg militants.
The Turaegs, thus, found themselves in minority in a number of Saharan countries such as Mali and Niger. In all of these countries the Turaegs came to view themselves as increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised. Their traditional, nomadic way of life came increasingly under threat and there were violent clashes with other, neighbouring, ethnic groups. Frequents spells of drought and increasing desertification of the land added to their woes. The Turaeg’s disillusionment and anger with the national governments of the countries, which were perceived as uncaring and unhelpful, increased. (One country which offered the disenchanted Turaegs succour was Libya, where the late (and unlamented) Muammar Gaddafi opened refugee camps for Turaegs fleeing appalling living conditions.)
In both Mali and Niger, through the 1970s and 1980s, military dictators had seized power in coups, and, as the countries reeled under the onslaught of natural disasters and famines, and faced financial meltdown, responded—as dictators do— with increasingly repressive measures.
Unsurprisingly the Turaegs, who had never really assimilated with the other ethnic groups and hadn’t bought into the idea of living in Mali and Niger under the rule of ethnic groups which were once their slaves, decided that the answer to all their problems was an independent Turaeg country.
In the late 1980s the Turaeg refugees from Mali, who were given sanctuary in Libya, formed Popular Front for the Liberation of Niger (FPLN). FPLN started armed attacks in Niger. This led to severe retaliation from Niger army. It is alleged that Niger army was involved in large scale torture and massacre of Turaeg civilians. Predictably, this led to formation of more armed Turaeg militant groups.
In Northern Mali, the Turaeg rebellion began in 1991, with Turaeg rebels attacking government buildings in Gao, the biggest town in Azawad. The rebellion ended when a new region, named Kidal, which was allowed limited self-governance, was created in the Northern part of Mali. Kidal was a much smaller territory than the Azawad, which the Turaegs wanted as an independent country and was situated within it. Turaegs dominate this region. The formation of independent Kidal did little to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants; the region remained mired in poverty.
If the hope was that the Turaegs would integrate more within Mali, it was dashed when in 1994 another Turaeg rebellion began, this time rumoured to have been funded by Gaddafi’s Libya; Gaddafi was also alleged to have supplied the Turaegs with weapons, many of which went missing and are not found to this day. The Malian army’s response to 1994 rebellion was as vicious as its response to earlier Turaeg rebellions. A peace deal was signed in 1995.
Many of the military leaders of the 1990s’ Turaeg rebellion went into exile in Libya, enlisted in the Libyan army and fought in the desert warfare. Some of them would return later to Mali and stir up subsequent Turaeg rebellions.
The fragile peace lasted for a decade, during which the Turaegs, mostly in Mali, but also in Niger, remained unhappy and restive.
In 2007 simultaneous attacks began in the Northernmost part of Mali and Niger. The Turaegs in Niger formed Niger Movement of Justice (MNJ) (although some other ethnic groups are also involved). The reasons behind the Niger rebellion were mostly socio-economic. The Turaegs demanded greater share of the wealth coming from what they considered to be their own region. The area where the fighting began is also home to world’s largest uranium deposit and accounts for most of Niger’s foreign exchange (and it is worth noting that most of the mines are operated by the French, the former colonial masters). It is worth noting that ethnicity also featured in the conflict. Akoli Akoli (what a name!), the then secretary at the time for the Niger faction of MNLA, demanded that the Niger army in its Northern part should be formed by the Turaegs and not by other ethnic groups.
The fighting, which began in Niger, shifted to Northern Mali when the Niger Turaegs began entering Mali, which provoked a swift and vicious response from Malian army. Mali reeling under flash floods in the South of the country and hike in international food prices turned to Algeria to broker peace, which was duly brokered.
In Niger, the government adopted a less conciliatory stance towards the MNJ. It was declared a criminal organization and the government ruled out the possibility of any peace talk with it. The situation in the Northern part of Niger remained critical, leading to claims from the international (i.e. Western) humanitarian organizations that thousands of people were displaced in the conflict. The conflict then threatened to spread to the south of Niger when the government claimed that MNJ had begun land-mine attacks targeting Niger civilians. Western media complained that they were not allowed unfettered access to the war-zone which meant they could not report the African drama for the consumption of those back home (Guardian readers salivating at the opportunity of hand-wringing). Niger government accused some of the Western media (in particular French) to have had a bias favouring the militants. Two French journalists were arrested on charges of aiding the MNJ militants, but were eventually released when the president of Gabon intervened. Algeria, itching to rival Libya in its influence in the Saharan region offered security guarantee to Niger.
The bloody civil war of attrition between the Niger army and Turaeg dominated MNJ continued and resulted in stalemate.
The Algerian-brokered peace in Mali ended when some of the faction leaders of the MNLA which had not signed the peace agreement returned from their exile in Libya and started an armed conflict beginning with a series of attacks on the Malian civilians. It didn’t last for long and was crushed swiftly by the Malian army pushing the militant leaders once again into exile, this time into Algeria. Again peace was brokered.
After the second peace deal in Mali the Niger peace talk progressed rapidly. The trigger was the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists, who were kept hostage somewhere in Northern Mali. (One of them, a Briton named Edward Dyer was murdered by the kidnappers). The circumstances surrounding the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats and European tourists are shrouded in mystery. Initially Niger government blamed the militants while the militants blamed Niger government for the kidnapping. It is now widely believed that the Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) was responsible for the kidnapping and murder. Quite how AQIM got round to kidnapping the Canadians and Europeans is not known. The Turaeg militants are believed to have been heavily involved in drug trafficking and smuggling. One theory is that the men were kidnapped by the Turaeg smugglers and were later sold to AQIM. The kidnapping of the Westerners brought intense pressure from the Western countries on the militants. Around the same time the MNJ, the scourge of the Niger government, split up dramatically and unexpectedly. The main splinter group of MNJ, which had announced that it was ready for peace talks with the Niger government, indicated that they would accept Libyan mediation. Muammar Gaddafi now swung into action. He called upon all Niger rebels to lay down their weapons, which they did. Gaddafi then organized tripartite peace talks between the rebels of Niger government in Tripoli.
In the five decades since the end of the French colonial rule and creation of new Saharan countries, parts of the region have been perpetually involved in strife, which, like inn some other part of the world, had deep rooted historical as well as socio-economic underlying reasons. The Turaegs, spread across Northern Mali and Niger, had launched several rebellions to gain independence from Mali and Niger. Each one had ended in a defeat for the rebels and had probably worsened the misery of people in the region.
Would the Turaegs accept to live as minorities in Mali and give up their struggle for self-determination after the 2009 rebellion ended in a crushing defeat? No. In 2011, less than two years after the 2009 rebellion another Turaeg-led insurgency would begin; it would be hijacked by the Islamist militants; the surrounding African nations would waste months dithering; and would fall down to the former colonial power to step in and launch an offensive against the militants.