Mali and the Sahara

Briefing on Mali and the Sahara 

Dr RE Poulton is Vice-President of Virginia Friends of Mali,  Professor of French West African Studies in the VCU School of World Studies, Senior Fellow of UNIDIR in Geneva, Managing Partner of EPES Mandala Consulting. He is the author of five books and many articles on Mali.

  1. Mali in political chaos
  2. There is anarchy in Bamako
  3. There is still hope!
  4. Conclusion: medium optimism
  5. Who are the northern ‘rebels’?

Dr Robin Edward Poulton spoke about Mali, Timbuktu and oil wars in the Sahara on July 3rd, 2012 at the prestigious Royal Society for International Affairs in London (known as “Chatham House” because it is housed in the London mansion of the Earl of Chatham, Prime Minister William Pitt (1708–1778) – a man who supported the position of the American colonies before their revolution against George III).

After an ‘accidental coup’ on March 22nd 2012 – which followed a mutiny the previous day in the Kati barracks near Bamako – Mali finds itself with a state of government paralysis in Bamako. The takeover by a military junta of corporals and sergeants, forced armed Tuareg rebel movements in the north – people who were waiting to renegotiate their status with a newly-elected government following the planned the April 29th elections – to move south. Within one week of the coup, they took control of the key cities of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.

Last year the Tuareg movement MNLA declared its intentions to demand Independence for a state called AZAWAD. It seemed in those days to be mainly some Tuareg intellectuals with a website in France, and a bunch of armed smugglers in the mountains north of Kidal whose links to the French were tenuous. But Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was active in the same zone and the cocaine route was thriving. The potential threat to Mali, West Africa and the European Union’s cities was evident, even six and seven years ago when the state of Guinea Bissau was taken over by Colombian drug lords. Back in 2006, Mali’s president tried in vain to create a ‘regional platform’ of the countries most threatened by cocaine, from Mauritania to Chad: but self-interested elements in Algeria and Libya blocked the initiative, which the EU more-or-less ignored.

The southern brigade of the Libyan army (led in the past by Gadafy’s son Kamis) was largely composed of Malian Tuaregs. When Libya fell apart, these Tuaregs (mercenaries with no more pay checks) crossed the Malian border into Kidal region with their vehicles and their weapons. Who controls the men and the weapons becomes more confused by the day, as numerous armed movements of Tuaregs and Arabs have emerged: some (FNLA, Mujao, MNRA) do not seem to want independence from Mali; others (Ansar Eddine, some leaders of AQMI) want to impose an Islamic State based on their personal salafist theology; most Algerians of AQMI simply want to continue smuggling cocaine from Colombia and kidnapping foreigners for ransom. We offer a summary of the armed movements at the end of this essay. Meanwhile, everything points to the probability of war between the different factions in Northern Mali.

In Bamako, the leaderless army allowed ‘rent-a-mob’ to attack the interim President Dioncounda Traoré, a man of 70 who is now in a Paris hospital.  The corporals and sergeants – with their nominal head, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo – have no idea how to run a country. They are clinging to power, but there is really no Malian army: the power of the Kalashnikov and a state of anarchy that is leading the country towards economic ruin.

It seems that the technocratic ministers of transitional prime minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra (a nuclear scientist) are as powerless to impose order on this state of chaos as transitional President Traore lying in his hospital bed.

Mali’s future is divided North and South right now. The ECOWAS regional group is threatening military intervention to reunite the country with 3000 troops from Niger, Guinea and Burkina Faso: an absurd idea that would simply humiliate ECOWAS, while increasing war misery for the northern populations that are already suffering from lack of food and other supplies.

Mali’s neighbours are equally as divided as the Malians between approving military intervention, or not.

But the immediate key to Mali’s future in the short term does not lie in the North. What happens to Mali (whether Mali and Azawad can reunite) depends on what happens in Bamako. In the longer term, it depends also on the desires of key external players in places Algiers and Stuttgart = Washington and Paris, although Paris is losing ground rapidly in Africa…. maybe also in Riyadh, Qatar, Ankara and Beijing.

2. THERE IS ANARCHY IN BAMAKO, a Capital City without any governance
There can be no future for Mali, until there is a government functioning in Bamako: if there is no one to negotiate with, there can be no negotiation.

On the other hand, with whom can the South negotiate in the North?  Here civil war seems the most likely in the immediate future. Outside powers want the former Libyan army of Tuaregs to kill off AQMI, which may or may not happen.

We are witnessing international politics at its most ruthless. Most Malians have no idea what is happening. Most people in Bamako do not understand what is really going on (starting with the soldiers). As for internet discussions and comments from the Malian diaspora, they are a mixture of the extreme and the absurd – all of them fueled by a complete absence of analysis of the real events in the Sahara and on the Boucle du Niger.

When/if there are negotiations with the people who exercise power in ‘Azawad’, the people of southern Mali will have to reconcile themselves to a number of harsh realities :

1) The North is stronger than the South, despite the fact that its population is small (1.5 million) and the population of Tuaregs is tinier still (maybe 200 000 in Mali). Unlike Bamako, Azawad has an army – or several armies – with weapons and ammunition, including all the Malian army’s stocks in Gao. The desert contains much-in-demand natural resources (petrol, manganese, uranium, phosphates). A, MNLA Council was named in June to lead Azawad, but since the MNLA was chased out of the cities by Ansar Dine and AQMI on July 1st, it remains unclear who will emerge as the real leadership in the North.

2) Expressions of racist invective and military bravado in Bamako and on the internet will bring no practical solutions for Timbuktu and Gao.

3)  There is no rule of law in Bamako, where people are arrested by soldiers without reference to any other system of justice than a military uniform and a Kalashnikov.

4)  There is no real Malian  ‘army’ – today we have just a rabble of armed men abusing the power of their weapons to do whatever they want.

5)  The previous regime of President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) hollowed out the institutions of state and weakened the systems of democratic governance. He bought the opposition, removing all discussion about policies, and he neglected the process of decentralized and democratic governance by concentrating decision-making in the palace. This weakened the ministries and the municipalities. A retired army general, ATT undermined the structures, finances and morale of the Malian army by promoting all his class-mates to the rank of general. Finally, ATT tolerated the cocaine trade from Colombia, which allowed the influence of Libya and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb to dominate the politics of Northern Mali (especially in Kidal).

6)  Mali must now renegotiate its identity between N and S, and find a new federal or some other solution. The Tuaregs are a small minority, but they and their allies must be accommodated inside a newly-defined system of governance.

7) There are major international powers that have an interest in keeping Mali weak and Azawad independent.

8) Most Malians North and South want a united Mali within the traditional borders, and a return to democratic governance and constitutional rule: but there are very few mechanisms working that allow them to express their views. The political process has been hijacked by the military junta and a corrupted political elite in the South, and by armed groups of bandits in the North.

9)  The political class has lost its influence in Bamako. There are still Malians with clout and others with vision, but most of the people who served in the regime of the ousted president ATT are yesterday’s people.

However Malian civil society remains vibrant and powerful in the North and in the South: we are thinking of the strong savings and credit banks, farmers’ associations, cooperatives, women’s groups and civil society organizations (CSOs) that have a solid economic base. There is also an ‘NGO’ community in Bamako, whose strength-and-weakness is their dependence on the money of foreign embassies: these NGOs can be counted as lying mid-way between the political class and ‘real’ civil society.

The core of Malian civil society and Mali’s social capital can be found in the traditional institutions of civil society. Mali has been governed for 15 000 years by village councils and by the 7-year cycle of age-groups, by hunter societies, blacksmith guilds, women’s initiations societies and by the griots: the source of knowledge and wisdom and cultural and historical experience.  These people could lead Mali towards a new and stronger future.

That is the route we should follow.

The South of Mali also has great diplomatic and economic negotiating strengths: for a start, Azawad could survive as an independent state only through total economic dependence on Algeria or Mauritania, and on cocaine. It has no fuel and no food, no good roads to the outside world except those that lead from Gao to Niamey and Bamako. It is a land-locked narco-state unable even to feed itself.

ECOWAS does have real economic clout to exercise in favor of negotiation, although it has very little political influence. and its military ambitions are ridiculous. ECOWAS does not have the capacity (men, equipment, military leadership, field experience) to take on the armies of Al Qaeda and its Islamic allies in desert and mountain terrain. NATO might provide airpower, but NATO success has been mixed:  in Libya, NATO wiped out Gadafy’s army, but in Pakistan the USA has failed (spending ten years being unable to curb the Taliban and Haqqani terror organisations).

Once North Mali has sorted itself out (probably through inter-factional war), there will be negotiations… inevitably – not least because the Sonrai, Peul, Bella, Bozo, Bambara, Dogon populations who dominate the north will refuse to be ruled by Wahabbist fanatics, or by Algerian terrorists.

4. CONCLUSION – medium optimism
No one really knows what is happening in North Mali right now (July 2012). The MNLA seems to have lost a major battle on July 1st in Gao : its leader was wounded and is having treatment in Burkina Faso, which is the Official Mediator for the ECOWAS. The MNLA may be falling to pieces. Members of the ‘Libyan Tuareg Army’ have been hired away with Wahabbist money by the extremist Islamist group Ansar Dine, which seems to have taken control of the main towns. MUJAO may have siphoned others away with money from kidnapping and cocaine. AQMI may have recruited some, using its own drug and ransom monies.

We have seen that Azawad is not sustainable as an independent nation, but the problems posed by this new ‘Sahelistan’ to the security and stablility of Africa and of Europe are immense. ‘Sahelistan’ or ‘Africanistan’ is what can arise, when political leaders do not listen to their expert advisors (I and my colleagues have been warning about the extreme dangers of the West African cocaine route for several years).

I wish I could be more optimistic in the short term: predicting war is not a happy place to be!  But in the longer term, I know that Mali’s social capital will prevail and Malians will emerge with a new and positive chapter to add to their glorious history.


Al-Qaïda in Maghreb Islamic (AQMI)
AQMI (or AQIM) is a group of extremists defeated in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, who found refuge in the mountains of northern Mali – just across the frontier. Created in 2006 out of the Salafist Group for preaching and Combat (GSPC) – and originally from the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) – they aligned with Al Qaeda in order to become more notorious and more powerful. Living from cocaine smuggling and from kidnapping (see the 2012 book by AFP journalist Serge Daniel : AQMI, l’industrie de l’enlèvement) they are very well armed since they were able to purchase heavy weapons in Libya after Gadafy was destroyed by NARO.

They have more than doubled their numbers from maybe only 200 ten years ago, through recruitment of unemployed Africans – some of whom they saved from dying in the Libyan desert, trying to walk from Ghana or Mali to a new life in Europe. Others were recruited from Mauritanian, Malian and Nigerien madrasas. More recently, Nigerians from Boko Haram are believed to have joined in the April attacks on Gao, and there are wild rumours of Philippinos, Somalis and Afghans being among the AQMI fighters.

Leadership : The overall boss is said to be Abdelmalik Droukel, who is based in Algeria. It is he who wrote to Ousama ben Laden in 2005 pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda. Organized in semi-autonomous katiba, AQMI in Mali has a number of leaders. The best-known is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, long-time cigarette and drug smuggler known as Marlboro, who lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan. He is an Algerian from the region of m’Zab. Other katiba leaders include Nabil Sahraoui (from the Polisario), Abou Zeid, an Algerian born in Touggourt, Yahya Abou Hammam, an Algerian in charge of military operations.

Movement for United Jihad in West Africa (Mujao)
A mysterious group, they appear to be mainly Mauritanians  involved in the cocaine route, who have separated from AQMI. Some were promised they would be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, who left AQMI in disappointment. In addition to drug money, they are rumoured to have gathered 45m euros from kidnap ransoms.

Leadership: Their leader is said to be Sultan Ould Baldi, an Hamrare Arab from Gao; and his second-in-command is the Mauritanian Abou Qoumqoum from Nouakchott. According to MNLA, Colonel Ould Meydou is their military chief.

MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad)
The MNLA was created in October 2011 through the fusion of MNA (Mouvement national d’Azawad) and MTNM (Mouvement touareg du Nord-Mali) following the arrival of ex-soldiers from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.  The MNLA claims that it wants a separate state from Mali for the Tuareg (although this is unrealistic since Azawad is cut off from fuel and food supplies).

Leadership :  Bilal Ag Chérif, is General Secretary of the MNLA and President of the Transitional Council announced on 7th June 2012.  He studied in Libya. On 1st July 2012, Bilal was wounded during fighting in Gao with Ansaar Dine, and two days later he was evaluated to Ouagadougou for treatment as MNLA abandoned the city.
Moussa Ag Assarid, Member of the Conseil Transitoire de l’État de l’Azawad (CTEA), is in charge of information and communication, and his name dominates the MNLA website. Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim (defence) and Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga (Security) seem to be the strong men. Najim served in the Libyan army, crossing from Libya in 2011 with a large amount of weaponry. Fagaga was integrated into the Malian army in the 1990s, deserted several times and seems to have been involved with the late Kidal politician-cum-rebel-cum-terrorist Ibrahim ag Bahanga in smuggling activities.
Nina Wallet Intalou described as the ‘passionaria’ of Malian Tuaregs attracts Western attention because s is the only woman in the direction of MNLA (No 23 on the list: in charge of women’s affairs).  She was elected mayor of Kidal in 1997, but was blocked the Islamists refused to recognise a woman as Mayor.  According to the Joliba Trust, Nina is close to Mohamed Ag Najim and is tenaciously opposed to Ansar Dine and Iyad Ag Ghali because of their links to Al Qaeda (AQIM).  She feels Ag Ghali can never be pardoned because of the harm he has done to their cause.

Mouvement Touareg Nord du Mali
This was the group led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga based in Tinzaouaten, NE of Kidal. This elected municipal official in Kidal caused an immense amount of trouble  for Mali in the early years of ATT’s rule, kidnapping Malian soldiers and trying to negotiate Kidal as a Police-Free zone so that his smuggling activities could continue without hindrance. A partner of Col ag Fagaga, he provoked the 2006 Accords d’Alger – one of the ‘deals’ that weakened the Malian State when it should have been implementing the legally-binding National Pact of 1992. In February 2011, Bahanga issued the following threat: “Some of the Tuareg fighters laid down their arms in March 2007 and agan in February 2009, in the spirit of the July 2006 Accord which has never been implemented. We are still waiting. The Malian government is taking advantage of this Tuareg disarmament, to allow its partner AQMI to occupy the Tuareg space and to set down roots.”

Leadership: Ag Bahanga was killed in a car smash near Kidal on 26 August 2011. Iyad ag Ghali reputedly tried to take over leadership of his fighters, but they were not interested in his Wahabbist ideas. Instead they seem to have integrated the MNLA (Note: allegiances are fluid: there are no membership cards in these groups, and people easily move between them. Clan allegiance and personal loyalties are often more important than ideology).

Ansar Dine – ‘Defenders of Islam’
In the rebel-held areas, this group is  doing all the beatings and terrorising of Malian people. They seem to be a mixture of Tuaregs and foreigners (hiring any extremist who needs money: Chadians, Burkinabés, even Liberians and Muslim Philippinos are rumoured to have been recruited). Ansar Dine is destroying holy Islamic saints’ sites in Timbuktu in order to emphasise their extremist salafist ideology and to reinforce their political authority, introducing Sharia punishments (beatings, executions) ; and they are said have killed Christians.

Leadership: Iyad Ag Ghali is the leader of this Islamist group. A charismatic and emblematic figure of Mali’s Tuareg resistance, Iyad led the initial attack in June 1990 that brought the beginning of the end of the 23-year-old military dictatorship of Moussa Traore. A Malian from Kidal whose family was forced to emigrate to Algeria during the 1974 drought, Iyad went to Libya at the age of 20 and spent many years in Gadafi’s army. A signatory of the 1992 National Pact and a participant at the 1996 Peace of Timbuktu, in 1998 Iyad was sent to Saudi Arabia as Mali Consul. He came back with a big beard, Wahhabist ideas and plenty of Gulf money to pursue his dreams. Iyad seeks the leadership of the Tuaregs; he wants to become President of an Malian Islamic Republic.

FNLA  (National Front for the liberation of Azawad)
A new organisation created on 8 April 2012 during the crisis in the north, these Tuaregs and other Northerners (Moors and Arabs, reputedly also with Sonrai, Fulani, Bambara, Bozo, Bella supporters) are neither sessessionists nor Islamists.  They are for peace and do not want a separate state, but to continue to be part of Mali.  They entered Timbuktu in triumph on 24 April to confront Ansar Dine and MNLA, but they have been very quiet since then. Do they still exist? Since the MNLA was defeated on July 1st, Ansar Dine seems to be the only game in town.

Leadership: Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, an elected leader from the region of Timbuktu is their General Secretary. Aly Ould Hamaha is political leader-spokesman in France, and the military leader is supposed to be Colonel Housseyn El Moctar, formerly head of the garde nationale garrison in Timbuktu (according to Essor on 02 May 2012). Housseine Khoulam, lieutenant-colonel  of the Malian army who defected is also a military chief.

MRRA (Mouvement Républicain pour la Restauration de l’Azawad)
This may be a serious group, or it may simply be the creation on the internet of an idea. Toumast Press has concluded that it is the invention of Ishaq Ag Alhousseyni, whom they characterize as ‘unstable’.

MNRA (Mouvement national de restauration de l’Azawad)
This appears to be a new creation by Tuareg members of the Malian army who escaped from Kidal under the leadership of the controversial Colonel-Major Ehhaj Gamou, the former commander of the army garrison in Kidal. Surrounded by MNLA forces arrived from Libya, Gamou surrendered and declared allegiance to the MNLA… before escaping into Niger with 500 troops (204 southerners then returned to Bamako). He claims he will take back northern Mali, that he can mobilize 2000 fighters. He and his 300 men are still being paid by the Malian ministry of defence in their camp at Saguia (near Niamey) where Col Gamou says he is waiting for orders to attack as part of an overall plan to reunite Mali by force of arms.