Surprise in the Sahel

Surprise in the Sahel

By Conor Godfrey
On the morning of March 22nd Malians woke up to discover that 20 years of stability and progress had been, temporarily at least, hijacked by a group of mutineers turned putschists led by a Captain Amadou Sanogo.

This was a punch in the stomach with no warning.

When I was evacuated from Guinea after a similar Coup in 2009, we traveled north through Upper-Guinea to Bamako, Mali.

On the Guinean side of the border, one gets shaken down every 50 kilometers by aggressive soldiers manning checkpoints on a sorry excuse for a main road.

As soon as you cross to the Malian side of the border, the road quality improves 200%, and the soldiers manning periodic checkpoints are friendly and helpful.

It was like a different planet.

This small anecdote conveys the crux of the sahelian surprise – this landlocked country with minimal assets was successfully bootstrapping itself out of desert poverty.

It was also a poster-child for the fruits of reasonably good governance.

This coup was not the result of long simmering ethnic tension, or gross mismanagement; it was a pseudo-spontaneous overflow of frustration by a group of junior officers and enlisted soldiers in Bamako.

More of an isolated mutiny that got out of control.

The explanations for the coup are all over the news: here and here you can find good articles on the acute causes.

See my previous post on Tuaregs.

Essentially, there has been a full-fledged rebellion in the north of Mali since January, led by a Tuareg outfit known as the Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (one of many Tuareg campaigns over the last few centuries….they are only called rebellions once there is an actual State to rebel against — I suppose.)

These rebels have inherited military equipment and wherewithal from the Tuaregs that fought alongside Gadhafi, and are essentially outgunning and outmaneuvering the uniformed Malian army.

The junior officers doing much of the fighting (and dying) in the North feel the Malian government has mishandled the rebellion, accusing them of sending poorly armed and equipped soldiers to face hardened and well armed rebels.

This issue is also magnified by the growing resentment of the Southern Malian population (where the overwhelming majority of Malians live) toward the rebellious Tuaregs in the North.

Most Malians are looking for a strong response.

(Whether this constitutes “support” for the coup is difficult to tell: here is a very intriguing set of posts by “Bamako Bruce” claiming widespread disenchantment with the previous government.)

Regardless, if soldiers continue to loot stores and government buildings, nebulous support from some Malian youth will likely evaporate.

I am going to go out on a limb regarding the outcome of this crisis, and I expect you all to write in angry comments if I am wrong…

My prediction is that this is going to blow over.

The coup leaders did not secure the backing of the necessary socio-political elements of Malian society (religious leaders, senior military figures, opposition groups), and now find themselves increasingly isolated.

Malians were enjoying the fruits of democracy (albeit slowly), and have no appetite for violence or prolonged instability.

They are simply pissed off that their government cannot get a handle on the conflict with the Northern rebels.

On that front, the Tuareg rebellion has done so well that there are now signs the rebel leaders want to negotiate from a position of strength and secure more autonomy and other perks before their success triggers the use of overwhelming force by Mali (perhaps financed and armed by international friends).

All of this spells a negotiated solution.

The coup leaders will try to secure a golden parachute by leveraging their ability to prolong the instability, and some of them may get one.

The rightful president of Mali, Mr. Amadou Toure (now either in hiding or under arrest), was due to leave office in weeks anyway, and will likely agree to leave power as scheduled and collect his prize from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

He will inevitably promise all sorts of populist goodies on his way out knowing that his successor will have to deliver on them.

This will pave the way for elections that will elect a candidate promising better equipment and training for the army, thus defusing the tension that brought the coup in the first place.

Of course, things could go south quickly as well.

Read this short piece of analysis by a risk consulting group.

While I think that the Executive Analysis scenario is unlikely, there are several points where my more positive projection could break down.

These mainly concern rebel and government choices regarding winding down or scaling up the conflict in the North.

The Malian government may need (strategically or because of popular pressure) to bloody the rebels before negotiating.

After all, the Tuareg rebels have claimed so much land in this campaign that they might be tempted to do so again the next time they are feeling aggrieved or restless.

This scenario could give the military government more time to maneuver, as it will be difficult to respond effectively to the rebellion if everyone is focused on elections.

My views are not necessarily the majority position. A darker prognosis can also be found here at African Arguments.

Mali is headed in the right direction. This, I think, I hope, is just a painful bump.

P.S. The Coup leader received military and intelligence training in the U.S.

The Desert Speaks –
Tuaregs in the News

The Desert Speaks –
Tuaregs in the News

By Conor Godfrey
(Hello to all Jim’s readers! The actual Answerman is off finding answers in Southern Africa, so I have been asked to amuse and entertain for the better part of March—I will do my upmost.
Jim and I share some interests and opinions, and diverge quite a bit in others, so I hope you enjoy a brief change, and please feel free to leave comments or email me at if there is an issue you would like to see covered.)

The Blue People, the People of the Veil, the Tuareg: to the people-groups that live south of the great desert, these veiled nomads are known as warriors, slavers, merchants and cattle raiders, and have been doing all of the above ever since the camel was introduced to N. Africa around 0 B.C.

For the last millennia, the Tuaregs have controlled the five most lucrative trade and smuggling routes across the Sahara – after all, the 1.2 million Tuaregs that roam the Sahara are more intimate with the desert than we are with our kitchens and bedrooms.

E.g. We call the sandy expanse from Algeria to the Red Sea the Sahara Desert; the Tuaregs see this as dozens of different deserts, each with its own name depending on its aridity, elevation, vegetation, etc…

This interlocking web of deserts goes by the name “Tinariwen”, in Tamasheq, the main dialect of the Tuareg people.

Tinariwen is also the name of a Tuareg band that won the Best World Music Grammy last week.

The band Tinariwen is what I imagine the Sahara Desert would sound like if you gave it an acoustic guitar and a drum.

“Tenere” – the Tamasheq word for the true, deep desert, is the band’s ancestral and spiritual home. Have a listen here.

They were even on the Colbert Report when they were promoting the music Festival au Desert in Timboctu. NPR calls them the best acoustic rock group of the 21st century.

There was, however, another reason the Tuaregs were in the news last week. While Tinariwen was sporting their best Boubous to collect their prize, other Tuaregs were rolling over strategic towns in Northern Mali and skirmishing with the Malian army (See map of conflict on the right.)

The ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of this conflict (and the other Tuareg rebellions over the last century) is very difficult to parse, and probably immaterial.

When African states in the Sahel gained their independence in the 1960s from, in this case, France, they attempted to assert control

Tuareg Area
over their desert interiors, putting them in conflict with the Tuaregs who refused to acknowledge imaginary lines drawn in the sand (literally)

At the same time, the trans-African trade was increasingly moved by sea, making the two thousand year old caravan routes less and less profitable.

The Tuaregs turned their dessert expertise toward less savory commerce– hostages, drugs, and guns for hire—which put at least some Tuaregs in contact with al-Qaeda and other nefarious groups.

The Tuaregs are NOT Islamic extremists – their brand of nomadic Islam is heavily blended with millennia old animist traditions, and would probably give a hard line Islamist a heart attack.

Tuaregs that do come in contact with al-Qaeda do so for pragmatic, financial reasons.

Also, the various governments abutting the Sahara have every incentive to play up the al-Qaeda – Tuareg link because the U.S. then shells out cash and personnel for military and anti-insurgency training.

(It did not help the Tuareg case that 800 Tuareg warriors fought alongside Moammar Gadhafi’s troops in the recent civil war.)

The Indigo people are a relic of the pre-nation state era; a trans-national people so intimately tied to their land that modern borders are not only unenforceable but totally irrelevant.

Ironically, Tuareg champions are now adopting the modern world’s nationalist rhetoric to express their people’s aspirations.

Malian Tuaregs and some non-Tuaregs have formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad… Azawad being the local name for the Tamasheq speaking regions of Mali, Niger, and Algeria.

The Associated armed group has been renewing the armed struggle for a Tuareg homeland since late January, 2012.

In many ways the Tuaregs have a more coherent cultural and geographic claim to nationhood than many of the modern world’s balkanized republics. Said another way, they are arguably as distinct from their Southern neighbors as the South Sudanese were from their Arab neighbors to the North.

It is difficult to watch some of the last trans-national nomads locked in a losing struggle with the modern world.

As many of the world’s nation states splinter along civilizational lines (Iraq and Syria, Sudan(s), Nigeria, etc… ), and identity politics grows stronger in developed and developing world alike, I wonder the Tuaregs were not simply ahead of their time in thinking that national boundaries were just imaginary lines in the sand.