Independent State of Azawad: Africa’s Newest Country?

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On March 22nd 2012, Mali’s coup d’état came as a shock to many Western observers, but given the state of Tuareg affairs in the Sahel region, the Arab Spring and additional economic factors made Mali poised for its current conflict. Separatists in the northeastern part of the country played the revolutionary spirit of the regional atmosphere to their strength, using the opportunity to declare an independent Tuareg-led state. An unprepared Malian national army sent to suppress the rebellion was left frustrated by a perceived lack of central support, leading a military junta to impose a subsequent coup d’état of the country’s leadership in the country’s capital Bamako. The once-peaceful capital has since been embroiled in political and (intermittent) inter-military battles.


Deposed Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré (who ironically rose to power in Mali’s 1991 coup d’état) has taken up residence in Senegal, in exile since his resignation in mid-April 2012. Touré came to power in 2002 through democratic elections that were marred with fraud allegations. Leader of the latest coup and the ruling military junta, Captain Amadou Sanogo, remains a powerful influence in post-Azawad Mali, despite the formal handover of power to the pro-democratic interim president the erudite Dioncounda Traoré, has condemned the Tuareg rebellion and the resulting Azawad status. Mali’s transitional prime minister is Dr. Cheick Modibo Diarra, with interim President Traoré is tasked with forming a cabinet and establishing elections (which would also name a new prime minister) for Mali by June 2012. However, Bamako still remains under a fair amount of siege, with Capt. Sanogo’s junta supporters rooting out ‘Red Beret’ loyalists to the Touré regime due to counter-coup attempts. Not only has Sanogo delayed the promised full handover of complete authority to Bamako and surrounding regions, but he has refused to allow foreign entities into northern Mali to stop the Azawad takeover. Capt. Sanogo has also reportedly expressed opposition to holding elections within the next year until stability has been reached in the country.



The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has carved out the northeastern region of Mali as its own by successfully driving out the Malian army. Dominated by ethnic Tuaregs (or “Kel Tamasheq” in northern Mali), the Gao and Kidal regions of the northeast have seen the most conflict in the last few months.



In the Midst of Chaos: The Control over Azawad


However, the new region has seen fresh crop of actors with differing views about governance of the (internationally unrecognized) Azawad state. Led by insurgent veteran Iyad ag-Ghali, ‘Ansar Dine’ (or “Defenders of Faith”) is an actor which seeks considerable influence in Azawad, and having already gained control of key towns in the region, it hopes that its static Islamic view on politics and social life will trickle into the rest of Mali. While Ansar Dine, a militant group that advocates Sharia law and can been seeing hoisting black flags on which the Shahada is emblazoned, does not directly support an independent Azawad region, it has seen the new region as a fresh opportunity to gain support among average Malians. (1) This has been met with considerable social resistance, however, as Mali, a 90% Sunni Muslim country, practices a Sufi-leaning version of Islam common in northern Africa. Home to a minority Catholic population, Mali has a religiously tolerant society, where few religious leaders generally have aspirations for a full-Sharia implementation in the country.



The MNLA, or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, wants a secular Azawad region held together by a sentiment of nationalism. The MNLA formed a semi-alliance with Ansar Dine during this year’s rebellion in hopes of the greater goal (an independent Azawad). The MNLA’s ranks are comprised from various sources, including: returning soldiers hired to support the troops of Libya’s (deceased) Muammer Gaddafi, past participants in previous Tuareg rebellions, deserters from the Malian army, and other ideology-supporting members from non-Tuareg Malian ethnicities. (2) The MNLA discounts reports that their movement is linked to Al Qaeda, and believe that it’s propaganda coming from authorities in Bamako. They want the Malian central government to be willing to accept Azawad, and warn that if resolutions are not made soon, the hostilities will continue, according to MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Achartormane.



Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram are also said to be gaining influence amidst the struggle for influence in the new Azawad state. Even more concerning is the multi-national aspect of both groups (Al-Qaeda being cross-continental while (Salafist-inspired) Boko Haram has been instrumental in numerous terrorist acts carried out in Nigeria). AQIM has also lent its support for the militant Ansar Dine group also operating in the region.



The recent destruction of a UNESCO World Heritage-protected tomb in Mali’s ancient scholarly city of Timbuktu (by a reportedly overzealous new member of Al-Qaeda linked militants in Azawad) mirrors actions by Al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan in 2001 that destroyed centuries-old Buddha statues of the Bamiyan Valley. (3) Therefore, future actions in Mali and neighboring countries must additionally be wary of possible risk on the cultural assets of the region.



History Repeats Itself: Mali’s Past with Rebellions


Mali gained its independence from France in 1960, and despite being predominantly Muslim, Mali has followed a laic model in its style of governance. Since 1916, there have been at least and four Tuareg rebellions: 1962-1963, 1990-1995, 2007-2009, and the current rebellion. The current conflict reflects great similarities with the events of 1991 when Traoré was deposed in a coup d’état. Political division amongst the Tuareg made joint ventures against their home government difficult, resulting in a series of rebellions throughout the years. Unlike previous rebellions where Tuareg populations were relatively unorganized and ill-prepared, the recent establishment of ‘Azawad’ came greatly as a result of a coordinated Tuareg front that was better armed with leftover weapons brought across the border from the neighboring Libyan conflict. Despite capturing the north of Mali, many Tuareg refugees have sought refuge in neighboring Burkina Faso instead of the Malian capital Bamako, where they believe they are discriminated and not safe from the crowds which have generally condemned an autonomous Azawad region. Domestically, fighting has displaced nearly 150,000 citizens, and has sent more than 160,000 Malians abroad for safety to neighboring countries Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger (in addition to Burkina Faso). (4) There was discontent within the army regarding not only the new self-governing region, but also within the Touré reign itself. Coupled with the fact that the army was ill-prepared for both a coup d’état in Bamako and a northern Tuareg rebellion (which has now given over 50% of the country’s territory of effective control to the northern region’s separatist groups through Azawad), the stage was set for chaos in the region.




Spillover Tension: Niger and Guinea-Bissau


Given that the Tuaregs, a generally nomadic Berber group, span over nearly six countries (Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Algeria), the establishment of the state of Azawad has given legimate concern to Mali’s neighbors. Azawad has been a Tuareg aspiration since as early as the 1960s, when many of the regions’ territories became independent of their colonial holders. Niger, home to an even larger Tuareg population that has a similar makeup and history with its Malian neighbor, has voiced the most concern, particularly after the (non-related) coup d’état occurred in Guinea-Bissau. Niger, like Mali, has an abundant of natural resources that have yet to be exploited (oil and uranium in particular). Both Tuareg populations have grown increasingly frustrated by both social and political treatment received from their respective countries’ central governments. The division of profits from natural resources among regions has been a particularly sensitive issue, as Tuaregs have been increasingly sedentarized due to land reform initiatives. Many in the Tuareg ranks have pointed to corruption in the central government as a leading factor for improper wealth distribution throughout the country. Other Tuaregs have also complained about ethnic discrimination being one of the main factors of oppression against their group. Tuareg clans have often colloquially been viewed as ‘backwards’ due to a unique caste-like system once governing their tribes, and were targets of suspicion in regards to their loyalty (questioned as a result of their nomadic nature). (5) Being seen as distinctly ‘Tuareg’ is often associated with notions of Arab culture and language, although the Tuaregs are not Arabs. In cities like Bamako or Niamey, it can sometimes mean being seen as non-African, or black, in many cases. Culturally being viewed as ‘the other,’ ethnic marginalization has been a sore spot in Tuareg social negotiations.



External Actors in Mali: Who’s Doing What, and Why?


With a push from France, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement on the crisis in Mali which called for an end in fighting and return to constitutional rule throughout the country. Along with France, both the United States and the European Union have only permitted humanitarian aid for Malians throughout this transition. Due to the considerable influence that the military junta still has on the Mali’s transition team, nearly $13 million of U.S. military aid has been cut to Mali as well (in addition to other funds in the health and social fields). The Mediation and Security Council of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has been urged to deploy a regional task force to maintain calm in Bamako, with estimates of nearly 5,000 reserve troops. Headquartered in Togo, ECOWAS will need the support of Burkina Faso to enter Mali on the ground. Given Burkina Faso’s humanitarian crisis as a result of the Malian conflict, ECOWAS’ mission will need to be two-fold in nature: conflict management/resolution and humanitarian. However, it has also been met with resistance, as the juntas of both Mali and Guinea-Bissau had resisted accepting ECOWAS decisions (Mali changed as of recent). Despite accepting a 12-month transition process at the start of ECOWAS negotiations, the talks fell through, with Guinea-Bissau later being slapped with sanctions by both the European Union and ECOWAS, all aimed at targeting the leading military elite in Guinea-Bissau. Much like the populations surrounding Bamako, ECOWAS’ April 2012 statement regarding the coup d’état supports the territorial integrity of Mali as one united state. (6) A framework agreement for the return to constitutional order was signed as a result of the late March/early April emergency summits in Abidjan and Dakar. However, The African Union (AU) has echoed the ECOWAS call, not only suspending Mali’s AU membership (much like ECOWAS has from its own organization), it has also placed sanctions on Mali’s junta leaders until a thorough transition of power has been completed. Due to Capt. Sanogo’s refusal to hold elections within coming months, ECOWAS may soon feel compelled to send troops to restore elections to the country.



Gaddafi’s Out, Who’s In?


Had (now deceased) Col. Muammer Khaddafi survived the fall of Libya during the Arab Spring, he would have surely been an actor in the current conflict. The former Libyan leader played host to Tuareg rebels during the 2007-2009 rebellions in Niger and Mali, pushing for an installment of rule of law in the region and peace. Of Bedouin roots himself, Gaddafi often placed emotional importance on the Tuaregs and other African peoples (as a staunch pan-Africanist whose rhetoric was often laced with support for a united continent), supporting them in their regional initiatives. While Gaddafi is also despised for his suppression of Amazigh (another Berber people of the Sahel) initiatives in Libya, he also had considerable influence in regions like northern Niger and Mali among various tribes due to the resources an alliance with his regime could provide. Therefore, this unique relationship paved the route for many Tuaregs came to his side during the fight for Sirte and other key cities in Libya during the revolutions. Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, a MNLA representative, said many Tauregs went to support Libya’s troops for the sake of the country’s security. Gaddafi was known for contracting considerable Tuareg fighters who were critical in pushing his agenda. With Gaddafi out of the picture as a regional mediator, finding a diplomatic broker in the region will currently be of great concern. During the 2011 election crisis of southern neighbor Côte d’Ivoire, three West African heads of state (from Benin, Cape Verde, and Sierra Leone) were brought into mediation efforts, eventually restoring peace with the support of various multinational (UN, AU, etc) and national efforts (France). With the crisis seeming stalling in Bamako, West Africa’s regional leaders will need to reconstruct similar efforts to provide for a full transition to Mali’s interim Prime Minister until democratic elections can resume in the country.



Economic Factors


Since 2011, Mali’s largely agricultural-based economy has taken a hit due to the regional crises (such as the events in 2011 Côte d’Ivoire), and the country’s GDP has hovered around 5.3% growth in the last year. While the mining industry has great economic potential (particularly with regards to gold), but political instability in the region has hindered once potent investor outlooks. Economic adjustment programs implemented in the 1990s had substantial positive effects on the country’s economic outlook, but Mali is remains heavily reliant on foreign aid. Revisions to the country’s budget and tax revenue laws, while also maintaining a cap on debt and inflation, are still ongoing efforts in Mali. (7) However, in recent years, Mali has been known as a liberal democracy, maintaining strong ties with the U.S., which even provided anti-terror training to Malian troops.



United Nations and France: Silent Approval?


As part of NATO, France and the United Kingdom, with the support of the U.S., led the questionable invasion of Libya during the height of the Arab Spring. France, which hosts a large Malian diaspora, has been criticized for not fully evaluating the possible political and social spillage from the conflict. France’s notable absence from the current Mali crisis stands out, and a sense of betrayal has been felt from its former colonial entity, which gained independence from France in 1960. The inaction on France’s behalf has been viewed as France’s legitimization of the Tuareg’s efforts for Azawad, confirming to the Malian diaspora that France may implicitedly accept the Tuareg’s challenge to Mali’s territorial integrity. (8) Moussa ag Attaher, a MNLA spokesperson, currently operates from France, fueling frustration among Bamako’s population who demand that the MNLA be brought to justice for the rebellion. This “hypocritical” French stance is felt by many in Mali, particularly when France’s military support during the Côte d’Ivoire crisis was critical in restoring peace on Mali’s southern border. France must tread carefully and quickly not only to ensure that it doesn’t appear to be selectively protecting its interests in former colonial territories, but also to reassure its support of territorial integrity, rule of law, and democracy in Mali.



“Blowback” Effect of Inaction in Mali


As spillover from the NATO’s actions in Libya and similar crises in other North African countries has had a significant role in Mali’s sudden demographic and political change, changes in Mali ‘kept the ball rolling’ in Guinea-Bissau, which immediately saw a coup d’état of its own in mid-April. While ECOWAS and other parties attempt at keeping conflict to a minimum in an increasingly agitated western African region, the next country at risk could be Morocco with regards to its Western Sahara issue. The Western Sahara has long been a contentious issue in the region, with Morocco and Spain being key players in this crisis. With Algeria hosting various Western Saharan refugee camps, the contested territory must be carefully watched over the coming months.



Turkey’s Role?


Turkey’s voice in Mali’s crisis has been noticeably absent, despite good Turkish-Mali relations (Mali is one of the few African countries to have both an embassy and consulate in Turkey). Turkey quickly switched from a national viewpoint of protecting its relationship with Libya to allowing its membership of NATO to takeover regarding the restoration of legitimacy and calm in Libya. The (positive or negative) political outcomes of Turkey’s sidestep to NATO in Libya’s crisis will also play out over the next few months as other African countries deal with their own internal conflicts in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.



While Turkey’s Foreign Affairs ministry has made a statement strongly condemning the subsequent coup d’état in (Mali’s neighbor and largest refugee population host) Guinea-Bissau, it has so far remained silent on Mali’s coup d’état and its northern separatists. Interestingly, there are certain regional parallels between the Tuareg and the Kurds however, as both ethnic populations span several neighboring countries in their respective regions, and have often had fluctuating ambitions for either a decentralized autonomy or full independence. Similar to silence seen in various EU countries on the issue of Kosovo or Palestine, Turkey must also be diplomatically cautious in any future statements made regarding Azawad due to its own domestic issues.



The Next Steps for Mali


Mali needs the assurance from the international community that it supports its democratic process and territorial integrity, needing a united front in the diplomatic sphere to not only send the aid needed to restore peace to the country but also establish democratic elections that would both install a stable post-junta central government that would carry out the necessary referendum regarding the issue of Azawad. Assarid Ag Ambarcaoune, vice-president of Mali’s National Assembly, has emphasized a supporting (not necessarily militarily) role that the European Union could play in the crisis. (9) While Ambarcaoune has stressed Mali isn’t the only group dealing with economic woes in the Sahel, he also insisted that ‘Al-Qaeda’ inspired groups are running havoc in the north, with the MNLA and related groups have stated that these are fabrications from Mali’s central government to diminish their claim to the north. In either respect, a consensus must be reached regarding the legitimacy of Azawad and how the region will be run. Mali’s government will currently, perhaps more than before, need the necessary training to root out any terror groups that may settle in Azawad during this period of instability.



Decentralization in Mali has long been recommended from a development aspect, per economic and social reforms needed in the country. Wealth distribution and land reform issues were among the key factors to lead to the latest Tuareg rebellion. However, the decentralization issue has been met with mixed results, and while the necessary institutions and communes have been made in the process, many on the social level have often equated decentralization with a notion of separation; therefore, a proposed referendum that rules against the Tuaregs’ claim will need to have the appropriate conflict prevention mechanisms in place to maintain order in the country after the appropriate political processes are conducted. Regional organizations are preferable to handle internal African crises, thus encouraging a cooperative effort between ECOWAS and the African Union to play a prominent role in post-junta Mali.



Leaders in civil society, like Sheikh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, the charismatic vice-president of Mali's High Islamic Council, should be invited to transition talks in Bamako. Due to the powerful influence of religious figures in Mali, political leaders in Mali, although secular, have often allied themselves for political gain with various religious leaders. Haidara, for example, has been hailed by Western figures for his pro-democratic stance on issues like as anti-corruption measures. (10) Haidara’s movement ‘Ansar Dine’ (which preaches an entirely different philosophy although it shares its namesake with one of the separatist groups in northern Mali) has a large following (in the thousands) due to its appeal for inter-faith tolerance, and should be considered as an influential voice of the civil society. Haidara’s advocacy for traditional Malian Sunni Islam (with many Sufistic elements) starks in contrast to Iyad ag-Ghali’s Salafi-inspired ‘Ansar Dine’ movement.



Given recent events, the longer that a coordinated international response to events in Mali takes, the more legitimacy that Azawad stands to claim. Restoring order and rule of law in Azawad is of paramount importance given the multiple groups in the self-declared republic vying for power. A peaceful transitional process from the Capt. Sanogo’s junta to a capable interim government will be necessary to restore calm in the capital, and ensure that displaced persons in and outside of Mali can eventually return to the country and participate in the necessary democratic processes.





(1) A profession of faith in Islam, which decrees that ‘there is no God but God, and [prophet] Muhammed is His messenger.’

(2) “Mouvement National de libération d’Azawad.” The official MNLA website. Accessed April 30, 2012.

(3) The tomb of one of Islam’s saints Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar was destroyed in the attack in early May 2012.

(4) Guterres, Antonio, [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. “UNHCR and WFP Chiefs Highlight Plight of Mali Refugees in Niger.” May 7th, 2012.

(5) Keita, Lt. Col. Kalifa. [Army of the Republic of Mali]. “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency in Mali.” May 1st 1998.

(6) Ouattar, H.E. Mr. Alassane. [Chairman of Authority, ECOWAS]. April 6th, 2012. “Statement…on the Positive Development of the Political Situation in Mali.”

(7) “Mali: Letter of Intent, Memorandum.” IMF. 2011.

(8) Camara, Neissa. Fatih University. Personal Interview. May 2012.

(9) “Le Partition du Mali est inacceptable.” Assarid Ag Ambarcaoune. Interviewed by ex-Luxembourg minister Charles Goerens. March 21st, 2012.

(10) “The Ansar Dine Movement and Islam in Mali.” Wikileaks. Reference number: 08BAMAKO574. June 19th, 2008.


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