Mali is a land of desert nomads and savanna farmers. To understand Mali one must understand two different realities. The Sahara and the arid sahel lands near it make up about two thirds of land territory, but have less than ten per cent of the population, and many of them live in areas where the Niger river cuts north through the southern desert facilitating agriculture and urban life. The southern part of the country receives enough rain to support agriculture and make possible a higher population density.
For well over a thousand years, these two areas were linked. The agricultural areas saw the rise of Africa’s most powerful medieval empires, for which the trans-Saharan trade was important. The Tuareg who dominated the desert, lived by guarding the caravans that crossed the Sahara, and when authority was weak, by exploiting slave labor and by raiding agriculturalists. The nomads depended on agriculturalists, many of them their slaves, for grain and cloth. The agriculturalists depended on nomads for livestock, salt. The great empires usually managed to keep the nomads under control and develop common interests. In between is the arid sahel lands, with a mixture of pastoralism and agriculture and prone to drought. Here the Tuareg settled former slaves known as Bella and sometimes demanded tribute from Songhoy farmers in the bend of the Niger.
Imperial states generally had difficulty controlling the Sahara. The same was true of the French. The last Mauritanian resister was defeated only in 1934. During World War I, there were several Tuareg rebellions. In the long-run, France incorporated the Tuaregs and their counterparts in Mauritania, turning a blind eye to the persistence of slavery, which was important to the Tuaregs, and incorporating Tuareg chiefs into the colonial political order.
Because the Tuareg wanted only to be left alone, fewer Tuareg went to school and change was very circumscribed. The Tuareg had a racist contempt for the dark-skinned agriculturalists and did not see themselves as part of the same cultural universe. They saw themselves as white, though many were quite dark. Their supposed “whiteness” made them favored by colonial administrators, but left them targeted by African nationalists.
In the 1950s, when nationalists achieved some power in the late colonial state, many Tuareg sought the creation of a Saharan state to be called Azawad. There was a great deal of anxiety in relations between them. Mali was allied to the FLN rebels in Algeria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now president of Algeria, and Frantz Fanon were based in Mali. The Tuareg, therefore hoped for help from French officials based in southern Algeria.
The first independent government in Mali was a radical socialist regime hostile to chiefs, committed to eliminating slavery, and committed to radical change. The Tuareg revolt of 1963 largely reflected hostility to the Union Soudanaise and a racist contempt for the black Malians, whom they often referred to as slaves. The revolt failed because Algeria and Morocco arrested many of its leaders and turned them over to Mali. The resentment of Malian hegemony remained, and an underground movement kept alive the flame of Azawad separatism, though local herders continued to visit markets in Malian villages and maintained exchange relations essential to their survival in the Sahara.
Meanwhile, in the populous part of the country, there was a high degree of unity. Mali has never been threatened by tribalism, in spite of its size and the diversity of its people and in spite of the heritage of bitter 19th century wars. This was probably rooted in a number of factors: Bambara was a common spoken language understood in almost all of the country. There was a sense of pride in the nation’s rich and diverse cultures. Many of these cultures were similar. A shared commitment to Islam was also a factor in unity. In the 20th century, Malian Islam was tolerant, accommodating, and diverse. The Tuareg were also Muslim, but Islam did not tie them to fellow Muslims farther south. This sense of national identity persisted, though the early socialist regime overreached itself, and its successor was a corrupt, ineffectual military regime.
West Africa experienced a period of intermittent and often severe droughts between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. This destroyed the Tuareg economy. Many lost their herds. Their slaves also left, and often were more successful than the nobles because of their willingness to undertake work the nobles found demeaning. The nobles survived by hiring their services as herders, by smuggling and by military services.
The most attractive place for Tuareg and for many other Malians was Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, oil-rich and needing labor. Smaller numbers went to the Gulf, to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to seek an education. In Libya, Tuareg were particularly important in Gaddafi’s security services, where they received military training and combat experience in Gaddafi’s various African adventures.
In June 1990, another Tuareg revolt began, this time more broad-based. Knowing the Sahara well, the Tuareg fighters won a series of victories and in fact got most of their weapons from the Malian army in these victories. At the same time, discontent with the military regime was growing in the south.
In March 1991, after several hundred people were killed, a dissident group in the army led by General Amadou Toumani Toure (known as ATT) seized power with a promise to return to civilian rule. A constitution was written and in 1992, Alpha Oumar Konare was elected President. Konare was an exceptional leader with a democratic style. I had met him in the 1980s, when he was the leader of Jamana, both a cultural cooperative and a monthly magazine with a good discussion of public issues. I saw him as a president in waiting, an astute, intelligent man with a collegial style and a very able team of collaborators.
The Konare regime was impressive in a number of ways. First, unlike most African regimes that try to focus power in a small group, they decentralized, which meant that different political groupings participated in power at municipal and regional levels. Konare also sought accountability. The trade-mark event was an annual accounting when cabinet ministers had to respond to questions from ordinary people in a televised public meeting. The result was openness and vigorous discussion of public issues. Capital punishment was abolished, there was steady economic growth and Konare made clear that he did not intend to stay past the two terms allowed by the constitution. When his term ended in 2002, ATT, now a civilian, was elected to succeed him.
Mali is poor country, proud but poor. Konare could deliver on his promises only if he could deal with the Tuareg revolt. There was a cease-fire agreed at Tamanresset in Algeria in 1991 before he took power. It provided for withdrawal of the army from the north, withdrawal of rebels to their bases, an exchange of prisoners and transfer of government to civilian administrators. It did not immediately go into effect. The Tuareg leaders who signed it were regarded by other Tuareg as traitors. The movement split into at least four groups, who continued their attacks on the Malian state and sometimes fought each other.
A reversal of Malian fortunes was produced in part by the formation of the Ganda Koy, a militia composed of Songhoy, who lived along the Niger river, and the descendants of Tuareg slaves known as Bella. It used similar raiding tactics and succeeded in driving the Tuareg from sahel markets. When peace came in 1996, it was partly a result of war fatigue and the ability of local communities to come together and restore peaceful economic relations. In March 1996, over 3,000 weapons were burned in a giant bonfire called the Flame of Peace. As a result of the settlement, Tuareg and Arabs were integrated into the military, forming about a sixth of the army, and the state’s authority in the desert was exercised largely by officials from the desert.
This might have worked well if external forces did not intervene. In 1991, the Algerian government took the risk of allowing democratic elections. In the first round, the opposition Islamic Salvation Front won major victories. As result, the second round was cancelled and there were massive arrests.
The destruction of a moderate Islamicist party led to the emergence of several more militant guerilla movements, the most important of which was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The fighting was bitter, but in 1999, a new Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika offered an amnesty, which was accepted by most guerillas. The rump of the GIA retreated to the desert, where they were pursued by an Algerian army, which had become increasingly effective at desert warfare.
By 2006, they had moved into northern Mali and changed their name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Much like FARC in Colombia, AQIM was able to survive by kidnapping and the smuggling of drugs, cigarettes and stolen cars. They recruited fighters from elsewhere, including some Africans, but remained largely a North African group. Interestingly, truck traffic across the desert continued in spite of the militarization of the Sahara and probably because they paid tolls to the various groups whose territories they crossed.
AQIM has tried to entrench itself in the far north by marrying local women and forging alliances with local groups. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the organizer of the January 2013 attack on an Algerian gas facility, had four wives. (He was killed in March.) AQIM has suffered from some of the factionalism that is endemic in the desert. Belmokhtar broke away in 2012. MUJAO, a largely Malian group also broke away.
AQIM maintained its dominance in the desert and seems to have had an understanding with the Malian state, probably because ATT was convinced that he could not defeat them. This understanding seems to have broken down in 2009 when AQIM assassinated an Arab Lt. Colonel in the Malian army in Timbuktu. Many in Timbuktu assumed that this involved a deal gone wrong. At the same time, Mali was under increasing pressure from its neighbors and from the Americans to act against the militant Islamicists. AQIM has only about 600 to 800 members, but its mobility and its mastery of desert warfare make it a constant threat.
In 2007, the United States set up the Africa command to coordinate anti-terrorist activities in Africa. Its major concern in West Africa has been AQIM and the major recipient of its somewhat limited aid has been Mali. Most of the money has gone into training, but Malian army units in the desert were not well equipped. They had helicopters, for example, but they were not armored, were limited in range, depended on Ukrainian pilots and were vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.
AQIM is no longer the only actor. By contrast with AQIM, the National Mouvement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was nationalist, deeply rooted in 60 years of Tuareg activism and resistance, though it was only founded in 2011. Its goal was an independent Azawad. It was not concerned or eager to rule the rest of Mali. In the same year, two other groups seem to have coalesced. Ansar Din was at first allied to the MNLA. Its leader, Iyad ag Ghaly, had been one of the leaders of the 1990 rebellion. Unlike the MNLA, it was eager to extend the struggle west and south of Mopti and to create an Islamic state based on shari’a. What its links were with AQIM are not clear, but ag Ghaly has a cousin, who is a commander in AQIM.
The third group, the Mouvement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), is a breakway from AQIM. It is largely African and may be based on an effort to come out from under North African leadership. It is heavily involved in the drug trade. Our information on each of these groups is limited, but several things are clear. One is that men move from one movement to another. Desert life is harsh and people often move from one group to another depending on how their bread is buttered. The second is that there is no unity. While many Saharan soldiers and civil servants have defected to different rebel groups, others have remained loyal to the Malian state. In the Sahara, there is a constant process of groups coalescing and splitting. Since the French military intervention, a faction of Ansar Din has broken away to form the Islamic Movement of Azawad to seek negotiations. Its leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla, has within a year been part of the MNLA, then Ansar Din and now commands his own group.
The powder keg was there. It was lit by two processes. First, with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, Tuareg soldiers, like other Africans flowed back to the Sahara and south. Many took their weaponry with them, including some surface-to-air missiles. They provided experienced and well-trained soldiers, probably to all movements. The second is that the Malian army was pressured to take a more aggressive posture toward the rebel groups, a policy that wiser heads seem to have opposed.
Defeats in combat led to a mutiny by Malian soldiers led by Captain Ahmadou Sanogo, an American trained officer. Though many units remained loyal, the coup meant that the defense of the urban north was weak, and the MNLA charged into the breach, taking in rapid succession the major urban centers of the North. Kidal is a desert town, which was the site of a feared prison, where earlier regimes interned both criminals and political prisoners. Modibo Keita, the leader of the Union Soundanaise, died there. Timbuktu and Gao were old cities on the Niger river, centers of learning, trade, tourism and administration. Ansar Din was at first allied to the MNLA, but in a showdown in June 2012, they defeated the MNLA in Gao. Many MNLA fighters went over to Ansar Din.
With the defeat of the MNLA, both the Sahara and the desert-side cities were in the hands of the Islamicists. They immediately imposed a rigorous regime. Women were punished if not veiled. Football, music and video games were banned, all in an area once known for its music. Bars were closed. The hands of suspected thieves were cut off. People accused of adultery were stoned. This was in strongly Islamic cities, but cities where Islam had long been tolerant. Islam, especially in Timbuktu, was also sufi, a branch of Islam that incorporated mystical practices and revered dead saints. The Islamicists destroyed shrines and attacked mosques that they regarded as heterodox. Even in the desert, the rule of the Islamicists was harsh. Saharan societies included minorities and was hierarchical. It included large numbers of vassal groups, artisans and the descendants of slaves. In Bamako, the head of Temedt, an organization of descendants of slaves, charged that slavery had been reestablished. Several hundred thousand people have fled the Sahara to take refuge in neighboring countries.
All of this involves an area that while huge, involves less than 10 percent of the Malian population. The mistake Ansar Din made was to move toward Mopti, a vibrant economic center, which was for a century where river, desert and truck routes further south met. If they had captured Mopti, the road to Bamako would have been open, but they would have been forced to operate in areas where there were large hostile populations.
The effect of the military coup paralyzed the Malian government. Various West African and European governments made clear that they would not recognize a military regime, and even if they had, the officers probably lacked the ability to deal with the problems Mali faces. They are, however, a negative force, capable of frustrating policies and people. They forced, for example, the resignation of a Prime Minister they disliked.
Mali is not, however, a failed state, though it has been treated as one by many ill-informed Western journalists. In southern Mali, civil servants go to the office and do their jobs. Teachers teach and students attend class. The police do their job. There is a president, a prime minister, and an orderly government. According to all reports I have read, life in the South goes on normally.
Mali is also not Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban can count on widespread support within the Pathan majority. In Mali, the rebel groups can count on almost no support south of the Sahara. Even in the Sahara and desert-side cities, they are probably opposed by a majority of the population. The rebel groups, however, are armed while those who dislike them are not.
The danger of stalemate, however, lies in the ability of the rebels to operate within the desert. Even if a French or ECOWAS military force pursues rebel groups into their desert lairs, they could be involved a very long fight. The desert is vast and there are mountainous areas with caves. AQIM seems to have been adept at disguising its camps. Many experts like Columbia University historian Gregory Mann have warned against the cost of an all-out war. Mali is also not a narco-state, though groups like AQIM and MUJAO get much of their revenue from the smuggling of drugs and cigarettes. The drugs do not, however, come from Mali and there are no drug lords. The Sahara is merely a transit point for drugs from South America.
In all of this, the Americans have been a bit of a wild card. Captain Sanogo was American-trained. Other American-trained officers from the Sahara have gone over to rebel groups. The Americans have never learned either that you cannot teach values or that men you train will use that training not for American interests, but for their own. The American military created an African command in 2007, which is concerned primarily with the so-called war on terror. While it has had some success in Somalia, the American presence has been and probably will be a disruptive one in Mali as long as there is group in the desert linked to Al Qaeda.
The war has probably had the effect of strengthening Malian national identity, but has also intensified the exclusion from that national identity of Saharan peoples. After the defeats in the spring of 2012, crowds destroyed the homes of Tuareg in Bamako. The army, humiliated by its defeats in the desert, has committed human rights abuses. People have been killed because they were light-skinned or wore Islamic-style beards. This has happened in a country where people have moved freely. It is now unsafe for Westerners or southern Malians to move in the Sahara and for Malians with Tuareg features to move south of the desert. Most Malians blame the Tuareg. They think that they have made numerous concessions to the Tuareg. The Malian army is also training militias, probably mostly in the riverine and urban areas. These could easily descend into thuggery.
Was the French intervention desirable? Probably. Rebel groups quickly pulled out of the cities and people liberated from an intolerant regime they detested greeted the French enthusiastically. What are the options from here? The French will undoubtedly not want to stay indefinitely. The ECOWAS force is not likely to have the capacity to destroy rebel strongholds. Nor in the foreseeable future is the Malian army. The Americans are planning to set up a base for drones, probably in Niger. They claim that these drones will only be used for aerial surveillance, but if there is stalemate, they will be tempted to use them to attack rebels. I am not, however, sure that they will be able to differentiate from the air between military groups, nomads, and smugglers. In the long run, the most attractive strategy is to negotiate with rebel groups and offer them an increased degree of autonomy. Hopefully, it will be possible to bring together some combination of the MNLA, the MIA and those desert people who have remained loyal to Mali.
To do all this, it will be necessary to return Mali to democratic procedures. Eventually, though probably not now, it will be necessary to hold the elections that were cancelled after the Sanogo coup. It will also be necessary to restore and strengthen the command structure of the army. To do this, it will be necessary to get rid of Sanogo and his allies. He could be jailed, but might also be sent far away as an ambassador to a distant country. While this is taking place, the most difficult problem will be to keep the Malian military and various militias from taking revenge and to prevent a bloody settling of accounts in the desert. In the long run, education may help to integrate desert peoples into Malian life.
This leaves the problem of what to do with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and affiliated groups. Unless the Algerians and/or Moroccans with the aid of American and French technology want to undertake combat in the Malian Sahara, AQIM is likely to remain important in the Sahara. The construction of a cordon sanitaire to stop the drug trade and isolate the Islamicists would be possible, but it would involve all countries bordering Mali. Its chances are not great. The war on drugs has been failure almost everywhere, but so too have been efforts of the Malian army to operate in the Sahara. Where Mali has been successful in the desert, it has been by political means.
Martin Klein is professor emeritus of history, University of Toronto.