You Can’t Go Home Again: Tuareg Rebels and the Libyan Civil War

By now the popular narrative of the Libyan war has found its endpoint: Gaddafi was raped and murdered, the transitional government and its central bank are talking about oil revenue for the recovering economy, and Gaddafi loyalists in the interior are active, but not a huge threat.

The mission, supported by liberals and conservatives alike (though not by Congress, whose authority was circumvented by the Executive branch) including Near Eastern Studies luminaries like Dr. Juan Cole, was ostensibly to protect the citizens of Misrata from certain death and destruction at the hands of their dictator. It quickly became obvious that the NATO intervention was a mission of regime change, as bombardment of Tripoli seemed like it was outside the purview of the UN resolution. Whatever the reasons for the regime change, whether to protect Libya’s citizens from its dictator or some down and dirty real politik isn’t the focus of this post.

Instead, as this blog goes, the idea is to examine the indirect costs of the Libyan civil war, and one of the best examples of consequences not considered by the powers that be is the beginning of a third Tuareg rebellion in the Sahel.

Mali: Violence in North Forces over 20,000 Into Exile

UNHCR has deployed emergency teams to countries surrounding Mali to help meet the needs of some 20,000 people who have been forced to flee fighting in northern Mali. Most of the displaced are in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Fighting between rebel Tuareg groups and governmental forces in the Azawad region of northern Mali began in mid-January.

In the past three weeks, at least 10,000 people are reported to have crossed to Niger, 9,000 have found refuge in Mauritania and 3,000 in Burkina Faso.

Fighting between the Tuareg liberation movement MNLA (Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad) and governmental forces resumed on 17 January in Mali, breaking a 2009 agreement that had officially ended the Tuareg rebellion.

The MNLA seeks to establish an autonomous state in the Azawad. The Tuareg, who call themselves the Kel Tamashek, are a traditionally nomadic and pastoralist society that was severely affected by the introduction of the nation state to the Sahara by the departing French colonial administration. The resulting division of their traditional lands caused displacement and eventually more violence. Seeking autonomy for their society once again, the Kel Tamashek have fought several wars to find independence. The last war ended in 2009 with a ceasefire.

What happened? Why did the Kel Tamashek resume hostilities?

Answer:

It seems even after his death in October last year, Muammar Gadaffi has managed to remain central to the Tuareg insurgency in Mali and a fragile peace in the northern region of the country.

After Gadaffi’s death, thousands of Tuaregs who had previously served in his army, have now returned to Mali, Chad and Niger among others with potential risks of destabilising those countries. Key questions in the minds of many are who can fill the vacuum left by the Libyan dictator and what impact the ongoing violence in Northern Mali could have on the already volatile and complex security environment of the Sahel.

As anticipated, the Tuareg insurgency against the Mali government has been re-ignited and strengthened with weapons from Gadaffi’s arsenal.

Many have speculated that the Sunni (and soon Salafist) insurgency in Iraq was caused by the disbandment of the Baathist army of Saddam Hussein. This sounds familiar, and it gets worse:

Meanwhile, far from being a purely military exercise for the national army, the insurgency came at the time when Mali is looking forward to holding its presidential elections in April 2012. There is a fear that if peace is not restored immediately, the presidential elections might be under threat with risks of generalised instability in the country.

Already, social tensions are building up among various communities in the country. Parents of slain soldiers in the fighting took their anger to the street against members of the Tuareg community. To mitigate the tensions, the Muslim community as well as other religious leaders in Mali have been calling for peace, while the political leadership has been meeting in Algeria to craft yet another strategy to deal with the Tuareg insurgency. The resurgence of the Tuareg militants is causing a major problem for Mali, especially considering the already big threat of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It remains to be seen how this conflict progresses. However it’s apparent that North and West Africa, the former rocked by revolutionary movements, the latter never that stable in the first place, will be dealing with the indirect costs of the Libyan civil war for some time.

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