Tag Archives: sahel

Mali Conflict Continues as Press Turns Away


The conflict in Mali could be creating a “ticking time bomb” for neighbouringWestern Sahara, the UN secretary general has warned, amid growing concern about the threat of terrorism in west and north Africa.

Ban Ki-moon said in a report to the UN security council there was “serious concern” that the war against al-Qaida-backed Islamists in northern Mali could spill over into other countries in the region, infiltrating refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of people from Western Sahara – known as Saharawis – have lived since Morocco annexed the territory in 1975.

First Niger and Chad, now Morocco, the long time US ally, which has kept the Western Saharan people under great duress for decades, promises to feel the costs of this conflict in Mali.

Colonially drawn borders are fickle. Ethnic allegiances and alliances, and their inevitable conflicts  do not contain themselves to these neatly drawn borders. The French, in invading Mali, have tried to renew that colonial influence, though it appears that it is not that effective. Suicide attacks are becoming part of everyday life for many Malians, even though Mali likely went through its entire history without a single suicide bomb (as Iraq did prior to US invasion). 

The food emergency also does not adhere to national and economic borders, and is likely going to intensify this year despite the good harvest last year:


The situation this year is exacerbated by a lower than expected harvest in Nigeria (pdf), which produces a lot of the grain consumed in the Sahel – prices have shot up. The crisis in Malihas prevented thousands of families there from planting at all.

According to the CIA factbook, the Western Sahara must bring in foodstuffs due to the lack of arable land. Morocco may need to make up the difference if these food shortages in the Sahel continue. 

The conflict in Sahel is obviously far from over, and expect to see more news coming out of the region over the next year. 

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Discussion of Mali Intervention Hits Mainstream While President of Niger Declares Libya Intervention to be a Catalyst


Renee Montagne covered the Mali rebellions on NPR’s Morning Edition a few days back. She interviewed a Canadian Diplomat who had been captive of AQIM for several months. Judging by his tone of voice and very bleak outlook on the situation, his experience deeply affected him.

However when listening to the interview, one gets the feeling that Montagne was leading him with questions about American interventions. She specifically mentions drone strikes by the American military as an option for the Mali situation, piggybacking on his assertion that AQIM is not able to be negotiated with.

It’s no surprise to hear war mongering from NPR. Montagne is part of a DC media establishment that actively supports American imperialism. I won’t go through Glenn Greenwald’s arguments on this, because he does it much better than I could ever hope to. However Montagne’s credentials speak volumes (from Wikipedia):

Montagne was among the news anchors who attended the traditional off-the-record luncheon held with the U.S. president in advance of Barack Obama‘s 2011 State of the Union Address.

Attendance at an ‘off the record luncheon’ is usually a sign that you are held in high regard by the administration. Responsible reporters like Michael Hastings or even Helen Thomas, would never be invited to such an event. Montagne simply isn’t the type to say, “Malian affairs should be left to the Malians and their immediate neighbors”. Her solution to problems of international scale is to advocate for intervention.

Her guest, Robert Fowler, was simultaneously calling for some kind of Western intervention (though he was very pessemistic about its outcome), but said that the Libyan invasion had created a major heavy weapons problem in the Sahel region. Montagne, who presumably wrote the summary, parses it this way:

Fowler, a career diplomat, says the U.S. and its allies have “massively failed” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Over the past decade, authoritarian leaders have been ousted in all three countries, but the transitions that have followed have been messy.

“We have caused one of the most unstable regions in the world to become awash in weapons,” he says.

However if you listen to the interview, it’s very clear that the specific place awash with weapons is Libya:

 I believe that what we did in Libya proves the imperative of the law of unintended consequences, and by overthrowing Gadhafi in the way we did – by the way I was perfectly happy to see him overthrown – we have caused one of the most unstable regions in the world to become awash in masses of weaponry.

Montagne glossed over this statement in favor of focusing on AQIM’s variety of extremism that, according to Fowler, renders them unable to be negotiated with.

It’s not wise to gloss over this statement, however. In this interview with Al-Jazeera, Niger’s president, Mahmadou Issoufou, goes on the record as saying that the death of Gaddafi was a huge catalyst in causing the vicious new uprisings in Mali.

“I have to say that what is happening in Mali is the result of the Libyan crisis – that’s what caused a military coup which made things even worse,”
“I don’t believe it was necessary to kill Gaddafi, especially the way he was killed.”

It’s interesting to see Mali’s close neighbor, Niger, publicly express dissatisfaction not only with the method with which Gaddafi was killed, but the fact that he was killed at all. On the other hand, we see Western diplomats thousands of miles away going out of their way to make sure that they are on the record saying that they are glad Gaddafi is dead, but similarly explaining that they think the consequences are very real.

This distinction isn’t picked up by the media at all. NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been reporting on the people of Mali, which is a much needed facet of this story, and has made mention of factions that are controlling the northern territories in Mali. She’s probably the only responsible reporter the NPR employs when it comes to African affairs. Hell, I’d have her interviewing Fowler over Montagne, who sounds downright eager to hear about the prospect of intervention.

Jeremy Keenan has said that the MNLA is militarily superior to the forces of Ansar Dine. Western media reports that Ansar Dine and the MUJAO forces have “taken over” the territory, but they should be more specific in saying that MUJAO has taken some major urban centers and forced the MNLA out. The MNLA maintains that it still controls 90% of the Azawad proper.

Ansar Dine has said that they do not see their struggle as being part of the independent Azawad. Their struggle is for sharia law implementation. Their exact words were:

“We have handed (regional mediator) Blaise Compaore a letter by Iyad Ag Ghaly,” said a source close to the Ansar Dine delegation which has been holding talks with the Burkina Faso president in Ouagadougou.

“All we want is the implementation of sharia” in Mali, he said. “We are against independence.

I still hold out hope that the powers that be will see the internal rifts between the Tuareg and will use that to make sure that sharia is not implemented.

The western media needs to be more responsible in its reporting on this conflict. The issues are far deeper than NPR has generally made them out to be in its prime time reporting. It scares the hell out of me, because the last thing anyone in Mali needs is robot bombers flying around their skies.

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Tuareg Rebels Declare the Azawad an Autonomous Homeland; Echoes of Ibn Khaldun

In 2008 I finished my thesis on the religious movements that possessed medieval trade entrepot of Sijilmassa, a town on the edge of the Sahara in what is now Morocco. Ibn Khaldun was a major figure in my thesis, and his work on the Berbers is indispensable for anyone studying the medieval Maghrib. I am going to quote from my thesis in order to demonstrate the concept of ‘asabiyyah: 

Ali ibn Yusuf ruled while living the life of an ascetic, oblivious to the concerns of his kingdom. While he was an intellectual and a very pious man, the fall of the Almoravid would stem from his inaction in the face of threats from the north, east and south. In the introduction to his Kitab al-‘Ibar, the famous historian Ibn Khaldun points to the concept of ‘asabiyah as being integral to the failure of Ali ibn Yusuf’s regime. Being translated loosely as “group feeling”, ‘asabiyah is the glue that holds an empire together121. Ibn Khaldun, hypothesizing one of the first sociological theories, believed that the Almoravid, at the beginning of their conquests, held a strong group feeling that was born out of their religion and their willingness to fight and die for one another: ‘asabiyah was the mutual cooperation that formed the basis of the movement. Using the fall of the Almoravid as a centerpiece for this theory of cohesion, Ibn Khaldun theorizes that a dynasty’s ‘asabiyah becomes dispersed the longer they rule. Several generations will usually spell the end of a dynasty, as the ‘asabiyah of the movement will become so dispersed that the individuals will forget what bound them together in the first place122. Thus, Ali ibn Yusuf’s unwillingness to set straight the complicated local affairs of his kingdom only hastened the downfall of his regime. As the loot from conquest began to disappear into the coffers of the empire, and the conquest of land stopped at the furthest borders of this Muslim empire, Ali ibn Yusuf instituted a set of taxes that would have been abominable to the forerunners of his movement like Abd Allah ibn Yasin123. The outer provinces no longer felt a need to support the Almoravid regime, and thus, the next Berber movement’s conquest came from the periphery; Ibn Khaldun says that as ‘asabiyah is lost, it is the fringes of an empire that disintegrate first, eventually threatening the center of the empire. This is the cyclical nature of Ibn Khaldun’s historiography – an empire is established, gradually becomes more decadent and loses cohesion, and then is overtaken from the periphery of its territory. The Almoravid movement capitalized on similar circumstances: with the Umayyad and Fatamid caliphates in decline, they found a Moroccan population that was uncommitted to a religious movement. Sijilmassa itself even requested the intervention of the Almoravid religious movement. In turn, the Almohad, led by two charismatic religious figures in Ibn Tumart and Abd al-Mumineen, would capitalize on the Almoravid weakness and thus bring religious reform and centralized government to the land for the second time.

For Khaldun, a decline in asabiyyah is a result of urbanization and consolidation of power. As group cohesion decreases, the chances of another group with more asabiyyah threatening the incumbent becomes more and more likely. It is one of the earliest sociological theories out there, and I believe it may be his most important next to his identification of the Laffer curve.

Last week, the MNLA declared that the Azawad would be an autonomous homeland:

In the days after the coup, town after town fell in the north to the Tuaregs. They declared a ceasefire Thursday, announcing they had captured the territory of Azawad, which they see as their homeland.

“The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad,” Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the MNLA said on the group’s website.

The Tuareg have been lost at sea, as it were, since French colonialism. The Azawad was never recognized as a Tuareg homeland, and as a result, the Tuareg became a people with no state. Hannah Arendt spent much of her political philosophy on the subject of refugees without a homeland, often through the lens of the League of Nations and the Minorities Treaties. In Arendt’s view, the homeland is the basis for natal rights. Belonging to a land is so incredibly important to the human experience, such that the loss of a homeland can mean disaster for the refugee.

A resurgence in Tuareg nationalism has captured the imagination of the Kel Tamashek, and their statelessness is being challenged in the same cyclical turn of asabiyyah that Khaldun pointed out hundreds of years ago. The best example of this renewed asabiyyah is the rise of Tuareg rock groups like Tinariwen. Tinariwen’s members grew up in refugee camps making guitars out of rubbish, and some were conscripted into Gaddafi’s armies. These men and women lived through the reality of the grim life of the Kel Tamashek, giving an extra punch to their acid rock style.

In the song Imidiwan (Companions), the group speaks directly to Africa:

“My friends from all over Africa,
I have a question that still haunts me,
Is the revolution like some tree whose branches only grow if we water it?”

Tuareg artists like Tinariwen are framing their struggle in a wider context of a pan-African struggle. Tinariwen calls the people of Africa their imidiwan. The struggle of the Tuareg thus becomes the struggle of an entire continent trying to heal terrible wounds.

Mali is preparing to strike against the Tuareg rebels in the north with the full support of an undisguised imperial ally in France. Given how badly equipped the Malian army is, it is unclear whether they could do this alone. However, they most likely will not attack the Tuareg alone:

  • The AU has said publicly that the MNLA declaration is null and void and that it respects the totality of Malian sovereignty.
  • Other Sahel countries have pledged support to Mali, provided they get their government in order.
  • The LA Times article mentions this little tidbit:
  • Western governments are alarmed about a second group, Ansar Dine, which has swept into some of northern towns on the MNLA’s coattails. It has ordered shopkeepers to pull down pictures depicting people, declaring them un-Islamic, and it has told residents it plans to impose Islamic law. Ansar Dine has links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising fears the terror group could strengthen its hand in the region, already a hub for cocaine trafficking, crime and kidnappings. The ghost of Osama Bin Laden strikes again.

Once again the Sahara will see competing societies, competing asabiyyah, and a war for a homeland. It would be very hard to say where things will go from here.

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