22 Aug 2012

Gaddafi, Mali and the Tuaregs: The law of unintended consequences


When Nato supported the revolution which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi last year, I doubt they considered the impact his demise would have on the West African state of Mali. But the Tuareg rebellion, which led to the Al-Qaeda takeover in northern Mali, was an unforeseen result.

Gaddafi started to recruit nomadic Tuaregs for his Islamic Legion in the 1970s. Known as the “Kurds of Africa” because they are spread over five countries and have no nation of their own, the Tuareg were good fighters and they needed the money. Over the years, they fought for Gaddafi in several of the conflicts he fomented in Africa. It didn’t mean they had privileges – in Libya as elsewhere, local bureaucrats saw the nomadic Tuaregs as a nuisance, and often denied them papers and education. But they became seen as Gaddafi’s men. After Gaddafi fell, several hundred Tuareg escaped across the desert, anti-aircraft weapons and heavy machine guns mounted on the back of their pickups. They drove through Niger and into Mali to restart a decades-long struggle for “Azawad”, an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali. They called themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Many of their grievances were legitimate – over the years, Mali’s politicians had grown rich off the proceeds of corruption, while the north of the country descended into poverty and lawlessness. But their uprising did not turn out as planned. For a start, many other people – Arabs, Songhai, Bella – live in northern Mali, especially in the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. They didn’t want Tuareg rule.

Read more from Lindsey Hilsum on Mali: the great democracy that never was

Then, the MNLA allied themselves with jihadis, including Al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb, who had been using the deserts of northern Mali as a base for kidnapping and drug smuggling. In March, the jihadis and the Tuaregs drove out the Malian army. But the MNLA seemingly had no plan for governing their new territory and were ill-disciplined and disorganised. By the end of June, the MNLA were in disarray and jihadis seized the moment – they crushed the MNLA.

Tuareg who fled south became victims again – other Malians blamed them for causing unrest and chaos, and allowing the Islamists to take control. Some were set upon, so they fled to Burkina Faso or Niger. Now Tuaregs are fleeing into Mauritania to avoid the strict form of sharia the Islamists are imposing in the north.

For more on the refugee situation in Mali, see the UN Refugee Agency’s portal

As yet, western governments have not intervened to push the Islamists out of northern Mali. Many in the capital, Bamako, think it is time Nato came to their aid. After all, they reason, Nato intervened to oust Colonel Gaddafi, so surely it has a responsibility to protect Malians from the unintended consequences of Nato action.

This is one of a series of three articles on Mali by Lindsey Hilsum:

Mali: the great democracy that never was?

Mali music falls silent as Islamist repression bites

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum