Arms, drugs, and human trafficking: What does the future hold for northern Mali?

A new unity government was formed in Mali this week, though it remains unclear whether it will be successful in restoring constitutional rule in the Tuareg-held north.

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Freedom at Issue." The views expressed are the author's own.

A complex series of events in recent months has transformed the vast region of Northern Mali from a site of occasional, low-intensity ethnic conflict within an otherwise functional democracy into a lawless arena for competition among rival militant groups.

The degeneration began with a January 2012 rebellion by ethnic Tuareg separatists. Although their grievances can be traced back at least to the French colonial period, the immediate catalyst for the present uprising seems to have been the return of battle-hardened Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they had fought for the ousted government of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. As the new conflict wore on in February and March, there was frustration within the Malian military over the government’s perceived inability to aid its own troops and stop the uprising in the north. Mutiny and a coup ensued, leading to disarray in the country’s leadership. President Amadou Toumani Touré was forced into hiding. Amid this chaos on the government side, the rebel National Movement for an Independent Azawad (MNLA) was able to make unprecedented gains in the northern region. On April 6, the MNLA proclaimed the creation of an independent Tuareg state, declaring, “Mali is an anarchic state. Therefore we have gathered a national liberation movement to put in an army capable of securing our land and an executive office capable of forming democratic institutions.”

Armed conflict makes for strange bedfellows. As the MNLA captured more territory, it formed a partnership with the enigmatic Salafist militant group Ansar Dine. Frequently, Ansar Dine would enter cities that had already been captured by the MNLA, tear down the Azawad flag, and raise a black Salafist flag in its place. Eventually the MNLA realized that Ansar Dine had made off with its revolution.

Although the region’s borders were already poorly monitored, the breakdown of order has created an especially permissive environment for the trafficking of arms, drugs, and human beings in the region, and some armed groups have engaged in kidnappings. Meanwhile, Ansar Dine and its arbitrary application of a crude form of Sharia (Islamic law) have devastated the local populations and their centuries-old Islamic cultural heritage. Numerous residents have endured lashings after being accused of smoking, drinking, and inappropriate relations with the opposite sex. Those who dare to protest such abuse have also been detained and whipped. In at least one case, a couple was stoned to death by Islamist militants for supposedly having children out of wedlock. Nearly 400,000 people have fled or been displaced from the region. Increasingly grave food and water shortages only compound these problems, as do reports of recruitment of child soldiers and the presence of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

The brutal strain of Islamism, the complete disintegration of human rights, and the attacks on cultural monuments—including the mausoleums of revered Islamic scholars and the Sidi Yahya mosque—have prompted inevitable comparisons to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Columbia University professor Gregory Mann has warned against such analogies, particularly if they are used to justify an ill-considered foreign intervention. However, it seems clear that an entrenched Ansar Dine, along with its allies, would continue to have a profoundly destructive effect on Northern Mali and its entire population.

Indecision among the Malian government and international actors including the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has held up the deployment of a standby force. Algeria, whose military is one of the most powerful in the region, seems reluctant to abandon diplomacy for armed force, even though seven Algerian diplomats have been kidnapped in Northern Mali. In the absence of help from their government and the international community, local residents have begun forming militias to protect themselves from Ansar Dine and the other militant factions, but they could serve to exacerbate the region’s human rights problems and ethnic divisions. Reports have already emerged that members of the militia group Ganda Koy are attacking and killing Tuaregs. A new government of national unity was formed in the capital today, though it remains unclear whether this government will be more successful than its predecessor in restoring constitutional rule to either the north or the south.

If the crisis is to be resolved, ECOWAS, the United Nations, and democratic states more broadly will have to develop a coordinated message and strategy. Each day that they fail to do so brings more strife and misery for the people of Northern Mali. The country’s neighbors have much to lose from the status quo, and much to gain from a successful restoration of democratic rule. Indeed, the situation offers a perfect opportunity for countries like Senegal to remind the world that vibrant democracies are emerging in West Africa and are capable of resilience in the face of perennial threats like ethnic unrest and Islamist militancy.

As events have unfolded, there has been a tendency among some foreign observers to view the north as a Tuareg region, raising the possibility of a settlement that would leave the MNLA in charge there after the ouster of Islamist extremist groups. In fact the region’s population is composed of several ethnicities, including Fula, Songhay, and others, and the idea of a united, democratic, multiethnic Mali has not lost its appeal. By means of social media, Malians of all backgrounds have been coming together to reclaim their national motto: “one people, one goal, one faith (un peuple, un but, une foi).” As the international community works with the Malian government to address the crisis, all parties should bear in mind the desires of the public, and the likelihood that a Mali united would be stronger, safer, more stable, and more prosperous than a Mali divided.

– Brendan Harrison is a Program Associate at Freedom House.

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