This year, Mali's restive Tuareg minority has erupted into rebellion after four years of relative quiet, the army has mutinied and seized control of the capital city of Bamako, and today Tuareg separatists declared an independent republic in the country's vast north.
Is this all NATO's fault?
Not exactly. But the law of unintended consequences is (as usual) rearing its head. In this case, the successful popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, which was substantially aided by the air power of NATO members, has sent Mali tumbling back into chaos, something that neither France nor the US (two of the major backers of the war to oust Qaddafi) are happy about. Far from it.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg and their independence aspirations were championed off and on by Qaddafi for decades. During his desperate and bloody war to hang on to power, Tuaregs that had settled in Libya fought on his side. And there are claims that even more Tuaregs were recruited to come to Libya and fight as mercenaries on his behalf.
With Qaddafi's defeat and the seething rage of the Libyan victors against the "African mercenaries" who fought against them – a rage which has also been vented on multiple occasions on people simply guilty of being "in Libya while black" – armed and trained Tuaregs returned home. A renewed insurgency in the north followed.
The first domino to fall in Mali was a coup by a young army captain, Amadou Sanogo. The new ruling junta's initial complaint was that the government wasn't spending enough money and manpower in the fight against the Tuaregs. But the result of the coup has been to throw the military – trained extensively by the United States and France in recent years, largely because of fears of Islamist militants in the region – into disarray. This in turn has created more space for the Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and today's independence declaration. ("Azawad" is a territorial term whose precise meaning is unclear, but includes much of the desert region where Tuareg live.)
The declaration has been rejected from almost every quarter that matters. The African Union, which opposed the intervention to depose Qaddafi, joined France and the European Union in dismissing the notion of a new independent nation.
And an AFP report indicates that the independence declaration is already dividing Mali's Tuareg. Ansar Dine, a smaller armed group led by a Tuareg but with declared pan-Islamist aims that had made common cause with the MNLA in recent months, came out against independence.
"Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam," Ansar Dine military boss Omar Hamaha said in a videotape obtained by AFP. "We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam." Ansar Dine ("Helpers of Religion") appears to have seized control of the desert cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in the east.
Reports from Gao and Timbuktu suggest Mr. Hamaha's group is already imposing its rough-and-ready ideas about Islamic justice, and he said they have 120 men in custody, some of whom he described as thieves. "We have tied them up and taken their weapons. We beat them well and it's likely we will slit their throats," AFP quotes him as saying. Algeria says that seven of its diplomats working in Gao have been taken hostage.
The MNLA has been in a loose partnership with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s. Ag Ghali's career is a testament to the tangled web of alliances in the region: His most recent gig was in Libya, where, according to reports, Libya's transitional government encouraged him to lead a large-scale defection of Tuareg fighters from Muammar al-Qadaffi's security forces. Ag Ghali obliged, but the Libyan rebels' gain was the Malian government's loss when he brought several dozen men in arms into a situation in which a rebellion was already simmering in the Malian Sahara. Since then, he's fallen in with the MNLA, and he seems to have a productive working relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The warriors of Ansar Dine care less about an independent Azawad than they do about an extreme Islamist program.
Mr. Mann points out that Mali's central government was remilitarizing its northern reaches for the past 15 years and that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had extended its kidnap for ransom activities into the area since 2010.
"Did the Libyan conflict – and NATO's intervention in it – light this long fuse? Did Mali lose Timbuktu because NATO saved Benghazi?," asks Mann. "Informed observers disagree. Some think the conflict was virtually inevitable, with or without men and arms from Libya. Others see a direct knock-on effect from Libya that upset a delicate balance."
What seems clear is that the timing of all this is inextricably linked to events last year in Libya. But it's also true that tension between the Malian state and the traditionally nomadic Tuareg is longstanding. The Tuareg and related Berber cultures became dominant in North Africa's caravan trade after domestic camels were introduced about 1,700 years ago, with items like gold, salt, and slaves transported across the Sahara to Africa's Mediterranean coast. In modern times, the Tuareg practice a pastoral life style, herding goats, camels, and cattle, and traveling long distances to find fodder and water for their animals.
The Tuareg maintain a fierce independence to this day, with an estimated 600,000 living in Mali. Today's independence declaration comes almost four years to the day since the last peace agreement they signed with Mali's central government – in 2008, brokered by none other than Qaddafi.
Qaddafi had a long history of reaching out to Tuaregs, both to fight in his own causes and to use as leverage against his North African neighbors. In the 1970s, drought gripped North Africa, and poor Tuaregs and other Saharan groups poured into oil rich Libya in search of work. Many of them, and not all voluntarily, ended up in Qaddafi's new "Islamic Legion," a regional fighting force that Qaddafi hoped to use to expand his territory and influence.
The legion is most associated with fighting on Qaddafi's behalf in Chad during the 1980s, a conflict that helped ignite ethnic conflict in Darfur and Sudan. After giving up on the bloody effort in Chad in 1987, Qaddafi decommissioned the legion. Some stayed in Libya; others, with arms and encouragement from the self-styled "king of kings," went home.
Qaddafi had long supported ethnic-based separatists in his neighbors, and it was unsurprising that Tuareg rebellions had broken out in both Mali and Niger by 1990. Those fights burned fitfully, and inconclusively, until 1996, when another peace was made. But Tuareg resentment, it seems, never went away.