Over 100,000 Malians are reported to have been displaced since late January, in the wake of a violent insurrection in the northern regions of the country where the nomadic Tuareg people are claiming independence. On January 24, Tuareg forces in one town summarily executed 82 civilian village leaders and Malian troops. French Development Minister Henri de Raincourt responded to the incident by linking the rebels to al-Qaeda tactics, a misleading association that is nonetheless typical of the Tuareg’s portrayal in Western press.
Mali’s northern regions, sparsely populated zones stretching into the Sahara, are a world away from the southern capital, Bamako. Rebel forces claiming the territory have repeatedly clashed with the military, managing at times to drive government forces across the border into Algeria. Protesters outraged at the state’s weak response shut down the capital, with the families of killed soldiers mourning in the streets. President Amadou Touré acknowledged the gravity of Tuareg problem and suggested that it would likely persist for the next three or four presidents.
With armed Tuareg rebellions having recurred intermittently since resistance against the French in 1916, Touré’s estimate seems reasonable. The Federation of Mali gained independence from France in July 1960, as an area including present-day Senegal. Though Senegal became its own state in August of that same year, the Tuareg-inhabited north remained split principally between Mali and Niger. Dissatisfied with their subordination within the Malian state, Tuareg rebels claimed the region’s independence in 1962. By 1964, the Malian army had defeated them and installed a repressive military regime.
What has happened since might be thought of as a continuation of colonial rule, with the capital relocated from Paris to Bamako. Despite the relative success of democracy in the country’s south, the centralized government’s legitimacy in the north may be as questionable as old-fashioned colonial governance.
Deteriorating natural conditions in the north have helped bring the issue of sovereignty once again to the fore. While there’s reasonable debate about the macro-level causes of climate change, policy choices have exacerbated scarcity in the region just south of the Sahara, referred to as the Sahel, a name derived from the Arabic word for ‘coast.’ More than a dozen African leaders recently met in Mauritania to discuss growing tensions in the region, and the heads of state may have good reason to be worried.
Colonial economies—plantations of coffee or cotton arranged for export in regions that for centuries had survived on low-intensity production and trade—didn’t end with independence. Banned from market intervention by Euro-American-directed ‘structural adjustment’ programs in the 1980s, West African states were hamstrung in their efforts to promote development and prevent destructive agricultural practices. The plantation-to-port model that colonial powers had put in place before banning market intervention remained intact.
Preserving this model entailed throttling up unsupportable high-intensity agriculture at the same time that droughts became more frequent. Export prices fell and farmland crept north, displacing grazing nomads. Having replaced forests with crops, residents harvested the remaining trees for firewood, pulling up the root supports that kept the desert at bay. Though droughts are seasonal, desertification is permanent, and the vicious cycle of an increasingly dry climate and an encroaching desert made the physical conditions of nomadic life dire.
Threatening to make matters worse, the continent’s population has doubled since 1982, and the region may be ignited by hungry generations. With their arable land allocated to exports that other countries produce at (or subsidize down to) a lower price, and lacking physical and financial infrastructures for manufacturing, Sahel economies are on an unstable path. The governments that emerged from structural adjustment were unable to look after the long-term needs of their people.
The terrorism question
Understanding how the Tuareg rebels fit into this situation demands making a distinction between a terrorist organization and a liberation movement, one of the most politically urgent questions currently. The Tuareg rebellion goes under the name MNLA, Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (the Azawad is the Sahara-Sahelian region that the movement claims as its sovereign nation-state—the Senegal that never was).
MNLA’s slogan is “Unity, Justice, Liberty.” Its website posts descriptions of Mali’s human rights violations against the Tuareg: unlawful arrests of the leaders of the Women of the Azawad, aimless gunfire from a Malian army helicopter that left seven civilians wounded and two dead. One of the movement’s founders, who vividly describes his people’s starvation in the brush as one of his motives for action, reports 18 days in the custody of Malian secret service after the movement’s 2010 congress.
The site also details the organization’s political program, calling for the “restitution of the [Azawad] land,” and noting that restitution “is not at all a haphazard term but is a fundamental notion that refers to something moral or material that once existed and must be resuscitated.” For the MNLA, Mali continues to occupy their homeland: “it remains within the logic of colonization, contemptuous towards human value and lacking respect.” Half a century after Mali’s formation, the MNLA states its discontent: “Fifty years of promises of development, the Azawad hasn’t seen any infrastructure, not a meter of paved roads, fifty years of talk of peace and security, the people of the Azawad have seen only more insecurity and more soldiers fueling fear and terror between peoples.”
The MNLA makes no reference to Islamic rule, as Tuareg variants on Islam are generally moderate, and an MNLA spokesman recently suggested that Azawad independence would be the surest path to stopping al-Qaeda activity in the area. The organization calls, rather, for the self-determination of the Tuareg people, citing the charters of the UN and the African Union.
The MNLA’s rhetoric depicts an oppressed people, though this image is hard to square with mass displacements and summary executions. These periods of scarcity prompt immediate actions to reclaim power in the face of helplessness. When the official boundaries of the state fail as measures of common suffering, assertions of local power remove those boundaries’ practical sense. Terrorist or liberator is a false opposition: the first describes today, the second hinges on tomorrow.
Lessons for liberals
There’s no reason to think of the Mali we know today as a meaningful or permanent entity. Like the economy that has driven the Sahel’s hard times, the nation is another piece of colonial heritage. The crisis in the Sahel may demand reformulations of common welfare that are unfriendly towards colonizing logic.
Fortunately, in a democracy like Mali’s, there are non-violent ways of dismantling the state. Although all election projections are dubious, Mali’s current presidential “front-runner,” Yeah Samaké, is a Malian and American-educated Mormon mayor who revolutionized Malian local governance. His apparently successful platform focuses on decentralizing power to equip local governments to serve people well. It’s unclear whether this would overcome the challenge of the widely varying ways of life and needs from the government posed by the inclusion of the Azawad within Mali, but it’s equally hard to say that an independent Azawad could feed its people without selling somebody else out. Localism only goes so far in the face of global economies and ecologies.
The most democratic thing to do would be to treat the Malian state as less of an authority. Right now, a Malian official reporting rebel violence stands better odds of having his story repeated than does an Azawadian leader with the opposite claim. Putting too much confidence in either side disenfranchises all of those without guns. Even focusing on the guns, one might add, distracts from the real disenfranchisement of those without money.
The centralization of power often appears to entail the centralization of responsibility, and for a democracy, this is a dangerous thing. Our sense of responsibility is our political attention span. As it vanishes, we come to rely increasingly on shorthand. Among the group of things called ‘terrorist’ are many different, complex things, and to homogenize them dismisses what they really are. Our shorthand is the manner in which we commit what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the original wrong: hearing roaring masses in place of people speaking.
BEN TUCKER B’13 is anti-skub and he votes with his dollar.