Intagrist El Ansari
Translated by Barbara Dent
The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), representing five Toureg-led rebel groups in Mali, signed the peace agreement of Mali on June 20th, 2015. The text recommends regionalization, which would follow the process of decentralization initiated during the 1990s. The agreement does not sanction, however, several longstanding claims of the armed groups that comprise the rebel coalition. 
On May 15th, in Bamako, the agreement for peace and reconciliation was signed with much ceremony by the State of Mali and those groups close to it in the presence of international mediators, but without the assention of the CMA. The document had been initialed the previous day (May 14th), but has only now been approved by the principal rebel groups in the North. The agreement, however, makes no mention of "independence," "federalism" or the "self government" in the regions of Northern Mali, despite promises from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the nominal head of the CMA since 2012, to the group’s militants.
Since the end of 2011, when the MNLA was established, the group’s rhetoric had maintained that "the independence of Azawad" was "not negotiable," a precept reiterated with the new uprising of 2012. Maximalist claims of independence sought to justify actions of the armed group that started the conflict, leading to the exile of hundreds of thousands of people who took refuge in countries on Mali’s borders.
The call for independence was announced forcefully back then so as to attract the support of a fringe of  "idealistic" Tuareg youth, which was subsequently used to spread the sales-worthy concept of a "free, dignified and independent Azawad," but the rebels’ masks have now fallen. Three years on, young Tuaregs have discovered that neither independence, federalism or self government had ever been the final or sincere aim of the groups comprising the CMA.

Bilal Agh Cherif, secretary general of The Coordination of the Movements of Azawad (CMA), signs a preliminary peace agreement in Algiers in May 2015.
(Courtesy Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

A clue into the rebel leaders’ mindset came in June 2013 when they abandoned "independence or nothing," as stated in their propaganda, and accepted the agreement of Ouagadougou, which recognized the territorial integrity of the State of Mali and the Malian Constitution. The Algiers road map buried, once and for all, all the demands mentioned above. And, finally, the current agreement contains no provisions for self government in Northern Mali, and even less for federalism or independence. Why did the CMA abandon the promises it made to its cadres? This is the question currently being raised by young people both disillusioned and bewildered by the conflict’s outcome.

However, from the very start (in late 2011), great optimism would have been needed to believe that this new rebellion, born of the war in Libya, could bring the "holy grail" to the region’s Touaregs. On the contrary, the conflict was to become the source of great losses. The results can be seen very much in contrast to the official line of the heads of the armed groups: three years of war with immeasurable – and immeasurably negative – consequences. These include physically devastated areas; infrastructure such as health care and water supplies reduced to a minimum; shuttered schools for the past four years; and heavy human and material losses for the Tuaregs. Following the war, the Tuaregs have seen their social environment splintered between increasingly quarrelsome traditional chieftains, ancient vassals and others that invested hugely in the rebellions, and in the heart of pro-government militia groups that profit from the situation and seek to create a new tribal leadership free from the framework of the historical "Ettebel" which, over a number of centuries, had established a model of political and social organization viable for all.

The uprising is too frequently presented by its leaders, and by some specialists of the Tuareg world, as an essentially "Tuareg rebellion" - a strategic attempt at uniting populations that, paradoxically, accentuates the end of the "unity" among the tribes. Since 2012, each armed group has been joined by certain tribes or Tuareg factions structured around a military leader who joined the armed group  "in the name of their tribe," with members of the tribe coming on as fighters. Thus, the officer is generally supported by a group - of the same tribe - implicated in the political leadership of varying movements. As such, the Coordination of Movements for Azawad is not a blend of federated ideological and political currents, but rather a positioning of disparate tribes and clans, hence the many defections, secessions, rivalries, individual movements from one group to another and internal indecision within each movement.

And yet the Ettebel (supreme unity giving rise to a human, territorial, political and economic autonomous society) was formerly set up in a territory recognized by other suzerainties. The social rules of these entities was, therefore, based on a consensus which respected the social position and  function of each group which had an irreplaceable, essential role in the life of the suzerainty.

One of the most disastrous consequences of the uprisings, particularly that of 2012, was to provoke the decomposition, and also the dismantling, of the unity of these suzerainties, while their loss of power continuing following the colonial penetration of the Tuareg milieu from the end of the 19th Century through to the independence of Mali, when current boundaries were set. The internal gulfs brought about conflict.

This loss of power resulted in a reduction of Tuareg geographic space, which changed progressively from a large region across borders (Northwest Africa) into local entities incorporated into the new African states.

From the 8th century to the 16th, there was the predominance of the Sanhaja (nomadic tribes from Yemen that dominated the Saraha, according to Ibn Khaldoun) from the Atlantic to southern Libya. Next came their descendants and successor chiefdoms, the Almoravids of 11th and 12th centuries, from which the majority of today’s Tuaregs are descended. The end of the rule of the Sanhajas over the Sahara was marked by the rise of the Empire of Mali in the 13th century, and the conquest of Timbuktu by the Moroccan Saadians in 1590. That is why, from the end of the 16th century, the space occupied by the Tuaregs again took the form of regional poles (Ataram in North Mali, Air in North Niger, the Hoggar in southern Algeria and the Fezzan in southern Libya). They were politically autonomous from one another, while maintaining strong commercial,  human and diplomatic ties.

By the end of the 19th century, the map of the Tuareg population receded further into "local principalities" with the colonization of the Sahara. Finally, with the independence of African states during the 1960s and the establishment of new borders, the Tuareg groups were assimilated into the administration of each newly created African state, i.e. Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and, to a lesser extent, Burkina Faso.

The various uprisings that followed, from 1963 onwards, also had an effect on this Tuareg land shrinkage. It was no longer a question of Ettebel, but of tribal factions (or fractions) – clans or groups with differing interests taking position with differing armed groups. This comprised the decline of the Ettebel foundation of politically unified entities.

The uprising of 2012 has ended in a "return to starting block" situation regarding the principal additions acquired through the signature of the new peace agreement: The process of decentralization allowing for regionalization was already starting up in Mali. The new administrative divisions in the North, with the creation of the regions of Taoudenni and Menaka, had been on the cards for a number of years under the rule of President Amadou Toumani Touré.

A comparison of the discourse on "the reasons for rebellion," with concrete results illustrated by a balance sheet to weigh and situate various responsibility, soon shows that the declarations spread over the three years of the conflict in Mali were more aimed at the imagination of the nomad people disoriented by the government of Mali which, since independence, has proved incapable of founding a basic, balanced political agenda for the progress and development of its people. That is why the slogan "We are fighting for Tuareg rights" - tauted by the rebels – was able to attract certain nomads who only discovered later the political realities behind the uprisings organized in their name.

The armed uprising in the North and the military coups in the South reveal a deep and widespread uneasiness that the political classes, the elite (the decision makers in Mali), along with the government, need to analyze seriously in order to arrive at pertinent and longterm responses. These have been sorely lacking. 

The political deficiency across the country is particularly painful for the North, the arid desert region that is traditionally the most disfavored part of the country, abandoned by state institutions and post-colonial reforms. Traditional and tribal entities once capable of managing themselves have been hampered by agrarian reforms dispossessing them of land, particularly around Lake Faguibine, which was once the great granary of West Africa around the region of Timbuktu. These obligatory reforms threaten the fragile equilibrium in which diverse and mixed populations have long coexisted; previously, they lived in prosperity and harmony, among them the Tuaregs who are blamed every time there is a fresh outbreak in the conflict.

This stigmatization makes the message of the rebellion "more tangible" in the eyes of certain Tuaregs since each new uprising brings them no protection from central government.

On the international stage, the Tuaregs’ situation is made even more complicated by external conflicts. International competition to control underground resources means that the Sahara attracts a lot of envy, and promising riches are at the root of insurrections which, for the most part, are not initiated by the traditional Tuareg rank and file.

The sometimes excessively contradictory declarations and actions of the CMA, and the absence of a fundamental political and intellectual ideology, leaves the rebellion – pompously said to be on behalf of all Tuaregs – open to manipulation by global geopolitics. The consequences for local civil Tuareg populations has been serious. The new war, which has been going on for the past three-and-a-half years, has been said by some traditional Tuareg leaders as setting them back 20 or 30 years.   

The  Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) signed the "Algiers Accord" in Bamako in June.

Ultimately, the CMA’s approval of the peace accord in June is a good thing for the return of peace  to Mali. However, these international commitments did not stop the CMA  from continuing to seed confusion, even playing a double game, by making declarations which have been totally contradictory to commitments made on paper right up to the signing of the accord. How did the text of the proposed agreement of March 1st, 2015 - previously rejected by the CMA - differ from that of the final agreement signed on June 20th? In reality, not a single comma was changed. The document, which was not legally restricting, signed in Algiers on June 5th as a preliminary step to the definitive signature of June 20th, comments on the terms of applying the agreement but does not take into account amendments submitted by the CMA during the mediation of March 17, 2015, at Kidal requesting "time to inform their rank and file of the content of the agreement" when the parties concerned –  governmental parries, certain loyalist groups and the mediators – were initialing the document on 1st March. That is to say that the CMA could have also initialed the text of the agreement on March 1st and signed it along with all the other participants of the crisis at Bamako on May 15th, 2015.

Still, many Tuaregs, clear thinking people who had doubted (rightly so) the intentions and promises of "independence" and "autonomy" made by the MNLA in 2012, and who even denounced the demagogy aimed at attracting sympathizers, were "demonized." Today, however, in view of the outcome, they are depicted as "divine."

To avoid repetition of another conflict, the enlightened intellectual elite, alongside the leaders, nobility and traditional chiefs, moral guarantors of Tuareg societies, should take great care to ensure that the «spirit of rebellion» occasionally witnessed amongst some of their people is not utilized by outside forces in collaboration with internal factions to reignite familiar cycles of violence.   

On the other hand, the State of Mali must (re)construct itself on innovative, sustainable institutional bases that take into account the multidimensional aspects of the crisis of 2012. The state must invent and apply beneficial and impartial policies in a framework of good governance shared between central and local government. The state must also restore confidence in its northern areas, especially with the traditional rank and file of the Tuareg area to avoid «possible justification» of any new inclination towards conflict between the administration and splinter groups. What provokes a sense of unfairness in these populations must be anticipated and addressed quickly. In particular, this can be reached through the sharing of power and a rebalancing of the country’s resources, especially between central and local governments.

The suzerainty of the traditional "chieftains" should be reestablished to guarantee local stability. These must be the framework of local government. Central government can offer political support, but should avoid any form of clientelism.

With this approach – which is certainly not easy, but can be envisaged within the framework of the newly built institutional layout recommended by the peace and reconciliation agreement – the country can find new direction, taking it more calmly towards a better future for the integration of its multiethnic components, rebuilding from its ashes.

In Bamako, the ceremony for the signature of the agreement ended with a speech in which the  orator mentioned all the founding empires of contemporary Mali: the empires of Ghana, Mali and the Songhai. However, as is often the case, he left out the more ancient empires of Sanhaja and Almoravid, which ruled over the Sahara (from the Atlantic to southern Libya, including the current North of Mali), since the 8th Century. The Tuaregs are the descendants of these empires, the history told by highy reputed authors, historians, geographers and Arab travelers  such as Ibn Al-Kalbi, Al-Himyari, Al-Yahqoubi, Ibn Hauqal, Al-Bakri, Al-Idrissi, Ibn Batuta and Ibn Khaldun amongst others (stories dating from the 8th century onward are synthesized and analyzed in the excellent work of Jacques Hureïki’s "Essay on the Origins of the Tuaregs").

Deep and sincere reconciliation and mutual acceptance – the true source of a long-term capacity to live together – might be best served by beginning with education in Mali about the country’s history in a knowledgable, apolitical way.

Intagrist El Ansari is an independent author and director. He is a correspondent in North-West Africa (Sahel/Saraha) for TV magazines and international print press outlets. He has written many articles on the cultures of the Sahara, and his analyses and reports on the Malian conflict and its consequences are published in international newspapers and magazines such as Courrier International (France), Le Temps (Switzerland), Le Courrier (Geneva), Infused (Switzerland), Le Libre Belgique, MO* (Belgium), L’humanity (France), Slate Africa, Al Jazeera English, Le Huffington Post and Le Courrier du Maghreb et de l’Orient. His first novel, Echo Saharien, l’inconsolable nostalgie, was published by Editions Langlois Cécile (Paris).

Barbara Dent is a Paris-based translator with extensive experience in the film and television industries.