In case you’ve missed it, a violent rebellion has been gathering force over the last couple of months in the north of Mali. Since mid-January, Malian government posts in several northern towns have been attacked, with the attacks claimed by the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad or MNLA, a recently emerged Tuareg separatist group. “Azawad” is a Tamasheq-language term for the Tuareg homeland, which according to the map below right, taken from Wikipedia’s MNLA entry, encompasses the northern half of Mali, but which by most definitions also includes swathes of western Niger and southern Algeria. (A Google search for the MNLA finds, in addition to the homepages of several state nursery and landscape associations, one site possibly linked to the Tuareg movement in question, but when I try to load this page I always get a “network error.” I wonder if Malian ISPs have been instructed to block it.)
The security problems in northern Mali have prompted a lot of discussion in Bamako and on internet discussion sites. Many southerners, including journalists, are wont to dismiss the attackers as “armed bandits” and terrorists rather than rebels. They may have a point: the Sahara Desert has long been a refuge for shady transnational networks engaged in criminal enterprise, including occasional kidnappings but mostly smuggling; Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, has also been active in the region for several years now. In the zone that the MNLA is claiming as its territory, the lines between criminal activity, terrorism and rebellion have never been clear. While an MNLA spokesman has disavowed any connection between his group and AQIM, one account by a survivor of the January 18 attack on Aguel Hoc (printed in one of Mali’s more reliable newspapers) claims the attackers were Islamists who during their occupation of the town wore “Afghan-style” clothes, gave speeches advocating sharia law and encouraged civilian men to grow their beards long.
The true motives of the assailants is just one of many uncertainties. How many of them are there? What links do they have to Tuareg fighters repatriated last year from Libya? How many casualties have they taken, and caused, in their confrontations with government forces? If their attacks go unchecked, will national elections scheduled for April still be able to take place? In the absence of any real reporting from the afflicted region, nobody can answer these questions definitively. Photos are now circulating on social media of dead bodies, allegedly Malian soldiers executed by rebels. Are they genuine? How many soldiers have died? No one is saying, which frustrates a lot of people here in Bamako. So great were the tensions that unruly protests erupted here and in several southern cities last week, spearheaded by the wives and sons of army personnel demanding to know what’s really been happening in the north. The Malian government has not been especially forthcoming in this regard. (For a thorough English-language synopsis of local media coverage of these protests, see Alex Thurston’s Sahel Blog.)
Bamako residents’ responses to the situation in northern Mali reveal much about the state of Mali’s democracy. For one thing, some Malians apparently don’t cherish the institutions of that democracy, and instead long for an extra-constitutional solution to the ongoing problem. One Bamako paper has published a call for President Touré to surrender power to an undefined “Committee for the Defense of the Republic” that will rule the country until security can be restored and elections held. Judging from the responses posted online to this call, it seems many would support such action. [If, for any reason, Touré were to resign before his term ends in June, Mali's constitution calls for him to be succeeded by the President of the National Assembly, not some ad-hoc group.]
The current crisis also reveals a readiness by some southerners to scapegoat northerners, especially light-skinned Tuareg and Arabs, for the rebels’ actions. During recent protests in Kati, just outside Bamako, businesses and homes belonging to Tuareg residents were set ablaze by angry mobs. Shortly thereafter, President Touré called on citizens to make a distinction between rebel fighters and loyal civilians.
It is not my place to comment on Malian government policy or on Mali’s security affairs. Indeed, as a Fulbright scholar whose stay in Mali is entirely funded by the U.S. government, I would be unwise to do so. What interests me here, as an anthropologist, is the rash of rumors concerning events in the north, and the local interpretations of the causes underlying these events, whether relayed in the Bamako press, on the web or by word of mouth. One thing you can guarantee in the absence of authoritative, verifiable information is that rumors will thrive.
One widespread rumor is that the president doesn’t want to give up power when his final term expires four months from now, and has manufactured the crisis to postpone elections and remain in office. (On a continent where so few heads of state have ever voluntarily stepped down, one can hardly blame Malians for their skepticism of their leader’s intentions. But let’s recall that Touré also was the first Malian president to do so, after initially holding office in 1991-1992.) Another rumor is that the pair of Frenchmen kidnapped from their hotel in northern Mali last November were in fact military advisers to the MNLA, sent by the French government to support the rebellion against the Malian government. The French are also accused of fomenting a coup plot over the last week. (The French are a perpetual bête noire in popular Malian imaginings of both local events and geopolitics; many here believe France to be aiding the rebels, and point to the fact that MNLA advocates have appeared on French television broadcasts.) Closer to home, I heard someone say that the clinic torched in Kati last week had been used to treat Tuareg rebel casualties. (Never mind that Bamako is 1000 km from the fighting, and is also among the last places any Tuareg rebel would try to seek refuge.)
Of course I don’t believe any of these rumors, and neither should you. But the fact that rational people accept and repeat them underscores the key role the media play in shaping Malian political culture. Mali has a vibrant independent press, but not one with the resources necessary to cover a conflict in a remote area. And with the international media not yet showing much interest in Mali’s northern crisis, we’ve all been left in the dark. The effects on this country’s young democracy have been anything but salutary.
[Postscript: Adam Nossiter, the New York Times' West Africa correspondent, filed a story from Bamako about the northern rebellion that highlights the post-Gaddafi arms connection. Perhaps next some serious journalists can actually get to the afflicted area and find out what's really going on! Additionally, for an informed "long view" of Tuareg uprisings in northern Mali, see a recent piece by blogger Andy Morgan.]