The paths of conflict diverge

As French troops hunted Islamist fighters in northern Mali this past winter, historian Greg Mann said that what was taking place in the region was not one war, but several. For a few months starting in January 2013, the various armed conflicts that had broken out over the previous year appeared to converge, as did French and Malian interests. But, as Greg reminded us in March, the French government’s war was not the Malian government’s war. And now it seems that Mali’s war — after a long hiatus — is starting up again, and breaking away from France’s war.

For weeks there have been rumblings of an impending resumption of armed conflict between Malian government forces and the MNLA separatist rebel group that controls the northern region of Kidal. Rumors of Malian troop movements north of Gao have been circulating since February. But this week these were joined by an army statement that government forces had massed midway between Gao and the rebel-occupied town, and by news today that Malian troops took the village of Anafi, 100 km southwest of Kidal. A report on Malijet claims that Malian soldiers are within 35 km of the town, and that MNLA forces are retreating toward Algeria; a similar report has appeared on Reuters.N Mali mapAll this comes on the heels of reports that the MNLA has been rounding up and expelling dark-skinned people from Kidal. While MNLA representatives claim they are merely rooting out “infiltrators” and Malian army spies, officials in Bamako say the MNLA is now showing its true “racist” and “segregationist” colors. The US State Department has issued a statement condemning “racially-motivated acts of detention and expulsions in Kidal.”

(Meanwhile reports indicate that a suicide bomber was the lone fatality after an explosion yesterday at a house belonging to an MNLA colonel in Kidal; these reports come from an MNLA-friendly Tuareg news website as well as the French press.)

The rising tension has pushed defenders of each camp into their rhetorical corners.  Malian government spokespeople and state media paint the MNLA as a “Tuareg supremacist” organization whose members have always refused to be ruled by blacks and instead seek to impose their racist rule on northern Mali’s diverse population. The MNLA’s most strident critics — many of whom are not southern Malians, but Songhai from the Gao region — raise the specter of light-skinned Tuareg enslaving their dark-skinned neighbors (the subject of a recent article in the Washington Post).

Young expulsees shown on Malian state TV

Expulsees shown on Malian state TV, 4 June

The MNLA’s attempt to expel alleged “infiltrators” played straight into the government’s narrative: state television news on Tuesday night showed images of two dozen young men kicked out of Kidal, allegedly after being mistreated and held for three days without food, “because of the color of their skin.” The newscaster then read a statement by a Bamako-based, Songhay-dominated association of northerners that spoke of “the MNLA’s planned genocide” and the “ethnic cleansing of Kidal.”

The MNLA (which claims to be a multi-ethnic movement, and has a Songhai vice president) accuses the Malian army of “openly and massively [perpetrating] looting, rape, arbitrary arrests and summary executions.” The group tries to portray the Malian government, and especially the army, as bent on eradicating nomads in general, and the Tuareg people in particular, from Malian territory. A communique on its website, dated 5 June, represents the MNLA as the victim of aggression at the hands of a government that is “neither for peace, nor for legitimate elections.”

Negotiations between the MNLA and Malian authorities, which began last month in neighboring Burkina Faso, were already at an impasse, and may now be simply irrelevant. (Interim President Dioncounda Traoré says the military offensive doesn’t call the talks into question, but the Malian government has not exactly been speaking with one voice lately. Foreign Affairs Minister Tieman Coulibaly told the BBC that the talks would probably “slow down.”) Extremists on both sides have been strengthened, with each extreme accusing its adversaries of being in bed with terrorists and drug traffickers, and of being inherently racist, genocidal, and criminal. (Much of the Bamako press continues to label the MNLA “armed bandits.”)

Gao protestor: "Yes to Operation Serval, but no to France's bias in the northern Mali crisis / WE WON'T BUDGE"

Gao protestor: “Yes to Operation Serval, but no to France’s bias in the northern Mali crisis WE WON’T BUDGE”

In government-held territory, goodwill toward France has declined dramatically. In Gao, for example, youths protested last week against what they considered French complicity with the MNLA. Demonstrators also blamed the Malian government for repeatedly caving in to the demands of Tuareg rebels: “The Malian government has always favored those who take up arms over sédentaires [non-nomads] who have never taken up arms against their country,” one leader told a Malian newspaper. Some protestors said they would “prevent the holding of elections” (still scheduled for late July) until the government addresses their concerns. In Bamako, politicians have attacked President Hollande because of his less confrontational stance toward the MNLA. Cool heads are not prevailing, and the public mood is shifting away from any negotiation with the rebels.

There are many questions about what comes next. Will Malian troops manage to retake Kidal? If they do, how long can they hold it? (Their supply lines will be stretched extraordinarily thinly over hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain, a problem the approaching rainy season will exacerbate.) Will the army engage in the sort of atrocities of which they have frequently been accused? What role will be played by troops from France, Chad and other African nations — whose governments sent them to fight Islamists, not take sides in a civil war? And how will the resumption of “Mali’s war” affect the nation’s electoral process?

My own view is that even if it succeeds in the short term — by no means a foregone conclusion — the Malian government’s attempt to settle the conflict militarily will only aggravate the political disputes that have widened across northern Mali over the past several years. Instead of the “peace of the brave,” we are witnessing a war launched by leaders who are afraid of being perceived as weak.

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8 Responses to The paths of conflict diverge

  1. Ag Air N'AIR says:

    nonsense!!! please whoever you may be learn what to write about before publishing. it’s not just writing a well-written article the goal, rather what you said in the article counts a lot. For your information, MNLA is a multi ethnic movement you want it or not! and please, please, stop your slavery game we had had enough hearing about nonsense paroles. Everyone now knows about the everlasting conflict in Mali, you don’t have to play your hypocrite allegations about it. If I were you I would have written about the atrocities that the Malian government had been and are doing to the Tuaregs regardless of the color. However, I can see that you are paid to say nasty shitttt about people just because you don’t like them. com on man, have some common sense!!! I wander if you are really telling the truth, how come you don’t see what Malian military are doing to the people? think before you write i’m sure you have heard that in school.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I’m overjoyed to be hearing from my friends in the MNLA once again, it’s been far too long.

    • Abdul says:

      Il est important que tu comprennes, Ag , que la guerre est à mener d’abord au sein des touaregs de Kidal. Il faut accorder les violons entre ceux d’Ansar Dine qui ont imposé aux touaregs la charia, ceux qui depuis Bamako detournent les fonds detestinés au developpement de la région,ceux qui desirent un Etat hypothetique qui ne viendra jamais, et la grande majorité silencieuse qui n’aspire qu’à la paix et à un coexistence pacifique avec toutes les ethnies du Mali.

      Faites attention à ceux qui vous induisent en erreur mais vous excluent en même temps de leur rang. Les blancs et les arabes et autres vous appellent “light-skinned people” not “white people”. Il est temps de vous enraciner quelque part. Ne vivez pas comme des sauve-chauris: ni avec les oiseaux ni avec les mammifères. J’espère que la paix et la sagesse domineront la haine dans votre coeur.

  2. Ag Air N'AIR says:

    Please leave us alone! We have had enough!! Your nasty propaganda is never going to harm us at all.

  3. This is an interesting and well informed piece of writing trying to present the problem from both sides. The personal comment at the end is presented as ‘my personal opinion’. So it is that one I address with my own personal opinion. You write: ‘we are witnessing a war launched by leaders who are afraid of being perceived as weak.’ I think we are witnessing a war which has the approval of the vast majority of the Malian nation, including the displaced northerners represented by COREN and including the National Assembly of Mali, the one truly democratic institution which remains here, with representatives of the entire Malian territory including Kidal. The National Assembly has voted unanimously ‘no elections before Kidal is in Malian control.’ The Malian interim government and army must act in accordance with the wishes of the Malian people. The Malian army has every right to reconquer Kidal and it is their duty to attempt to do so.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I believe everything you write about this war is correct, Sophie. Retaking Kidal by force probably is the desire of most Malian people. But this desire is nevertheless based on a great deal of false information, and the option of force in this case is still (in my personal opinion) a bad idea, politically and morally speaking.

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