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.
(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).
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.”)
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.