Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.
By James M. Lindsay, CFR.org
Tuareg rebel fighters in northern Mali declared on Friday the independent country of Azawad. The announcement comes on the heels of the rebels’ rapid success in driving government forces out of Northern Mali in the two weeks since Malian soldiers overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, Amadou Touré, a former general who first came to power in a coup two decades ago. (Touré oversaw Mali’s transition to democracy and then stepped down from power, earning him the nickname “the soldier of democracy.” He was elected president in 2002 and again in 2007.)
The new ruling junta justified its coup on the grounds that Touré had failed to put down the Tuareg rebellion. Tuaregs, a semi-nomadic people spread across Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria, and Burkina Faso, make up an estimated 10 percent of Mali’s population. They have been fighting for their independence since even before Mali won its own independence from France in 1960.
So far Azawad, which would cover an area larger than France but have a population of only about a million people, is not being greeted warmly by the international community. The U.S. State Department rejected the independence bid and called for maintaining “the territorial integrity of Mali.” France’s defense minister said that a declaration of independence that “is not recognized by African states would not have any meaning for us.” That recognition does not look to be forthcoming.
Algeria says it “will never accept questioning the territorial integrity of Mali.” African countries more generally have long resisted efforts to redraw borders on the continent, fearing that it would only encourage more secession movements. (The peaceful breakup of Sudan into two sovereign countries was unique in this regard.)
But the United States and France helped produce, albeit unintentionally, the current state of affairs in Mali. The Tuaregs, who are fighting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), gained the upper hand in their battles against the Malian government only after the ouster of Moamar Gadhafi flooded the country with weapons.
Now Washington and Paris worry that the MNLA’s success has strengthened its ally, Ansar Dine, an Islamist faction with ties to the North African branch of al-Qaeda. Ansar Dine has taken control of Timbuktu and vowed to impose sharia law. (UNESCO worries that the fighting poses a danger to the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu.) Oddly enough, Ansar Dine agrees with Washington and Paris on one thing: it too opposes creating a separate country of Azawad.
Looming in the background is the potential for a famine in Mali. Irregular rainfall has stunted harvests in Mali and elsewhere across the Sahel. Making matters worse, the fighting in Mali has already displaced some 200,000 people in the north; people who are fleeing their villages can’t tend to their crops. All this is putting pressure on the United States and other countries to increase their aid to Mali, but that might have the perverse effect of rewarding Mali’s ruling junta.
Meanwhile, questions abound about the junta’s ability to beat back the MNLA and Ansar Dine. Prolonged fighting could do just as much to precipitate a famine as low rainfall. So stay tuned. Things could get a lot worse.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.