Special Report

Borders and Peoples

The crisis in Mali abates -- the calm before a storm?

By 4.20.12

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The folks running the show in Mali, the landlocked West African country that is near the top of most lists of the world's poorest countries, picked Cheick Modibo Diarra, a rocket scientist and the head of one of the world's richest companies, Microsoft, to serve as interim prime minister until things get back on track following a coup d'état by junior officers and the loss of nearly half the country to secessionist desert tribesmen and holy warriors out of shariaize the whole place. They must have figured that since all else seemed to be failing, they might as well try somebody with a serious résumé.

There were no reactions from France, the ex-colonial master and, according to rumors in Bamako, the instigator of the trouble that has led to this sorry pass, wherein anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 people have been turned into refugees, by the ICRC's count and, with commerce and business at a standstill -- or at least a what-next -- shortages of essential goods and foodstuffs are becoming acute.

Dr. Diarra, 60, an astrophysicist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, educated at Paris's Curie Institute and Washington's Howard University, was the consensus choice of the putchists who overthrew the elected government of President Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22 and the representatives of neighboring countries' association, ECOWAS (Economic Union of West African States, CEDEAO by its French acronym) that responded to the coup with an embargo. The African Union, including all the members of ECOWAS, ostracizes regimes that come to power illegitimately. With a transition plan announced last week and the swearing-in of an interim president, speaker of the Assembly Dioncounda Traoré, ECOWAS is switching gears by lifting the embargo and offering to mobilize forces to restore governmental authority in the north. However, and evidently without consulting either the new highest officials of the Republic or the regional interested parties, the junta sent soldiers and policemen to arrest public figures close to deposed President Touré, still in hiding but reportedly safe and sound in the Senegalese embassy. Little damage was reported, as they were released the next day; possibly the junta simply wanted to send a signal to the political class that it expects respect.

The junta has warned that high ranking members of the fallen government might be charged on various counts, thus far unspecified but presumably related to the misappropriations of public funds and the collapse of military resistance in the north due to "treasonable" neglect of the security situation there.

Dr. Diarra, son-in-law to the former dictator General Moussa Traoré (no relation to Dioncounda Traoré), has been known most of his life for his research on the outer frontiers of science. He has been a UNESCO goodwill ambassador with the mission of promoting education and encouraging access to advanced technology. An American citizen (a dual national), he has been head of Microsoft-Africa since 2006, reportedly taking leave of absence last year to found a political party, Union for Development in Mali, and was a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for April 29 of this year, now postponed.

The overthrow in March of President Touré was widely perceived as a blow to Malian democracy, touted by the U.S. as a regional success since it was instituted in the early 1990s by Mr. Touré, who overthrew Moussa Traoré in a 1990 coup. Mr. Touré, popularly known as "President ATT," ran for election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2007. The constitution places a two-term limit on the presidency and Mr. Touré had indicated clearly his intention to retire from public affairs.

The motives and goals of the officers who seized power under the command of Captain Amadou Sanogo last month remain unclear. Initially announcing their determination to repress the northern insurrection, or insurrections, and reconquer the territories north of the Niger river, they did not react to the routing of the reportedly ill-equipped garrisons defending the principal centers and, according to unverified local eyewitness reports, the ensuring pillaging and terrorizing of the local populations.

ECOWAS received support from France and the U.S. in its prompt ruling that the coup would not be tolerated. France expressed willingness to provide logistical assistance to a multilateral force to restore Mali's territorial integrity.

Despite this diplomatic and political support, residents of Bamako have accused France since the beginning of the armed insurrection in January of supporting the rebels of the MNLA, the Azawad national liberation movement from the name of the region that Tuareg tribesmen consider their historic homeland.

It is not entirely clear how nomadic Berbers like the Tuareg should be able to precisely delineate the borders of a historical homeland, but it is not in dispute that the southwestern Sahara and its Sahelian shore, which runs through northern Mali, is inhabited largely by Tuareg tribesmen. It is inhabited as well by Songhai, Peuls, and Arab Moors who have indicated, politically and at times by the organizing of local militia, their opposition to secession during previous Tuareg revolts. These have been recurring occurrences since independence was given to French Soudan, renamed Mali in 1960 for its associations with the pre-colonial Malinke and Songhai empires.

Critics of President Touré accused him when the armed rebellion began in January -- or resumed, given that a truce had been signed in 2009 -- of taking a soft line toward the Tuareg, numbers of whom had served in the ranks of Moammar Gaddafi's army and returned home laden with up-to-date weapons. France is suspected of cutting a deal with them to desert the Libyan strongman's service, in which some had been for years and even decades, while others were recruited to reinforce his side when France's President Nicolas Sarkozy instigated hostilities against his regime in 2011. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, whose day job is mayor of Bordeaux, repeatedly denied this theory, according to which the French and their British and American allies got the upper hand against Gaddafi by promising the Tuareg unhindered passage out of Libya and tacit support for their territorial claims, by pointing to the long history of Tuareg restiveness in Mali (as well as in other parts of the Sahel, notably neighboring Niger) and to France's firm record of support for the principle of inviolability of post-colonial borders.

The United States supports this principle as well, as does, of course, ECOWAS and the African Union and indeed just about every official national and multi-national institution in the official international community otherwise known as the United Nations. However, the same institutions, as well as the IMF, supported the partition of Sudan and the breakaway of Eritrea from Ethiopia, but observers point out that these modifications to the post-colonial border arrangements were duly negotiated by the interested parties, usually with honest brokers overseeing the deal-making -- as occurred in the case of Sudan under the presidency of George W. Bush. Sudan and the young South Sudan are presently engaged in violent hostilities evidently caused by an unresolved dispute over the oil revenues from territory astride both nations, which were supposed to be equitably shared.

The Tuareg revolt is viewed with a mix of revulsion and trepidation by many, if not most, sub-Niger Malians, Bambara-speaking Malinke and related tribal groups. They resent the refusal of the "whites" of the north (the Tuareg are in fact rather dark, and they often are referred to with some contempt as "blue men," but this just goes to show that color, as we Americans well know, is in the head not on the skin, even if, objectively, it often is that too) to fit into their tolerantly diverse society, which is not entirely fair since many do fit, intermarry, serve in the army, run small businesses, etcetera. Indeed, the no-longer-wildly-popular President ATT is rumored to have Tuareg family connections.

The case certainly can be made that the Berber peoples of the Sahara, including the Tuareg, who are notoriously clannish -- sort of like the Irish, if Mr. Tyrrell will permit me to say so -- do not "fit" well with the sub-Saharans. This is evident not only in Mali but in Mauritania, for example. But Mauritania, no less than Mali itself, also disproves the rule, or racial cliché. Since the consolidation of constitutional rule following a series of coups (which to some degree could be called a game of violent musical chairs among separate but related Moor tribes), there is a marked amelioration of relations between the peoples north and south of the Senegal River. Another example of the value of strong political underpinnings in the overcoming of sectional and tribal mistrust within a nation are the careers of Willie Morris and Tom Wicker in that Yankee bastion, New York City.

But then, America is exceptional. What is disheartening about the crisis in Mali is that for 20 years it has been a model of constitutionalism in a region noted for arbitrary politics, where security resides in the family and the clan rather than the law. The Tuareg secession was formally proclaimed in the first week of April by a spokesman for the MNLA, but it was immediately contradicted by the Ansar Dine movement, a Tuareg-based Islamist fighting force which, according to reports, controls some of the population centers in the north, possibly more than the MNLA -- no one can say for certain. The Ansar Dine ("defenders of the faith") claim to be interested not in creating a new state but in imposing Sharia throughout Mali. They may or may not be in league with the AQIM irregulars (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Even the most knowledgeable specialists in the region evidently are unable or unwilling at present to sort out who is really who and who has the upper hand in the north of Mali. However, Berber sources familiar with Tuareg politics believe the MNLA is resolutely anti-Islamist and could conceivably serve as a pro-Western "aircraft carrier" in the Sahara if it wins an independent, or even autonomous, space that it can call its own.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the vast area, rumored, but again without demonstrable proof, to be rich in minerals and hydrocarbons, long has been a hideout for highwaymen and kidnap gangs, drug traffickers and gun runners, lawless wild west men who have traded camels for all-wheels and live by a ruthless and pitiless ethos, albeit mitigated by their legendary hospitality and the protection they afford foreigners, though they are not above ransoming them. They eat dates, eschew pork, but -- except for these mysterious Ansar Dine, whose leader is the famous or infamous Iyad Ag Ghaly -- they are not known to be especially fanatical about religion; indeed "tuareg," according to etymologists, comes from a Berber root for "forgotten by God."

You certainly can feel forgotten by man in the depths of the Sahara; but for the moment the Tuareg are quite present in the minds of north Africans. The destabilization of Mali and of the Sahel is in no one's interest except those who stand to profit from it. This is precisely the point made by Ferhat Mehenni, a leader of a large Berber group, the Kabyles, concentrated in the mountainous region south and east of Algiers. "The states born of de-colonization," he asserts, "are inherently unstable and prone to tyrannical regimes because they are, for vast numbers of people -- particularly the Berbers -- confined in their borders, forced to relive the colonial experience."

While surely there are Berbers in Algeria and Morocco and the other Maghreb countries who would scoff at such a condemnation of the states to which they vow allegiance, Ferhat Mehenni believes de-colonization is far from over; indeed it is just beginning. The government-in-exile of Kabylie, of which he is the president, and its political arm, the Kabyle Autonomy Movement, promptly expressed support for Azawadi independence and petitioned the U.N. Security Council, as well as the White House and the Elysée Palace, to desist from condemning the MNLA's declaration at least until careful review of the situation in northern Mali and, somewhat wistfully, the organization of a referendum that would measure the resident population's preferences.

There are now as many as 200,000 northern Malians taking refuge in Niger, rising numbers aggravating a strained situation brought on by drought, food shortages, and the return of expatriates from Libya, from which they were expelled by the fanatical (and anti-Semitic and racist) Islamists who are now in power thanks to American and French and British arms. There are refugees also in Mauritania, and southern Mali. So the idea of a referendum may be a bit fanciful. The Malians have their own postponed election to worry about, not to mention the small matter of what to do about Captain Sanogo and his men, who are still calling the shots (and making arrests) despite their pledge to ECOWAS to disband their Committee for Democracy and Reform and return to their barracks.

France's presidential candidates are staying mum, one might almost say studiously, about the whole Malian affair, with little more than expressions of support for the restoration of constitutional rule by high officials such as Alain Juppé and mumbled "I support peace and love" type statements from the candidates. The neo-Gaullist candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aigan offered qualified support to the Azawari in a letter addressed to the Kabyle leader. "I believe in the right of self-determination of [all] peoples [note the plural]," he wrote recently to Mr. Mehenni, "while respecting national sovereignty and opposing interference in the affairs of other countries."

Deliberately or unwittingly, M. Dupont-Aignan, whose party, Debout la République ("Arise Ye Republican Heroes"), a splinter from President Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire ("Unite Ye Majoritarian Plebeians!"), is not given even long odds to get past the first round of voting this weekend, put his finger right on the soft underbelly of the whole self-determination conundrum, reminding us once again of the ambiguities of Woodrow Wilson's international vision, principled, abstract, usually impractical, and thoroughly pernicious if we cannot see it through, which all recent history demonstrates we cannot. Another great American segregationist, John C. Calhoun, was similarly principled and philosophically abstract, though unlike Wilson he was possessed of an iron sense (however mistaken one might in hindsight judge it to have been) of what was practical and crucial for his homeland, South Carolina.

In modern states, is not national sovereignty always in conflict with self-determination? Ferhat Mehenni believes this question will preoccupy the 21st century as much as the question of the color line, as W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1898, preoccupied the 20th. Perhaps.

For it becomes a matter of public concern only when a major crisis is under way -- the breakup of the Soviet Union or the Yugoslav Federation, to take two examples. Mali scarcely makes the cut in our sense of important crises. The avoidance of Mali could be an illustration of the ordinary selfishness of politicians during electoral seasons, or it could reflect embarrassment about their belated recognition of the Libyan affair's unintended -- if such they were -- consequences. Just as likely, it is that they really do not know what to make of it: Africa is far from France, and it scarcely figures in discussions of public affairs. This should not be difficult for Americans to comprehend -- how many public figures talk soberly of the potentially enormous catastrophe on our southern border? How many even know it is there?

State Department and DoD officials have been discreet about the Mali situation, well aware of the risks of adding strain to the beleaguered nation. Mali has been an important element in our Sahelian, and indeed our entire sub-Saharan policy, whose principal aims are the prevention of infiltration by the Qaedists and their epigones like Ansar Dine, the implementation of successful multinational counter-terrorism policies, the advancement of liberal democracy, and the promotion of free trade and free markets. It is not at all clear whether these priorities are themselves subject to any sort of hierarchical order, or even if anyone has demonstrated their inter-connections. However, a State Department official noted recently that without democracy, nothing else is possible and therefore the restoration of democratic, constitutional government takes precedence over any plans, if any exist, to help Mali regain its lost northern territories. Mali's new prime minister has his work cut out for him -- and not the least of his tasks will be explaining each of his countries to the other.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.