Libyan blowback

Published : May 18, 2012 00:00 IST

Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad standing beside an armed pick-up painted with the Azawad flag at a checkpoint near the airport in Timbuktu, Mali, on April 11.-AP

Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad standing beside an armed pick-up painted with the Azawad flag at a checkpoint near the airport in Timbuktu, Mali, on April 11.-AP

The regime change in Libya has triggered ethnic strife that seems to be spreading in the Sahel and threatening the region beyond.

SUCCESSIVE wars and internal conflicts ensured that there was never any shortage of guns in the sparsely populated regions of North Africa and the Sahel. Now, after the Western intervention in Libya, the region is awash with even more lethal weaponry. Its immediate impact has been felt in Mali, where rebel fighters, many of whom recently saw action in Libya, have swept across the northern parts of the country under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and captured the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao. The third major city in the region, Kidal, also fell to the rebel forces. The rebels have declared the creation of The Republic of Azawad, which comprises the arid north of the country.

The dramatic turn of events was facilitated by a ham-handed military coup in Mali on March 22 as the country was preparing to elect a new President. Mali was advertised in the West as a good example of multiparty democracy. President Amadou Toure was serving out his last months in office. He was constitutionally barred from seeking another term.

The coup occurred after the Malian army had suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the Tuareg militias in the north of the country. The army officers behind the coup, led by a captain named Amadou Sanogo, blamed the civilian government for not adequately arming the military as it faced the well-trained and well-armed Tuaregs. As political chaos reigned in Bamako, the capital, the rebels in the north launched a frontal offensive, which resulted in the de facto division of the country into two.

Tuaregs, a distinct ethnic group who until recent times led a nomadic life, have settled in sizable numbers in Mali and Niger. Tuareg menfolk wear a distinctive indigo blue turban that covers most of the face. Tuareg women traditionally remain unveiled. Small groups of Tuaregs live in Libya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria. In all, they number around two million. In Mali and Niger, political power is in the hands of the black majority. Tuaregs have historically felt discriminated against. French colonialists had forced them to sign unequal treaties that made them cede lands that had been under their control for centuries. Tuaregs used to profit from the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves for centuries before the coming of the colonial powers. They have felt marginalised since independence.

In Mali, a country of around 15 million people, power has been in the hands of the majority Mandingo ethnic group in the more populated south of the country. Mali, prone to drought and creeping desertification, is ranked among the 25 poorest countries in the world. Transparency International ranked the country 118 out of 182 in its Corruption Perceptions Index. The last thing the country can afford is a prolonged civil war. Tuaregs have been intermittently revolting since 1963. There were revolts in 1990 and 2000. The last revolt was in 2009.

Observer predict that other countries in the region, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, could soon be affected by the spillover of arms and fighters from Libya. Niger faced a bloody Tuareg rebellion, led by the Nigerien Movement for Justice (NMJ), which ended in 2009. The NMJ has strong links with the Tuaregs currently fighting in Mali.

Northern Nigeria has been witnessing unabated attacks by the fringe Islamist group Boko Haram, which have resulted in hundreds of casualties. If the group gains access to sophisticated weaponry through the porous borders, then the situation could worsen for the federal government. In February, the Nigerian army intercepted 600 kilograms of Semtex, an explosive, on its way into the country from Libya. Weapons stolen from the Libyan arsenal have been intercepted as far away as Gaza.

Libya under Muammar Qaddafi had spent billions of dollars importing sophisticated weaponry since the revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1968. The Libyan government was liberal in its policy of helping liberation movements and groups fighting to topple pro-Western governments in Africa during the Cold War. In fact, Qaddafi's largesse extended beyond the continent. Among the groups fighting for independence that he supported in Europe was the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In Asia, the Moro Liberation Front in the Philippines was one of the beneficiaries.

Qaddafi had many reasons to get involved from the outset in the affairs of his immediate neighbours such as Mali and Chad. With Chad there was a border dispute involving the Aouzou strip. Initially, Qaddafi was a supporter of the Sahrawis fighting to free their country from Moroccan occupation. It should not be forgotten that Qaddafi was also the biggest financier of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. With regard to Mali, Qaddafi always had a soft corner for the Tuaregs' aspirations for statehood.

In Qaddafi, the minority Tuaregs found an ally and a mentor. Libya had thrown its doors open to them. For that matter, all people from sub-Saharan Africa were welcome in Libya as Qaddafi pursued his grandiose dream of a united Africa. Qaddafi had formed a special fighting force, the Islamic Legion, comprising fighters from different African countries. Many of the fighters were Tuareg. Qaddafi's enemies and the Western media chose to categorise them as mercenaries. Many of the foreign fighters stood with Qaddafi until the bitter end and left Libya only when Sirte, his last stronghold, fell. Tuaregs helped some of the Libyan leader's family members and associates escape into neighbouring countries. Many Tuaregs also fought alongside the rebel militias armed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Gulf countries.

Unwanted and hunted in post-Qaddafi Libya, Tuaregs and the other foreign fighters melted away with the sophisticated weapons they had acquired from the Libyan armoury. Many of the Tuareg fighters were veterans of the failed 2009 rebellion in Mali, which was led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. The Tuareg leader had fled to Libya and had returned with his heavily armed fighters after the fall of Qaddafi. It is this group that is claiming credit for the liberation of northern Mali. Other groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are also trying to claim credit for the military successes against the Malian army. An Islamist rebel faction, Ansar Din (Defenders of the Faith), has proclaimed Sharia law in the north of Mali. This group, which is alleged to have links with Al Qaeda, has at the same time said that it is against the creation of an independent state for Tuaregs. It claims that its demand is only for the introduction of Sharia law in the whole of Mali. The MNLA has denounced the call for the introduction of Sharia law and vowed to set up a secular state.

Tuaregs had started fighting against the government in Bamako soon after the French left the country in the early 1960s. After a relative lull, they rose up against the rule of President Toure in 1990. Mediation by Qaddafi had helped douse the situation in the last couple of years. Toure, a former general, seized power in the mid-1980s and later won elections in a democratic set-up. He told a French newspaper in February that Qaddafi had persuaded the Tuareg fighters in Mali to disarm and reintegrate into Malian society. His overthrow has left a vacuum, Toure said. The former Malian President also revealed that he had warned NATO and others of the collateral effects of the Libyan crisis but that it was of no avail.

The coup leaders came to their senses with the deteriorating military situation in the north and with the ultimatum given to them by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a grouping Mali belongs to, to restore democracy. In early April, they returned to the barracks. The Speaker of the Malian Parliament, Dioncounda Traore, has taken over as interim President and promised to hold elections within 40 days, according to the agreement signed between the military leaders and ECOWAS. After taking over, Traore issued a warning to the Tuareg rebels to withdraw from the towns they had seized or face total war. ECOWAS may have to send in its troops to yet another of its member states. In early April, there was a military coup in another member state, Guinea-Bissau. The Malian army, after the serious military reverses it has suffered, is incapable of militarily tackling the rebels in the north. It will also be difficult for the scheduled elections to be held when half of the country is in the hands of rebels.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that his country would provide logistical support to an ECOWAS force in Mali. French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that it was to prevent a terrorist or Islamic state emerging in northern Mali. ECOWAS officials have confirmed that a military intervention may be on the cards and that France and the United States have offered military assistance to restore the territorial integrity of Mali. Algeria, which shares a border with Mali, while deploring the Tuareg secessionist move, has warned against the dangers of foreign intervention. Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said that past and recent experiences had shown that such interventions backfired badly, now or six months later. He was, of course, alluding to the West's intervention in Libya. According to the United Nations, the fighting between the Malian army and the Tuareg rebels since January this year has already displaced 206,000 people.

During his last years in power, Qaddafi had purchased huge amounts of weaponry from the West. Fighting with his back against the wall, he had warned the West that forcible regime change in Libya would lead to an Afghanistan-like scenario in the region. In one of his last interviews, he said that his fight was against Al Qaeda. We are fighting against Al Qaeda. Our war is against Al Qaeda, he had insisted.

Islamists of all hues have gained from the NATO invasion of Libya. Within Libya itself, Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jehadist, is the military governor of Tripoli, the capital. He has, however, been unsuccessful so far in bringing to heel the various militias jostling for control of the capital. Tripoli, like the rest of the country, is fast spiralling into chaos. In the south of the country, Arab militias are attacking non-Arab ethnic groups, disparaging them as black Africans.

The regime change in Libya has opened a can of worms. Ethnic strife seems to be spreading like bush fire in the Sahel and could threaten the region beyond.

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