They are reported to have surrounded the historical city of Timbuktu, and wo important northern towns, Kidal and Gao, fell to them and their Islamist allies in the last two weeks.
Ironically, the military junta now led by Capt Amadou Sanogo, overthrew Toure in the main because, they said, he had failed to deal firmly with the Tuaregs. With reports that the Mali army has been fleeing following encounters with the Tuaregs, Capt Sanogo has been reduced to issuing empty threats.
Gaddafi had recruited nearly 10,000 Tuaregs, and tried to turn them into a highly trained and heavily armed mercenary units in his army, in part because he was fearful of his own people. Gaddafi’s fears turned out to be true – though his faith in the Tuaregs was misplaced. With Gaddafi losing ground and NATO bombing his troops and heavy weapons, the Tuaregs cut their losses and high tailed it back home. They have put their training, experience, and arms from Libya to good use.
Yet, with or without Gaddafi, the Tuaregs would eventually have taken their fight to Bamako. The only question being when.
According to a Wikipedia report, the “Tuareg Rebellion began in 1990 when Tuareg separatists attacked government buildings around Gao. The armed forces’ reprisals led to a full-blown rebellion in which the absence of opportunities for Tuareg in the army was a major complaint.
“The conflict died down after Alpha Konaré formed a new government and made reparations in 1992. Also, Mali created a new self-governing region, the Kidal Region, and provided for greater Tuareg integration into Malian society. In 1994, Tuareg, reputed to have been trained and armed by Libya, attacked Gao, which again led to major Malian Army reprisals and to the creation of the Ghanda Koi Songhai militia to combat the Tuareg. Mali effectively fell into civil war.”
It is a common story in Africa, where nearly every country from South Africa, through to Zimbabwe, Sudan, on to Libya, has a region or ethnic community with a secessionist or breakaway agenda or inclination. In one of Africa’s most peaceful countries, Zambia, the Barotseland royal household in the western part of the country has demanded independence. In Kenya, which has been spared Africa’s military coups, the Mombasa Republican Council, which seeks independence for the coastal strip, has been quite active.
In Tanzania, Zanzibari independence activists remain undeterred. In Zimbabwe, secessionist fires continue to smolder in Matebeland despite the brutal put-down of the rebellion there by Robert Mugabe’s government in the 1980s. That crackdown resulted in the ”Matebeleland massacres”, in which the notorious North-Korean-trained Fifth Brigade executed over 20,000 civilians (you don’t mess with ‘Uncle Bob’).
And, of course, in July 2011 Africa’s 54th state, the first to be born out of a secession war and vote, came upon us in the form of South Sudan. And it is not over. My sense is that within the next five to ten years, unless Khartoum changes its ways, Sudan could break up into at least two more independent countries (Darfur, South Kordofan).
This break up is not necessarily a bad thing, although few see it that way. The current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, was quoted by the BBC saying, in response to the added problem of the Tuareged advance, that Mali’s territorial integrity must be preserved “at all costs”.
“We must succeed because if Mali is divided, carved up, it is a bad example,” he added.
Not necessarily. Secessionist movements in Africa are coming from three main sources. First, minorities (and or regions) that feel marginalised and, often, oppressed, as in Kenya or the Banyamulenge (Tutsi) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Secondly, from majorities that feel misunderstood and under siege by the rest of the country, like the Baganda in Uganda. Thirdly, from regions that feel that the rest of the country has conspired to deny them of the wealth on their lands (the Niger Delta in Nigeria).
These grievances have often been settled by war (Nigeria, Ethiopia, Angola), or smarter governments have moved early to give regions a measure of autonomy (South Africa) before the rage blows up, or after (Kenya, Ethiopia).
Unfortunately, regional and ethnic anger has not died down in the African countries where this has been done, because of something else, which is what should really worry us – the failure of second round of democracy in Africa.
The continent has gone through these cycles of anger and despair that set off a political wave, before.
Colonial injustices led to anti-colonial movements, that resulted in independence in the late 1950s and through the 1960s.
Frustration at the failure of post-independence governments to establish free, prosperous and fair societies, and the rise of the one-party dictatorships that were rolled out to push back against rising disaffection, led to support for military coups in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s.
Disastrous military dictatorship, and the people’s realisation that they could not eat ideology (here the signal event was the end of the Cold War) led to economic reforms and market liberalisations from the mid-1980s that continue in some form or the other today. While economic liberalisation was nearly universal in Africa, political liberalisation wasn’t. While all governments held elections, the opposition was not allowed or free enough to contest freely with a chance at defeating the ruling party and incumbent. Still, we had elections alright.
But whether we had military parties or rebel groups and had their leaders becoming “civilianized” democrats, half-democrats, or remaining autocrats (like Eduardo dos Santos in Angola), the lives of most Africans improved only marginally, if at all. Or where they did improve – South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Tunisia, name it – it did so mostly for a few who became fabulously wealthy while the majority missed out on the fruits of economic growth.
So many Africans, I sense, now hate: (a) Post-independence one-party dictatorships (b) Military rule (c) Mixed democratic-authoritarian Big Man rule (d) Regionalism and devolution as in Ethiopia (e) Liberal democracy (or at least the African version). You know you have reached this point when the disillusionment with the Opposition is as high as, if not higher, than with the government.
Secession, or separateness, is the only one that has not been tried. This secession, though, is different in the sense that unlike South Sudan where over 50 groups came together to oppose tyranny by an Arab North, people are seeking to govern themselves in more exclusive one or few-ethnic group units.
I have argued elsewhere that this is not necessarily a disastrous development (http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/OpEdColumnists/CharlesOnyangoObbo/-/878504/1374698/-/ibm632/-/index.html). In the end, after we have tried everything, Africans will finally be forced to have conversations with each other that they have never had.
Yes, we might pull apart in highly fractured regional units. We might have district and regional police forces, and a totally different army command structure as we reject the present corrupt and repressive ones. Or we might descend into years of Somalia-type chaos that results in autonomous Puntlands and Somalilands.
If we succeed, great, we shall be happy. If we fail to make our little units work, as I think we will, we shall be forced to come together in “united” or federal republics again. However, the powers and structures of these new units will be highly negotiated, with the rights of the states and individuals protected, and stringent rules for dividing the national cake fairly written into the new constitution (notice the “equalisation” clause in the new Kenya constitution). I think this will be a very good outcome , and worth the pain.
One interesting question is why it took some of the troubled countries nearly 50 years to get to this point.
My sense is that what Argentinian football great Diego Maradona might call the “hand of God”, combined with the mysterious forces of history and, ironically, the greed and stupidity of African leaders, to save the continent.
(We examine that paradox in “Disease, The Clock, The Gods, Greed And Stupidity Have Helped To Change Africa As Much As Democrats, and Generals” tomorrow, April 2, 2012).
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