1st April 2012. Remember the date. The Malian Tuareg will – it may well be the most important date in their history.
Today the MNLA swept into the strategic centre of Gao, the cultural centre of Kidal and the symbolic centre of Timbuktu. In so doing they have taken their people from forgotten and silenced only six months ago to the verge of their dream of an independent Azawad today.
The scale of this achievement should not be underestimated.
Four months ago I was in Timbuktu on a trip. My Tuareg driver from Aguelhoc came to join me. En route his transport was attacked by foreign islamist bandits (AQMI). All the occupants were robbed of all they had. The Tuareg were not even safe in their own land.
They were economically isolated by the security threat to tourists from Al Qaeda, they had no friends and no supporters, their one ally protecting their rear was Gaddafi, and he was now dead. And with the Malian and Algerian authorities using AQMI as a foil to control the lucrative drugs trade going through Tuareg lands, and the US and France happy to oblige if it meant they could rail against Al Qaeda, the forces lined up against them looked ominous.
Today they announced to the world with sophisticated aplomb – “you will listen to us now!”
Mali will have to listen; Algeria and Niger will have to listen for fear of their Tuaregs getting ideas; ECOWAS and the African Union will have to listen – the Tuareg have a claim of independence at least as strong as the southern Sudanese; the US and France will have to listen as they have important interests in Tuareg lands. And the greatest impact on Tuareg life will be that AQMI will have to listen.
Not since independence, not since perhaps the arrival of the French have the Malian Tuareg been in such a strong position, politically.
Can they hold it? Can they capitalize on their military gains through negotiation at the independence high table? This will depend on the character of the MNLA.
To date they have shown sophistication and good strategic planning. In a little over two months they have taken control of an area the Tuareg have claimed as their own for 60 years. In taking Timbuktu they have gone further than they ever been before. They have shown confidence, determination and have grasped their moment in history. That moment was ironically handed to them in the NATO toppling of their one ally, Gaddafi.
The MNLA rebellion has followed the normal Tuareg tactics of only attacking military positions, never civilians or tourists. And they have gone from being a fringe independence movement within the Tuareg community to giving even their most ardent doubters the chance to dream. Tuareg who were even 2 months ago pro a unified Mali are now looking to the MNLA for their destiny.
It will now be interesting to see how much the spurious links with Al Qaeda are pushed. Since the beginning of the rebellion the Malian government tried to use this card. Since the coup the US has taken any opportunity to talk of the rebellion as a reason to link it with Al Qaeda and the war on terror. The MNLA have denied these links. Tthere is no benefit to them to be linked to Al Qaeda. There is no Islamism within Tuareg society – I have never heard an islamist stance coming from anyone. The Al Qaeda presence is foreign and has caused most of their problems. But the main reason the link is doubtful is that they don’t need them. AQIM are a lightly armed bunch of between 150 and 300 Algerian Salafists who have contacts with a few bandits and get them to kidnap people. The MNLA have 4000 armed vehicles outside Timbuktu alone. What benefit could AQIM give the MNLA?
In the south Captain Amadou Sanogo has promised to restore the constitution. ECOWAS are poised to come in, hopefully to pave the way for bi-lateral negotiations between north and south. This now has to take precedence over any ideas of elections.
Blimey! Slow down Mali – I’m struggling to keep up.