People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 10, 2012


Libyan Regime Change Destabilises Mali, Threatens Others


Yohannan Chemarapally


THERE were never any shortages of guns in the sparsely populated regions of North Africa and the Sahel. Successive wars and internal conflicts ensured that there was a surfeit of lethal weaponry. Now after the NATO intervention in Libya, the region is awash with even more lethal weaponry. The immediate impact has been felt on neighbouring Mali. Rebel fighters, many of them having recently seen action in Libya, fighting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), have swept across the northern parts of the country, capturing the major historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao. The third major city in the region, Kidal, also fell to the rebel forces.  They have declared the creation of an independent country---“The Republic of Azawad,” comprising the arid northern half of the country.




The dramatic turn of events was also facilitated by a ham-handed military coup in Mali as the country was preparing to elect a new president. The military coup on March 22 had come 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, led by a Captain named Amadou Sanogo, and who were behind the coup, blamed the civilian government for not adequately arming the military as it faced the well trained and well armed Tuaregs in the North. With political chaos reigning in Bamako, the Malian capital, the rebels in the North launched a frontal offensive which has resulted in the de facto division of the country into two halves. 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.


Observers of the region predict that other countries in the region, like Burkina Faso and Niger, could be soon affected by the spill-over of arms and fighters from Libya. Niger had faced a bloody Tuareg rebellion, led by the Nigerien Movement for Justice (NMJ), which ended in 2009. The NMJ has strong links with their Tuareg compatriots currently fighting in Mali. Northern Nigeria has been witnessing unabated attacks by the fringe Islamist group “Boko Haram.” This has resulted in hundreds of casualties. If the group gains access to sophisticated weaponry through the porous borders, then the situation could become even more difficult for the federal government. In February, the Nigerian army intercepted 600 kilograms of Semtex explosives originating from Libya.


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


Gaddafi had many reasons to get involved in the affairs of his immediate neighbours like Mali and Chad from the outset. With Chad there was a border dispute involving the Auzou Strip. In Mali, the Tuaregs, a distinct ethnic group, had felt marginalised since independence. Gaddafi always had a soft corner for their aspirations for statehood. Initially, Gaddafi was also initially a supporter of the Sahrawis fighting to free their country from Moroccan occupation. It should not be forgotten that Gaddafi was also the biggest financier of the African National Congress (ANC).




The Tuaregs, who till recent times led a nomadic life style, can be found settled in sizeable numbers in Mali and Niger. The Tuareg menfolk wear a distinctive indigo blue turban which also covers most of their face. The 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. The Tuaregs have felt historically discriminated. The French colonialists had forced them to sign unequal treaties forcing them to cede lands that were under their control for centuries. The Tuaregs used to profit from the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves for centuries before the coming of the colonial powers.


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


In Gaddafi the minority Tuaregs found an ally as well as a mentor. Libya had thrown its doors open to the Tuaregs. For that matter, people from sub-Saharan Africa were all welcome to Libya as Gaddafi pursued his grandiose dream for a united Africa. Gaddafi had formed a special fighting force --- “the Islamic Legion” --- comprising fighters from different African countries. Many of the fighters were Tuareg. Gaddafi’s enemies and the western media chose to categorise them as “mercenaries.” Many of the foreign fighters stood with Gaddafi till the bitter end and left Libya only when Gaddafi’s last stronghold of Sirte fell. The Tuaregs had helped some of the Libyan leader’s family members and associates to escape into the neighbouring countries. Many of the Tuaregs also fought along side the rebel militias armed by NATO and Gulf countries.


Unwanted and hunted in post-Gaddafi Libya, the Tuaregs, along with 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, led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. The Tuareg leader had fled to Libya and had returned with his heavily armed fighters after the fall of Gaddafi.  




And now it is this group which is claiming credit for the liberation of northern Mali. Other groups like the 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. The 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. The group claims that its demand is only for the introduction of Sharia law in the whole of Mali. The MNLA has now denounced the call for the introduction of Sharia law and vowed to set up a secular state.


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


The deteriorating military situation in the North, coupled with the ultimatum given by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to the putschists to restore democracy, made the coup leaders come to their senses. Mali is a member of the grouping. In early April, they returned back to the barracks. The speaker of the Malian parliament, Dioncounda Traore, took over as interim president and promised to go ahead with elections within 40-45 days, as per the agreement signed between the military leaders and ECOWAS. Traore, after taking over, also issued a warning to the Tuareg rebels to withdraw from the towns they have seized or face “total war.”


The ECOWAS may have to send in its troops to yet another of its member states. In early April, there was another military coup in a 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 the northern rebels.




The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has said that his country would provide logistical support to an ECOWAS force in Mali. The former 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 US 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. The Algerian prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, said that past and recent experiences have shown that such interventions backfire badly, “now or six months later.” He was of course alluding to the West’s intervention in Libya. According to the UN, 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, Gaddafi had purchased huge amounts of weaponry from the western powers. Gaddafi, fighting with his back against the wall, 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 had said that his fight was against the Al Qaeda. “We are fighting against Al Qaeda. Our war is against the Qaeda,” he had kept on insisting. Weapons stolen from the Libyan arsenal have been intercepted in distant Gaza.


Islamists of all hues have gained from the NATO invasion of Libya. Within Libya itself, Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jihadist, is the military governor of Tripoli. He has been however unsuccessful so far in bringing the various militias jostling for control of the capital city to heel. 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.” Regime change in Libya has opened a can of worms. Ethnic strife seems to be spreading like bushfire in the Sahel and could threaten the region beyond.