In early 2012 a civil war erupted in Mali, resulting in a humanitarian crisis with thousands of refugees fleeing the country to its neighbors Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. In February, the Malian government bombed their own civilians in a refugee camp in the northern Azawad region, killing a four-year-old girl and wounding many other women and children according to Médecins Sans Frontières. Now, there has been a coup and in Mali and an independent state of Azawad was created. What is happening in the region, and what is the international Amazigh community doing in response?
The conflict is between the people of Azawad and the Malian government. The people of Azawad are primarily Kel Tamasheq (also known as “Tuareg”), Imazighen who are indigenous to the Sahara. This conflict must be understood in the context of the historic marginalization of the Kel Tamasheq people. Their land, divided by Europeans between many countries – among them Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali – has been exploited for resources, primarily uranium, and deliberately underdeveloped for decades. There have been three major uprisings in Mali before this one, in 1963, 1990, and 2006, occurring in response to ethnic discrimination, economic exploitation, and the massacres of civilians.
In 2010, a group of Kel Tamasheq students and young scholars created the National Movement for Azawad, declaring their goal of independence on November 1. The group’s actions were effective and inspired a revolution among young Tamasheq. One result of their movement is Toumast Press, a French-language website for news about the situation of Azawad and the Tamasheq. Soon, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) began to seek independence for the Azawad region, starting an armed conflict to accomplish that goal in January 2012.
The MNLA is often accused of having links to Muammer Gaddafi’s former regime in Libya, and it is true that many Kel Tamasheq individuals received military training under Gaddafi, who promised them support. Yet Gaddafi is hated by Imazighen for his discriminatory policies and attempts to destroy the Amazigh people of Libya. As detailed by Andy Morgan, the Kel Tamasheq took advantage of the situation in order to survive, though they have never been fond of Gaddafi and many of them, along with other Imazighen from the Adrar N Infusen (Nafusa Mountains), fought against his regime in the recent Libyan Revolution.
The people of Azawad, represented by the MNLA or not, have been the victims of the Malian government for decades. Mali’s continual attacks on civilian refugee camps are reprehensible and have been condemned by Amnesty International. Malian state policies have marginalized the people of Azawad, supporting terrorism and drug trafficking. In opposition, the MNLA repeatedly states that one of their primary goals is to root out Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as terrorist activity harms the people of Azawad.
Soon after the coup d’etat in Mali, the MNLA liberated Timbuktu and declared the independence of Azawad. What will happen in the coming days? The Malian state is unlikely to give up such a large portion of “their” land, especially with the resources of Azawad that they have continually exploited. But the current conflict is escalating the already unstable food crisis in the Sahel and Mali is currently affected by severe sanctions from ECOWAS. However, for a peace process between the Malian state and the MNLA to be effective, lasting changes must be made in order to ensure that the people of Azawad are provided with the human rights and dignity that they deserve.
In line with the 2012 Bokamoso theme, “Outside Insights,” how does the “outside” contribute in seeking a solution to the conflict in Mali? The Amazigh Diaspora has been active in supporting the people of Azawad, with Amazigh organizations in Europe and North America publishing news and statements in support of the people of Azawad and organizing an International Day of Solidarity with the Tuareg, rallying in Boston and other locations on April 7th. These individuals may not be Malian, but they are Amazigh and these actions of support are a testament of the ability of Imazighen from many African countries, now living in the U.S. or Europe, to come together in solidarity with our Tamasheq sisters and brothers. We share a common goal: we want Azawad and all of Tamazgha to be free, secular, and democratic.