Mali (IB Times UK)

Another Bastille Day (14 July) over and this year's pride of place in the military march past went to detachments of the French, Malian and other West African Army forces which had saved Mali from imploding and falling into the hands of Islamic extremists in January 2013. Troops from 13 African nations that had supported France's Opération Serval in Mali, participated in the parade. The United Nations soldiers in their blue berets were led by Mali's Colonel Elisée Jean Dao. The country's Interim President, Dioncounda Traoré, standing beside France's President François Hollande, was among the dignitaries present to take the salute.

With some two-thirds of Mali's landmass already under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and its allies Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by the summer of 2012, France's intervention on 11 January 2013 happened in the nick of time.

With the support of many of its NATO allies and the United Arab Emirates, France sent the first of 4,000 troops to thwart a well-coordinated, two-pronged attack by the Islamists aimed at strategic river crossings of the Niger. Important targets for jihadists were the city and port of Mopti and nearby Sévaré with its vital public/military airport. Had these objectives been taken, it is almost certain the capital, Bamako, would have fallen shortly afterwards.

France's action had, in principle, already received the approval of the United Nations in December 2012 but the suddenness of the Islamists' drive to the Niger and the more populated parts of Mali precipitated President Hollande's decision to act much sooner than originally thought necessary.

Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, had in truth become a failed state. Another Tuareg revolt between January and April 2012, exposed the ineffectiveness of the central authorities and by the time the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) called off their offensive on 05 April 2012, some two-thirds of the country was under their control.

The majority of these Tuareg forces had formerly been integrated into the Libyan Army prior to the fall of Colonel Qaddafi and were bolstered by a number of Tuaregs defecting from the Malian Army. A Malian Army, now depleted and poorly led, fed and equipped, was simply no match against them.

Secular and nationalist, the MNLA on 06 April 2012 set up a council claiming to represent the "Tuaregs and other Saharan peoples" - Songhai, Fula, Peul and Moor - and declared the independence of "Azawad" centred on their power base of Kidal Region and where they make up the great majority of the people. They also claimed much of Timbuktu and Gao Regions, where they are not in a majority.

Tuareg forces however, included three Islamist groups in its ranks. MUJAO, Ansar Dine and AQIM sought to impose an extreme version of Sharia law throughout Mali, a country noted for its tolerance and moderation, and later use the country as a springboard to spread their fanaticism to neighbouring states and beyond.

The three turned on the MNLA, defeating their one-time ally on 26-27 June 2012 after the Battle of Gao, the city of 86,000 that the MNLA had named as their capital. All counterattacks by the MNLA failed.

Really the MNLA should have been more astute to their situation as observers had noted that the MNLA appeared to do most of the fighting, only to allow one or more of the militant groups to later impose their rigid strictures on the local populace. The three were also closely linked. Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of Ansar Dine, is the cousin of Hamada Ag Hama, head of AQIM. The former "military chief" of Ansar Dine, 48 year-old Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Tuareg from Timbuktu who embraced Salafist teachings in the 1990s, is currently the head of MUJAO.

Territory under the control of the militants suffered the harshest interpretation of Sharia law. Oumar Ould Hamaha, told Adam Nossiter of the New York Times on 18 July 2012:

"Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions. We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam".

Hamaha continued that he would condemn many of their Malian soldier prisoners to have their throats cut. This led to protests by relatives of the victims against the Malian Government and its overthrow by soldiers and junior officers.

Mr Nossiter also reported that a couple were stoned to death by order of the same leader for allegedly having children out of wedlock. Three hundred people of the rural commune were forced to witness the execution. The man took 15 minutes to die.

Maybe it was Mr Hamaha's boast later in the year that caught the attention of President Hollande, warning him of a possible rogue state emerging so close to Europe. Through Agence France-Presse (AFP) in December 2012, the terrorist made very clear the intention " to attack (the West)" and if for any reason this could not be achieved during his lifetime "...our sons and the next generation will attack the West". Another leader added that such attacks, particularly against the USA, "will be worse than those of (the) Iraqi or Afghani mujahidin".

It is wrong however to think that these jihadists represent the Tuaregs, the vast majority of whom find the actions of these extremists totally repulsive. A local official who witnessed the couple's execution told Mr Nossiter: "It was horrible. It was inhuman...The people protested that no law could possibly prescribe such a thing....On the slightest pretext, they execute people".

Iyad Ag Ghaly (Ansar Dine), a nobleman of the Ifogha clan, led a rebellion between 1990 and 1995 but discovered his jihadist ways only in recent years , apparently after his leadership ambitions had been rejected by his peers. His actions were condemned by a Tuareg council of notables in late March 2012. Time correspondent Julian Cavendish reported that he was branded a "criminal" whose efforts "to establish a theocratic regime...were anathema to the foundations of our culture and civilization".

The Tuaregs are not good examples of Islamic orthodoxy. Found principally in Niger, Mali and south-eastern Algeria, they are a Berber people with their own strong cultural identity and feel no great urge to change their language from Tamajaq.

Historically, they emigrated southwards from the Tafilalt area of Morocco under their legendary Queen Tin Hinan, about 1,600 years ago and are divided into clans (Drum groups) that by tradition have a matrilineal social structure which includes nobles, vassals and artisans, farmers (of oases) and a slave caste. Slavery was abolished by the French but this was never properly enforced. It was finally made illegal in Mali in 1960 and in Niger, 2003.

Women in Tuareg society have high status and do not wear the veil. It is worn by men and is a symbol of attaining manhood, whilst singing and dance are also important aspects of their culture.

Unfortunately for the Tuaregs, when French West Africa/French Soudan was being granted independence and divided by the artificial boundaries of the current modern states, no separate homeland was allotted to them - must have fought the French Foreign Legion and Beau Geste, too hard and for too long! In Mali they are outnumbered 10:1 by "black" Africans, the majority from the Mandé/Malinka (Mandingo) tribes.

Apart from the distinct racial, language and cultural differences which divide the Tuaregs from the peoples of the south, severe droughts over several decades have exacerbated tensions over pasture and water rights. Add to this a long-held belief that the Government in Bamako ignores and marginalises them and even in good times or when international aid is distributed they see none of the benefits, and their current position in seeking more autonomy within but not independence from Mali, can be seen as a big concession.

On the arrival of French forces in Mali in January 2013, the MNLA immediately vouched their commitment to fight alongside them "in order to end terrorism in the Azawad". They would even help the Malian Government and claimed that they would be of much better use than the troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) accompanying the French because of their local knowledge of the land and its peoples.

More surprising was the split within Ansar Dine when two of its prominent leaders, Algabass Ag Intallah and Mohamed Ag Arib on 24 January, said that they wanted nothing to do with AQIM and were "seeking an inclusive political dialogue to bring its conflict with Bamako to an end".

Will then the Presidential Elections go ahead next week on 28 July? Despite the withdrawal on 17 July of Tiébélé Dramé from the Presidential race, citing voting registry problems in the north and stating that "...conditions for a fair vote are not in place", there is considerable pressure on Bamako to proceed on schedule.

The French were no sooner in the country than they were announcing their early intended departure. This was originally hoped to begin by the end of March 2013 but later postponed so that they are eager for a speedy, doesn't have to be perfect, election in order to hasten the withdrawal of most of their 4,000 troops. President Hollande therefore, will be most encouraged by the leaders of ECOWAS telling Agence France-Presse on 18 July that they saw no impediments to the election going ahead as scheduled.

On schedule or postponed a little? No matter, the winner faces a most daunting task of pulling the impoverished and divided country together. That must include recognition of the Tuaregs' grievances and possibly giving them a degree of autonomy. Otherwise, all too soon history is likely to be repeated.