Mali: Northern Mali – the Politics of Ethnicity and Locality

Ethnic politics continue to be significant in events in northern Mali, with militant groups appealing to ethnic fears to gain support.

As Mali and the international community continue to waver between plans for an intervention and pushes for a negotiated political solution between the south and its militant-controlled north, increasing attention has been paid to the diverse actors who may make up an intervention force.

Even as questions abound about a possible Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) intervention force in Mali, Mali’s army continues its halting movement towards reorganisation alongside a group of citizen and sectarian militias with past involvement in northern Mali. These militias, which include new iterations of the Ganda Koy (“Masters of the Land”) and the Ganda Iso (“Sons of the Land”), bring to the fore the possibility of ethnic violence and retribution in any operation to retake northern Mali. Already, observers describe the language employed by some militia members as “quasi-genocidal” toward ‘light-skinned’ populations like Tuareg and Arabs, recalling the bloody violence perpetrated by similar militias during rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Northern Mali is an ethnically diverse, if sparsely populated, area. Accounting for approximately 10% of Mali’s population in an area roughly the size of France, the region encompasses traditionally nomadic and semi-nomadic Tuareg and Arabs, as well as sedentary Songhai, Peul, Bella, and others. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which started Mali’s fourth rebellion since independence in January, vigorously claims to represent all the various populations of the region. However, the group itself is largely Tuareg and evolved from decades of shifts in Tuareg society, the growth since the 1990s of new kinds of Tuareg nationalism, and increasingly untenable attempts by the government of deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré to manage the north by “remote control”.

Appearing local

Yet it is not just the militias aiming to retake the north that have their eye on Mali’s ethnic fault lines. On November 24, the jihadist forum Ansar al-Mujahideen published a statement in Arabic by the ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin in Gao’ following the outbreak of fighting in Gao between the MNLA and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This fighting, which broke out on November 16 near Ansongo and Ménaka, appears to have ended in defeat for the MNLA in the movement’s last major stronghold. While both sides and third parties have given dramatically different tolls from the fighting, witnesses and town notables have indicated that MUJAO forces executed some of those involved in defending the town, including the president of the local cercle, Alwabégat Ag Salakatou.

In the forum statement, the ‘Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin’ – indicating the leadership council for MUJAO, whom Gao inhabitants generally refer to simply as “the mujahidin” – justified their combat against the MNLA, saying in an English translation posted several days later by the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum: “we [are] in our war with the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) this secular movement that doesn’t want the implementation of the Islamic Sharia…the mujahidin fought it because they became like the Tawagit [tyrants]”. It continued: “we call them to resort to the Sharia [law] of Allah but they refuse” and claimed the MNLA was oppressing Muslims “by taking their money unjustly and killing them and their dividing of the Muslims”.

In addition to the theft of property and other alleged crimes, however, the statement adds that for the MNLA: “the black has no right and the white has right, when the messenger of Allah peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said: ‘O’ people, your Lord is one, and your father (Adam) is one, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety’.”

In an interview just a week later with the Mauritanian newspaper al-Akhbar, Ahmed Ould a member of MUJWA’s leadership council and the head of its “Osama bin Laden” katiba used nearly the same language and the same religious reference when discussing the MNLA. The U.S. State Department today labelled Ould Amir, known alternately as Ahmed el-Tilemsi or Ahmed al-Telmasi, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

While racial equality in Islam is a common theme in discourse from across the spectrum of Muslim belief, the language of “white” and “black” has specific resonance in Mali and the broader Sahel, where Tuareg and Arabs are often referred to as “white”. And MUJAO and its allies have previously proven adept at playing to and operating within local racial and ethnic politics.

In a widely-circulated video taken just after the fall of Timbuktu in April, Omar Ould Hamaha – who has alternately been identified as a leader within AQIM, Ansar Dine (led by long-time Tuareg powerbroker and past rebel Iyad Ag Ghali), and MUJAO – told an audience gathered around a truck that, “our combat, it is in the name of Islam, it is not Arab or Tuareg, or black or white”. In Gao and Timbuktu, MUJAO and AQIM have made a determined effort to recruit locally from different ethnic groups and tribes. And a slickly-produced pro-MUJAO video released in June, just a day after fighting broke out in Gao between MUJAO and the MNLA, made a direct appeal to ethnic Songhai symbols.

On the one hand, these efforts allow AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine to portray themselves at least in part as groups with local ties or roots, complicating efforts to define these armed groups as either ‘Malian’ or ‘foreign’. But this kind of language also highlights the fact that the MNLA, despite its claims to the contrary, remains a largely Tuareg movement. This is particularly important in Gao where many Songhai viewed the MNLA as an effort by Tuareg to impose their will on the city, and particularly over Songhai populations.

Beyond ethnicity?

This does not mean that ethnicity is completely determinative for residents of northern Mali, nor that ethnic tension is the primary driver of support for, or opposition to, various armed groups. Many Gao residents had and have very specific grievances against the MNLA, stemming from the group’s goal of an independent state, as well as through accusations of criminality, abuses, and the imposition of taxes and other fees in Gao and elsewhere (though the coalition of Islamist groups occupying the north are also guilty of horrible crimes and abuses).

Indeed, the examples above show MUJAO’s desire to seek support against the MNLA by making use of a variety of salient themes, including both appeals to ethnic fears and references to religious values and other more temporal concerns. Additionally, in a recent video, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel explicitly portrayed his group as protecting Mali from a supposedly foreign-driven plot to divide the country, a clear reference to the MNLA’s rebellion that had less to do with ethnic appeals than nationalism. But the examples offered above illustrate that ethnic politics remain an important factor in northern Mali, one that militant groups take into account and attempt to exploit in their quest to solidify their position in the region. Any intervention or negotiated solution must take this into account.

Andrew Lebovich is a Dakar-based researcher focused on security and political issues in the Sahel and North Africa. He blogs at al-Wasat. Follow him on twitter @tweetsintheME