On the map of West Africa, Azawad is a large irregular triangle set among Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali — the country it belonged to for fifty-two years. It is approximately 650,000 square kilometers — the size of Texas — and has fewer than 2 million inhabitants. Azawad declared its independence on April 6, after a quick war wherein the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) forces — equipped with weaponry looted from Libya — routed the Malian government forces.
Azawad is certainly entitled to be a free nation. It is an almost homogenous Muslim and Berber-speaking society, an offshoot of the larger Touareg confederacy that controlled most of the Sahara and its commercial trade routes for centuries, if not millenia. In the early 1900s, the French amalgamated it for administrative purposes with Sudan, a black-populated colony on the Niger River, but did not interfere much with its distinctive way of life (Touareg nomads are known to dress in blue and wear a veil, whereas Touareg women are veil-free). Things changed in 1960 when French Sudan was granted independence as the Republic of Mali. Azawad insisted on a separate state. They rebelled against Mali in 1963, only to be crushed mercilessly by Malian forces. They rebelled again in 1990 a bit more successfully, and then again in 2006 and 2010.
Now, can Azawad endure as a state?
In military terms, the MNLA’s present superiority can be easily reversed. The stockpile of weapons from Libya will not last forever. The Malian forces may be reorganized and get new armaments. Foreign countries may send troops or advisors to help suppress the secession.
In terms of international law, Azawad is hardly better off: the very foundation of African regional order is the immutability of the former colonial entities and borders, however arbitrary or absurd they may be. Still, many of the post-colonial states have been collapsing or disintegrating in recent years, Libya being just the latest case. In one instance — South Sudan in 2011 — a rebel nation succeeded in securing its independence with the full backing of the international community.
Evidently, Azawad would like to make use of that precedent. The new country insists in its declaration of independence that it recognizes all existing borders and countries, including Mali proper, which would be left with an 800,000 square kilometer area and some 13 million inhabitants. It also insists that it adheres to the UN charter and principles.
Is MNLA as in control of Azawad as it claims to be? Two other rebel organizations operate in the area. Whereas MNLA resorts to a purely secular brand of Berber and Touareg nationalism, Ansar Dine (The Fighters for Religion) combines Touareg insurgency with radical Islam. The second group, AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), is clearly linked to the global jihadist networks.
MNLA has taken a conciliatory attitude towards Ansar Dine, which is based on the powerful Ifora tribe in southern Azawad, and whose leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, played an important role in the 1990 uprising. The two groups actually coordinated their moves and tactics in the conquest of Gao and Timbuktu on April 1. Yet the differences between them are startling. They don’t hoist the same flag: the MNLA banner is green, red, and black with a yellow triangle; Ansar Dine’s is plain black with Quranic verses in white. MNLA leaders and officials speak Berber and French; Ansar Dine speaks Arabic. MNLA is drawing up a Western-style secular democratic constitution; Ansar Dine advocates for Sharia rule.
For the time being, MNLA is focused on defeating AQIM, which it characterizes as an interloping non-Touareg element and an Algerian proxy. The MNLA leadership vows to crush it as soon as possible, if not within days.
Ever since the 1960s, the Arab states in North Africa have attempted to seize chunks of the Sahara Desert and its mineral resources: oil, natural gas, uranium, gold, bauxite, phosphates. Morocco tried to annex Mauritania, and then occupied the former Spanish colony of Rio de Oro (known now as Western Sahara). Gaddafi’s Libya was constantly interfering in Mali, Niger, and Chad. Algeria, already in control of the northern half of the area thanks to colonial France, has steadily claimed control over the southern half countries either by countering Morocco in Western Sahara or by undermining the existing governments in other places.
For a time, Algeria contended its primary concern was to fight radical Islam and to eradicate drug trafficking. As of today, the Algerian secret services seem to be aligned with both.
The core of AQIM consists of former Algerian jihadists pardoned by the Algerian government on the condition that they propagate radical Islam and terrorism in foreign countries. They were reinforced later by volunteers or mercenaries from Arab countries and sub-Saharan African countries (like Burkina Faso or Nigeria).
Clearly, AQIM’s strategy is to entice Ansar Dine to turn against MNLA. For Algeria, the creation of a fully independent Berber state on its southern border is a major threat, not just against its imperial designs on Sahara but against its very existence as an Arab-Islamic nation. Half of the Algerian population is Berber-speaking. One province, Kabylia, is entirely Berber and has started the process of secession. A Kabylia provisional government in exile was even formed last year. A domino effect may lead to the consolidation of Azawad.
On the other hand, the nastier Algeria gets with MNLA, the closer MNLA gets to the Kabyles. Azawad owes at least part of its secular and law-oriented agenda to them. And it agreed to take part last month in a pan-Berber conference in Morocco hosted by Kabyle leaders.
The French may grant some measure of help to MNLA in order to protect its sub-Saharan former colonies against Algeria. But only American support can guarantee Azawad’s independence and ensure that MNLA will get rid of its jihadist competitors.