Suffering and Smiling

Mali’s rebel armies, their shifting alliances and their fans make for quite a spectacle.

A MNLA soldier in Kidal in northern Mali. Image by MINUSMA / Blagoje Grujic, via Flickr CC Licensed.

Strange bedfellows in the Malian Sahara of late. The Tuareg rebel movements that took control of northern Mali last month looked to have struck a deal over the weekend, only to have it come into question since. The supposedly secular, progressive, and multi-ethnic MNLA shook hands with the Ansar Dine, the Salafist movement that has been more or less playing host to sundry terrorists, criminals and hostage-takers like AQMI, MUJAO, or Boko Haram. It’s tough to say just what this deal means, or how long it will last, but it ought to have put some of the MNLA’s foreign fans in a bind.

What’s the deal? Ansar Dine accepted the idea of creating a new Saharan state, what the Tuareg ethno-nationalists known as the MNLA dub “Azawad.” Abandoning the secularism it had long proclaimed, the MNLA agreed that this new state would be an Islamic one governed by sharia—although they did not specify whether by that they mean the broad and deep tradition of Islamic jurisprudence or the reductive, crude vigilantism of the Ansar Dine. This is a true 180. Not so long ago, the MNLA was talking gender equality and hinting at support for Mali’s proposed family code, which Islamists in Bamako had blocked since 2009.

In short, the agreement came as a surprise, at least to me. The two groups have been jockeying for territory since the collapse of the Malian army in April, and the MNLA has proven to be weaker than its rival. Ansar has controlled the towns and tried to establish its own version of law and order. This has meant punishing thieves—including MNLA fighters—and offering some strong-armed protection in the towns and on the highways, which people appreciated, at least early on. But over the last few weeks Ansar fighters have been busy abusing unveiled women and harassing young men watching television or playing soccer. Three weeks ago, they destroyed a saint’s tomb in Timbuktu, an act that the city’s residents as well as the MNLA roundly condemned. All this provoked protests against them, in Timbuktu and Gao, where the Malian flag—and not the MNLA banner—appeared overnight as graffiti. In short, neither group had great popular support, and relations between them seemed to be going from bad to worse. Many observers expected conflict between the two groups to come out into the open, but instead of a break-up, we got a marriage (now we’ll see how long it lasts).

What gives? The MNLA had been swearing up and down that AQMI and its friends were their worst enemies. In terms of the organization’s image abroad, this is surely still true, but things have changed on the ground, and the MNLA looks to be fracturing. A month ago, the chief of the Tuareg Kel Adagh, Intallah Ag Attaher, spoke in favor of the MNLA’s bid for independence, and he told the Ansar and other foreign fighters to get out of his territory. Last weekend, his son appeared in the pages of the New York Times identified as a leader of Ansar Dine. The turn-about is striking, but it can be explained. Ansar Dine is not only more formidable, but also richer than its new supposed ally. Jihad is expensive, but so is cocaine and some of the other things that get smuggled across the desert. So indeed are the lives of European hostages, for which their governments have paid handsome ransoms to AQMI over the years. Ansar Dine and its allies might not be good company, but they are not broke. On the other hand, the MNLA appears to be stronger in French television studios than on the ground, and apparently the movement can’t pay its fighters. Its leaders seem to have realized that if they could not beat the Salafists, they would have to join them, as many of their men in arms already had.

It’s hard to imagine that the MNLA’s international supporters will feel the same way. Over the last few months, French politicians, Parisian professors, some Tinariwen fans, and various others have been championing the MNLA. This is a motley and ideologically incoherent bunch of partisans, but their support has had real consequences. It’s widely held—and le Figaro has obliquely confirmed—that under ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, France had been backing the MNLA. Many believe that Sarkozy hoped to play the organization against AQMI to win the release of French hostages before he faced their fellow citizens at the polls. Their liberation would have been a real coup for Sarkozy’s troubled campaign, had it come to pass. But is such a scenario plausible? You bet. Le Petit Nicolas had already launched several military mis-adventures in the Sahel, and he and ATT, Mali’s recently deposed president, had a particularly sour relationship. Sarkozy was never known for his scruples; Mediapart recently published evidence that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi helped finance his 2007 victory, after which Sarkozy tried to sell him nuclear technology. Having since bombed Libya into chaos, Sarkozy could hardly go back to that particular well, but cynical opportunism is nothing new in French African politics. Still, some friends stay true. After he lost his re-election bid, the MNLA made a special point to thank Sarkozy for his support.

So much for the Right, which lost the presidency last month. Marginal players on the Left are in the mix, too. Last week, a Corsican nationalist and member of the Green party invited the MNLA to make its case before the European parliament. That PR stunt backfired when Mali sent its own delegation to make the case for peace and reconciliation. Since then, the Ansar deal. I don’t know much about Corsican nationalism, but I am guessing that legitimizing Ansar Dine’s less-than-progressive politics is not what François Alfonsi or his constituents had in mind.

It gets worse. Over the last few weeks, championing Tuareg ethno-nationalism has meant disregarding serious reports of human rights abuses catalogued, confirmed and analyzed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Take the report of the latter group. It lays out in distressing detail a pattern of rape, pillaging, and indiscriminate killing of civilians and disarmed combatants alike. Some of this is the work of Ansar Dine or unknown aggressors, but some of these crimes were just as clearly the doing of MNLA fighters. The Malian army does not have clean hands either. In February, an indiscriminate bombing near Kidal cost the life of a little girl and grievously wounded several other civilians. In the last few months, the army has killed civilians in North and South alike—some were Tuareg, many were not. According to Amnesty, in at least one instance Malian soldiers even killed one of their own Tuareg comrades. Nobody’s defending the conduct of the Malian armed forces, least of all me. But it is the bare minimum of intellectual honesty for outsiders—especially academics—to attempt to recognize what’s going on on the ground before they dismiss the reports of human rights groups out of hand, and before they speak as partisans of an ethno-nationalist movement whose opportunistic politics they would abhor at home, but enable abroad.

As for the world music fans, what to say? Ignorance isn’t really bliss, but it’s more blissful when other people do the “shufferin’,” and you get to do the “shmilin’.”

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.