Tuareg Rebels in Mali Declare Independence: Is it Part of an African Awakening for Self-Determination?
Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England (right) escorts Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure through an honor cordon and into the Pentagon on February 12, 2008.
The following is a transcript of a Democracy Now! interview with Firoze Manji, editor-in-chief of the prize-winning Pambazuka News, a pan-African social justice website.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Mali, where the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, has handed in his letter of his resignation after soldiers ousted him in a coup last month. Power will now be transferred to the president of Mali’s National Assembly until elections take place later this month. On Sunday, Touré addressed the press, saying he’s resigning of his own accord.
PRESIDENT AMADOU TOUMANI TOURÉ: [translated] Today, in the search for a solution, I think the decision taken by ECOWAS and the international community is the best. It’s necessary that Mali continues in the provisions of its constitution of February 1992. As a consequence, I think it’s normal, and I do it without any pressure at all, and I do it in good faith and, most of all, for the love I have for this country—I have decided to present you with the letter of my resignation that you should present it to the relevant authorities to allow the plan and full exercise of the provision of our Article 36 of the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali. He was just months from finishing his last term, when soldiers stormed the presidential palace, sending him into hiding. The soldiers said they grabbed power because of Touré’s alleged mishandling of a rebellion in the north, which began in January. The ethnic Tuareg rebels had succeeded in capturing several key northern cities, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, a major prize in their long-running fight for autonomy in the north. Last week, the Tuareg declared their independence. Naming their state "Azawad," the Tuaregs are now calling for international recognition. They have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali’s own independence from France in 1960. Following last month’s coup, Mali is now roughly divided into a Tuareg-controlled north and junta-controlled south, and humanitarian groups warn the country is on the brink of catastrophe.
On Sunday, northerners living in Bamako gathered in the city center to try and resolve the ongoing fighting. Some Malians wondered about the rebels’ intentions.
BENCO MAIGA: [translated] Do they really want independence? Because when we want independence, we don’t destroy hospitals, the credit companies, banks and warehouses. If I wanted independence, I would keep what we have, waiting to have more.
AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Mali’s coup leaders said the junta would hand power to civilians within days in a deal under which neighboring nations agreed to lift sanctions and help tackle northern rebels. Officials claim the rebels are a mix of Tuareg separatists and Islamists with links to al-Qaeda. This is Jeffrey DeLaurentis, acting president of the United Nations Security Council.
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: The Security Council strongly condemns the continued attacks, looting and seizure of territory carried out by rebel groups in the north of Mali and demands an immediate cessation of hostilities. The Council is alarmed by the presence in the region of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which could lead to a further destabilization of the security situation. The Council calls upon the rebels to immediately cease all violence and urges all parties in Mali to seek a peaceful solution through appropriate political dialogue.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on Mali, we’re joined by Firoze Manji in Montreal, Canada, editor-in-chief of the prize-winning Pambazuka News, a pan-African social justice website. He’s formerly the Africa director for Amnesty International. Manji recently co-edited a book called African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions.
Firoze Manji, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the president of Mali saying he’s stepping down and what this deal is all about?
FIROZE MANJI: Good morning, Amy.
Well, I don’t think it’s as dramatic as everyone tries to make out. He was—even if the coup hadn’t happened, he was due to resign in April anyway, at the end of April. I don’t think he had much of a choice. It’s probably part of the negotiation for the junior officers, handing over power. And so, I wouldn’t attach great significance to that.
I think much more serious is the threats that are coming from the Economic Community for West—of the West African States, ECOWAS, which we heard just now. They are threatening to move in militarily into Mali. And if they do so, it could cause an enormous, enormous and tragic situation.
I think what we have in Mali is a very complex situation. You have, on the one hand, some junior officers who are disaffected, didn’t really have a game plan or any idea about what they wanted, except that they were demoralized by the defeat they’ve had at the hands of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. What people call the Tuareg are in fact a united movement called the Azawad. And they’ve currently taken over 50 percent of Mali’s territory. This is part of their traditional land. And they have, in fact, organized a ceasefire. They have occupied the territory. That’s—they’ve won what they wanted to.
However, the situation is much more complicated, because movements like the al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM, who have been the ones carrying out all kinds of terrorist activities—and the U.N. spokesperson you just quoted just now is implying that it is the Azawad movement who have carried out these terrorist attacks. It’s far from it. In fact, the evidence suggests, from recent leaks from WikiLeaks, suggests that the Mali government has been in close cahoots withAQIM in order precisely to undermine the efforts of the Azawad people to obtain independence.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations Security Council has condemned the Mali coup, warning of an al-Qaeda presence in Mali. Again, this is Jeffrey DeLaurentis of the United States at the United Nations.
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: The Security Council reiterates its strong condemnation of the forcible seizure of power from the democratically elected government of Mali by some elements of the Malian armed forces and recalls, in this regard, its press statement of 22 March, 2012, and its presidential statement of 26 March, 2012. The Council calls on the mutineers to ensure the safety and security of all Malian officials and demands the immediate release of those detained. The Council renews its call for the immediate restoration of constitutional rule and the democratically elected government and for the preservation of the electoral process.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeffrey DeLaurentis, United States alternative representative for special political affairs at the United Nations. Your response, Firoze Manji?
FIROZE MANJI: Well, I think that that has already been achieved. I think these junior officers really had no idea what they were doing, other than expressing frustration at being defeated. And I think they are now going to hand over power to the speaker of the National Assembly. And they’re going to try and mediate and negotiate with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
What I fear is that there is going to be a lot of bloodshed, because this is only—I think this is the fifth uprising by the Azawad. The first one was in 1916 to 1917, then in 1963, then again in 1991, and then again in 1996. We have had several uprisings, but this has been a really exceptional one. For the first time, you have a united front of many of the movements for the liberation of Azawad. And these are people, you know, who occupy for many, many centuries. These are people who are herders. They’re desert people. And they, in fact, historically occupy territories that include Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Algeria and parts of Libya in the north. And so, we have a situation where you have a national liberation movement seeking to liberate its own people and to have their own territory. But I think that the Mali government and, indeed, the Economic Community for West Africa, and in the international community, I’m afraid are not going to let them have their way. And that is going to be really quite tragic.
AMY GOODMAN: Firoze Manji—
FIROZE MANJI: And we should be aware that—
AMY GOODMAN: —if you could explain where Libya and the fall of Gaddafi fits into this picture and talk about who the Tuareg rebels are—for some, it’s the first time they’ve heard the term Tuareg.
FIROZE MANJI: Yes. Well, there’s been a lot of press, publicity, about alleging that the fall of Gaddafi led to this particular rebellion. The evidence suggests that this movement has been organizing for some time. There is—certainly many of the people who Gaddafi trained in his army were from the population that’s called the Tuareg. And many of them have returned after the collapse of Libya. They returned back to Mali. But half of them probably joined the Tuareg movement, but the other half have actually gone down to Bamako, the capital of Mali, and have joined the Mali forces, saying that they are Malians. So it’s not entirely clear that those who came from Libya actually became part of the national liberation movement.
As for the Tuareg, these are people who have occupied the vast areas of Africa. They stretch from the—from Morocco to Mauritania to Burkina Faso. What one has to realize, that these are—these are cattle herders. These are people who have been traditional nomads, who move around, and who got incorporated into Mali only because the French colonial government just divided up this land according to how they wanted to exploit the resources of Mali. And remember that Mali has very substantial sources of gold, as well as oil and gas. And so, the Tuareg people are related to a large community of people who stretch right across the north of Africa and in many parts of West Africa. And they have been seeking to have their own state, which is not unreasonable, and they have had many attempts to try to form a movement to liberate their territory. This was denied to them by the international community. It was denied to them by the French government. And indeed, the United States has a military presence in that area called AFRICOM. And there is no doubt at all that they are active to prevent the liberation movement, the movement of the Azawad, as the Tuareg like to call themselves, to prevent them from achieving any form of independence.
AMY GOODMAN: The relationship between the U.S. AFRICOM and the African Union and ECOWAS, the African nations, the organization of western African States?
FIROZE MANJI: Yes, well, I mean, formally speaking, none of the African countries, apart from Liberia and, more recently, Libya, have formally accepted the presence of the U.S. AFRICOM and the military presence in Africa. Although that’s formally the case, in practice, AFRICOM has been present in that area for many years. They have certainly been active in Algeria, just to the north of Mali, and they have a presence in many other countries in Africa. And, you know, what one must understand is—you know, imagine that we had Kenyan troops occupying parts of the United States. I don’t think the American population would be terribly happy about it. And I think the African population has a similar response: it doesn’t want foreign troops on its territories.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does Mali fit into what is taking place in Senegal, the significance of what took place there?
FIROZE MANJI: Well, I—yeah, that’s a very good question. I think the really interesting thing is that what we are seeing across the African continent—everyone knows about the Arab Spring, the rise of the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt and the overthrow of the dictators there. But what we are seeing is a growing discontent happening right across the continent.
In Senegal, the president—the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, attempted to change the constitution for the 16th time to ensure that he could win the presidency in the elections on a mere 25 percent of the vote. And young people took to the streets, and there were massive protests. Unfortunately, about six people got killed in that protest. But that protest led to a situation where that change in the constitution was simply not possible. And that is what set the framework for the successful elections in Senegal, which led to the winning of the presidency by Macky Sall. And so, that’s a huge victory.
But I think it’s part of a general phenomenon that is happening across the continent, which is driven by the fact that over the last 30 years our people have lost all the gains of independence. We used to have free healthcare. We used to have free education, access to water, our own telecommunications infrastructure, own communications infrastructure. All those things that we gained through independence have been lost, and these being lost because of the implementation of the—what I refer to as neoliberal policies, which have been imposed on many African countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And over the last 30 years, you’ve seen people—massive unemployment, dispossession of their land, dispossession of their jobs, a decline in living standards. But worst of all, what has happened during these last 30 years has been a political dispossession, so that people feel that their governments are more accountable to the banks and to the international multinational corporations than they are to their citizens. And I think, you know, people are outraged that their governments respond more to these corporations than they do to citizens.
In Mali, for example, in exactly the area, in the northeast part of Mali, where the Azawad revolution is taking place, you have an area of something like 7,500 square miles which has been handed over to a Canadian oil company, who are also involved in gold in other parts of Mali. And so, you know—and they are making no investment into Mali itself. They just reap the oil. They have free—they have almost no taxation at all. And they are allowed to export all their profits. And so, Mali, the people of Mali, don’t benefit it. And indeed the Tuareg, whose land they are occupying, don’t benefit, either.
The same situation occurs in Senegal. Although it’s a great victory that Macky Sall took over as the president, in fact, he is, himself, directly implicated and has shares in a number of multinational corporations which operate in oil as well as in other minerals.
And so, we have a situation in much of Africa where our rulers are deeply embedded with the multinational corporations. And I think there’s a growing discontent that people feel that they have no means for determining their own destinies. And so self-determination has become a real vital dynamic within the continent. And I think the rise of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, what people refer to as the Tuaregs, that is part of that same process of feeling, you know, a loss of self-determination. For the last—
AMY GOODMAN: Firoze Manji, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Firoze Manji is—
FIROZE MANJI: Thank you for having me on your show.