Hidden In Plain Sight

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Conflict is happening all over the world, but only a certain amount of it gets covered in any detail in the mainstream media. The goal of this column is to shed light on those conflicts that would normally never be talked about. Each week I’ll take a news bulletin from the Foreign Policy Morning Brief newsletter that I don’t expect to read about anywhere else and look into the background and implications of the event in question. The events covered in this column are far from trivial, and I hope this column gives them a place in the public consciousness that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The News:

“Fighting between Malian soldiers and Tuareg separatists in the northern Malian town of Kidal continued for the second consecutive day on Monday, only months after both parties signed a peace accord.” (Monday, September 30)

 The Questions:

Anytime you have separatists involved in a conflict, it immediately begs two questions: who are they, and why do they want to separate from the larger polity? Typically, the answer to these questions will require a look through the extended history of deep-seated grievances the group articulates. In this case, we want to know more about the Tuareg separatists – what kind of separation they want, and what the source of their motivations are. We also want to know more about the group’s key players and the outcome their actions are likely to bring about.

The History:

The Tuareg presence in Mali is indeed a protracted one. The Tuareg people have been in northern Mali since the fifth century B.C. and get credit for establishing the ancient African metropolis of Timbuktu. They were a powerful force for the next four centuries, gaining wealth through trade and conquest, but this legacy was snatched away in the 18th century when the French colonized Mali and ruled the country through appointed administrative districts.

The Tuareg never abandoned the idea of establishing their own distinct autonomy within Mali, fighting for their own autonomous province in northern Mali that they call Azawad. In total, there have been three major Tuareg separation attempts prior to the most recent one: 1960 (which coincided with Mali’s independence movement against the French), 1992 (which coincided with Mali’s move to a democratic government system), and 2006 (a more minor conflict, really more of a skirmish than an actual movement).

All ultimately fell short of their ultimate goal of independence, but the 1992 rebellion at least pushed the Malian government to adopt a more decentralized system of administration, allowing the people of the Azawad more local control over their affairs. This you’re-free-but-not-really approach hasn’t worked very well in other places it’s been tried (just ask the Chinese how their relationship with Tibet is going), and it didn’t fare much better here.

The Players:

There are a number of groups involved in the Tuareg struggle for independence, but the one referenced by “Tuareg separatists” in the news bulletin is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. This separatist militia, which also goes by MNLA (its French acronym), is motivated by the goal of creating an autonomous Azawad in northern Mali for the benefit of not just the Tuareg but all groups currently present in the region.

This is because the Tuareg people are a minority group even in the north, accounting only for roughly 10 percent of the northern Malian population. The question of separatism in northern Mali is thus not one that has a wide consensus around it; a number of Tuaregs even rank among the dissenters, going so far as to circulate an online petition asking the MNLA to lay down its arms. It was not successful.


In March of 2012 the country of Mali, traditionally held up as a model of successful African democracy, was shaken by a military coup led by a low-ranking captain named Amadou Sanogo. The coup had nothing to do with the Tuareg, but the MNLA grabbed their chance from the ensuing social chaos and proclaimed the northern region of Azawad an independent territory.

The coup also allowed Al-Qaeda connected Islamist militants to gain a stronger foothold in the region, a presence that was pushed back last winter by a much-publicized French intervention. In the aftermath of this intervention, the MNLA were able to take control of the northern town of Kidal, a major focal point for the Tuareg independence movement and one of the areas in Mali where the Tuareg are the major ethnic group.

In June, Kidal was returned to the Malian military as part of a temporary peace accord signed between the MNLA and the Malian government. The accord was meant to quiet the situation enough to allow presidential elections to take place throughout Mali–the first elections since the 2012 coup.

The elections were a success, and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was democratically elected as the leader of Mali. The MNLA, however, were dissatisfied with the result, claiming that Keita had broken his side of the bargain by not beginning peace talks within two months of taking office. A week ago they put their weapons where their mouths were, declaring the accord null and void even though there are still a number of local elections that still need to take place. And: cue the violence.

Looking Forward:

The Tuareg separatist movement has been around for half a century and will not disappear anytime soon, especially with the last year of political turmoil in Mali strengthening both the MNLA’s opportunities for separation and resolve to separate. The fighting will continue to happen primarily in Kidal, where both MNLA and Tuaregs in general have a major presence. Since Malian troops were allowed back into the MNLA-controlled town after the peace accord, the recent scrapping of said accord has created a situation where two hostile militant groups are now present together in an area that both believe it’s their right to control. The resulting powder keg doesn’t promise an end to fighting anytime soon.

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