CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1On January 17, 2012, Tuareg rebels from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) attacked the Malian garrison at Ménaka, in the east of the country. Two months later, on March 22, a coup d’état deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré, while the rebels in the north repelled Malian armed forces from various locations before being driven out themselves by groups claiming to be Islamists. This brutal acceleration of history in a country sometimes considered a model of democracy in the region, and sometimes a weak link in the fight against terrorism and a corrupt state, cannot be separated from the consequences of the Arab Spring in Libya.

2Indeed, the emergence of a new rebellion and its operational capacities reflect directly to the fall of the Gaddafi regime and its impact on regional equilibrium, disrupting power relations between the different Sahelian actors. However, the conflagration in the Sahel was not sudden. In many respects, the end of the Libyan jamahiriya[1] acted only to reveal and catalyze existing weaknesses and old tensions. The MNLA rebellion was not the first by Tuaregs claiming independence, autonomy, or better access to the country’s resources and international funds. Likewise, the presence of armed groups regarded as terrorists is not new to the region. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) has been in Northern Mali since 2003, enjoying greater or lesser tolerance from Malian authorities and alliances with the local population, particularly Arabs.

3While the situation has unearthed ancient dynamics, it is also feeding into internal and regional reconfigurations, from the integration of populations in post-independence states, to the globalization of African Islam and states’ reactions to this new geostrategic order. Understanding the impact of “Arab Springs” on the Sahel requires analyzing the consequences for the region of the fall of Gaddafi and the roots of the situation in Northern Mali, as well as the transformations underway and the reactions of Sahelian states to the threat of instability, which they cannot overcome alone.

Sahelian Tectonics and the Fall of Gaddafi

4The war in Libya created a seismic shift in the countries of the Sahel. From the first clashes, arsenals with no surveillance, distributed throughout the country by its paranoid “Guide” (Martinez 2010, 72), were easily accessible to looters, rebels, and traffickers of all kinds. Thus, on Sunday, June 12, 2011, in Niger, 80 kilometers north of Arlit, and following a clash, contingents of the national guard took possession of two 4x4 vehicles, one containing 640 kilograms of explosives, 435 detonators, and US$90,000—seemingly destined to be delivered to members of the AQMI in exchange for four French hostages held in Arlit since their September 2010 kidnapping. [2] Five months later, on November 6, the Nigerien armed forces announced that a Libyan arms convoy destined for Mali had been destroyed. Arms trafficking is but the most visible aspect of the consequences of a Libyan crisis that heightened economic, social, political, and identity tensions.

5Starting from the first clashes, against a backdrop of violent debates on the presence of “African mercenaries,” [3] the war in Libya has had significant economic repercussions on the situation in the Sahel, insofar as assistance from Tripoli “had become [. . .] the backbone of the Sahelian economies” (Ammour 2012, 1). After failing in his projects to unify the Arab world under his authority, annex Chad, and fight against the United States and Israel, the former Libyan leader indeed continued his policy of influence over the African continent. As of several years ago, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, a regional economic and cultural association founded in 1998 to bring together more than twenty countries around Libya (stretching from Somalia to Senegal), still represented a “branch of Libya for channeling financial flows, capital, and development aid from the Libyan jamahiriya [State of the masses]” (Gourdin 2010, 504).

6Likewise, as two million working immigrants (mostly from sub-Saharan Africa) out of seven million residents were working in Libya and sending money home to their families, many Sahelian families suffered from the interruption in funds transfers from their relatives. Driven out by fighting and instability, and because they had lost their jobs and were being persecuted, some 87,000 migrants left Libya for Chad between the start of the war and March 2012, leading to a significant drop in funds being sent. [4] As for Niger, it saw the return of 260,000 workers, compounded by the suspension of infrastructure construction projects, such as the route linking the border to the city of Agadez (Ammour 2012, 1).

7In addition to increased economic and social pressures was the return of the Tuareg issue, lever of Libyan influence and power in the Sahel. Although far from hegemonic on a regional scale, Gaddafi could indeed “affect both the beginning and the end of irregular armed initiatives, particularly Tuareg initiatives in Northern Mali and Northern Niger” (International Crisis Group 2012, 9). Through the use of petroleum export resources, he facilitated “reconciliation between the rebels and central authorities of the countries involved” and controlled “the calendar of political arrangements” (International Crisis Group 2012, 9). In 2009, incidentally, petrodollars from the Libyan leader brought the rebellion of the Nigerien Movement for Justice to an end. The second instrument used by the Libyan dictator was the so-called “integration” of Malian and Nigerien Tuareg contingents into his army, with a twofold purpose: to build strong allegiances and reinforce his policy of influence in the Sahel; [5] and to enlist experienced combatants in Islamic Legion [6] for his military plans, and subsequently deploy them in special units. Colonel Gaddafi thus positioned primarily Tuareg forces of Malian, and to a lesser extent Nigerien, origin in the Fezzan, to remove a portion of local desert tourism rents (Haimzadeh 2011, 161; Lawel 2010, 57−60).

8The progress of the Libyan rebels forced these Tuareg exiles to seek asylum outside Libyan borders. They therefore returned home, accompanied by Tuaregs who had lived and worked in Libya for several decades. The return of Gaddafi’s former combatants disrupted the military scene in the Sahel. First of all, during their exile, they had been trained by the military (sometimes within the Islamic Legion) and had developed an identity that transcended ancestral cleavages and traditional political structures for the ideal of a “Tuareg nation” with mythical roots (Bourgeot 1994, 14; Deycard 2011, 171−73). Secondly, while facing the advancing Libyan rebels, they had prepared for withdrawal toward the south. They collected arms to build up a military arsenal, to serve at times as a currency of exchange, and at others as a means of joining conflicts in countries where relations with post-independence governments had remained difficult, even tense. The chairman of the regional council of the region of Agadez, in Niger, estimated that in December 2011, only a quarter of people returning from Libya had been disarmed. [7]

9However, much more than in Niger, the return of these combatants to Mali gave rise to a new dynamic of disputes and demands. The junction between the new arrivals from Libya and their brothers in the Tuareg Movement of Northern Mali, led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, [8] who had returned from Libya in January 2011 after an exile begun in 2009, gave birth to the MNLA in October. Its general staff is run by a former Libyan army colonel, Mohamed Ag Najim, who joined Zâkâk in the Kidal region with a large arsenal (including BM 21, BTR 60, surface-to-surface missiles) and nearly 400 combatants (Pellerin 2012, 841). [9] Tuareg dignitaries formerly united around policies of national reconciliation went underground, following the example of Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Eddine, in December 2011, while others deserted the Malian army (International Crisis Group 2012, 11).

Re-igniting Old Tensions

10Although the latest rebellion in Northern Mali reflects above all else the impact on the Sahel of the war in Libya and the fall of Gaddafi, the Tuareg question is nevertheless much older and has its roots in political and economic issues that go back to the arrival of French soldiers and administrators. Notwithstanding the massacre of Colonel Flatters’s mission by Kel Ahaggar combatants in 1881, France gradually took control of the Sahara. By the end of the 1890s, settled firmly in Dori, in Burkina Faso, the French strengthened their influence over the countries on the right bank of the Niger River and, from 1900 to 1905, subdued several tribes (Grégoire 2010, 25). In this way, France gradually forged a tight administrative and military network, all while dispersing revolts and insurrections. Following the 1919 defeat of the Tuareg chief Koasen Ag Wantiggida, allied with the sultan of Koufra who declared holy war on France in October 1914, the colonial administration dismantled the large confederations and replaced them with a series of groups modeled after the cantons created in sedentary areas, affecting the power of Tuareg societies and the social relations within them (Bourgeot 1994, 18).

11The prospect of decolonization worried some traditional chiefs in the desert zones. On May 30, 1958, in the Boucle du Niger, more than 300 Moor, Tuareg, and Songhai notables signed a petition to the French president, requesting that their ethno-cultural identity be taken into account in the postcolonial political geography. In Niger, a letter was sent by an Agadez notable to General De Gaulle in 1960, on behalf of Tuaregs in the Aïr (Deycard 2011, 147−149). All this led nowhere. With the failure of the attempted Joint Organization of Saharan Regions (OCRS), [10] decolonization was conducted in accordance with the administrative boundaries of the colonial empire, parceling up the Sahara between various states and dividing the Tuaregs between Algeria and Libya in the north, and Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the south. The lines of transhumance were broken. Above all, power was transferred to the “blacks,” the new national elites who were primarily men from the south of Mali and Niger. Thus, incorporation into a Mali dominated by the Bambara was perceived as a betrayal on the part of France, with cleavages exacerbated by distance and negative stereotypes setting the “white” Tuaregs, pro-slavery and idle, against the “black” sub-Saharans, unsophisticated and submissive (International Crisis Group 2012, 2). As a result of these tensions, the refusal to divide borders during decolonization, and the socialist power policy of Modibo Keita, the first rebellion broke out in 1963 and ended a year later (Boilley 2011, 152).

12These ancient rivalries are at the heart of the violence that marks the history of the Sahel. However, the rebellion in 2012 also originated in the continuation and even the amplification of resentments, for which the Malian regime is primarily but not exclusively responsible. From 1964 up until the early 1990s, Northern Mali was placed under military administration. Repression, along with the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, brought about the collapse of the nomadic pastoral economy at the heart of Tuareg social organization, and incurred a massive exodus to neighboring countries. The too-few development programs were unable to alleviate this marginalization, as the north was ignored by education, health, and infrastructure programs. These in fact served, on the contrary, as political levers for limited groups of beneficiaries, triggering jealousies and local conflicts.

13The conflict between the Malian state and the Tuaregs started up again in the 1990s, with claims for independence quickly replaced by a demand for autonomy, under pressure from Algeria, acting as mediator, and from certain Tuareg chiefs, including Iyad Ag Ghali. A first cycle of negotiations led to the signing of the Tamanrasset Accords in 1991, stipulating, among other provisions, various measures to give autonomy to the North and establish the region of Kidal, which had previously fallen under the administration of Gao. However, the accords caused a rift between moderate voices and radical independence movements, as tribal and political divisions were added to ideological disagreements—as the Tuaregs in Gao found themselves in the minority in the face of sedentary populations—leading to the creation of different fronts. In April 1992, a National Reconciliation Pact was signed. Though ambitious, [11] it nevertheless faced a lack of financial resources, delays in institutional changes, and continued fighting. Former Malian military personnel, opposed to the National Pact and united in the Ganda Koy militia, ambushed rebels integrated into the army and rekindled the conflict, giving it the appearance of a racial war with massacres, following a cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation prolonged by the absence of the state in the northern regions and the attitude of the military hierarchy. [12] Concurrent violence erupted between Tuareg groups. At the regional level, a fratricidal war in 1994 pitted combatants from the Popular Movement of Azawad (MPA), with its Ifoghas social base, against those from the Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of Azawad (ARLA), made up of Tuaregs wishing to bring an end to Ifoghas social domination in the region (Boilley 2012a, 532; Klute 2011, 169−72). While at the local level, the decentralization implemented in 1996 also provoked clashes over the territorial division, such as in the Tedjarert zone north of Ménaka (Grémont 2009).

14During the Flame of Peace ceremony in Timbuktu on March 27, 1996, various actors publicly burned thousands of weapons, and the nomadic armed movements and sedentary self-defense militias announced their dissolution. However, it proved to be counterproductive to integrate ex-combatants to ranks just to avoid wounded egos; or to nominate ex-combatants to high administrative posts without training; or to include non-combatants (people who had not fought between 1990 and 1995) on lists of candidates created by former movement heads, in close collaboration with faction leaders and with local political elites for whom integration was above all a resource to invest (Deycard 2007, 134; Grémont 2011, 185−87). In this context, the development of a South American drug trade from ports on the Gulf of Guinea, beginning in the early 2000s, strengthened the old small-arms trade, which no eradication program had ever succeeded in eliminating, and enabled the creation of veritable “fiefdoms.” The sums of money at play also exacerbated internal divisions—between Tuaregs, between Tuaregs and Maures, and between dependent and noble groups. And all this while integrated officers used army equipment to create militias, which were used as much for internal conflicts as for trafficking, with the cooperation and even direct implication of the military and political authorities (Julien 2011, 138−40).

15The policies of Amadou Toumani Touré, elected president in 2002, did not contribute to peace. The regime depended on dominant local families more concerned with protecting and extending their influence, using clientelist practices, than with developing the zone. The lack of development projects and the corruption within those that did exist, which concerned Niger as well (Deycard 2007, 135−36), new periods of drought, and the dissatisfaction of Tuareg combatants integrated into the Malian army, led to renewed rebellion in May 2006, in the Kidal region. The rebel leaders, Hassan Ag Fagaga and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, two young officers, condemned the discrimination within the army. In July 2006, new accords, again sponsored by Algeria, were signed in Algiers, returning to certain promises in the National Pact, in particular the creation of special units. However, they were delayed once again, and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga went underground. For his part, the president created two militias—one Arab (under the orders of Abderahmane Ould Meydou), the other Tuareg (commanded by Alhaji Ag Gamou). Intended to lead the counter-insurrection against Bahanga, they had a shared mission: to raise forces presumed loyal to the Malian state, by relying on less-developed, local northern communities willing to collaborate with Bamako to change the power relations and get irregular armed actors to lay down their arms temporarily.

16The program for peace, security, and development in Northern Mali, instituted by presidential decree on July 20, 2010, for a period of two years, placed under the direct authority of the president of the republic, and presented as a structure for security and development, did not mark a real change in policy. The priority was to militarize the north, without actually meeting expectations. Out of a total budget assessed at a little under 32 billion CFA francs (about 48.7 million euros), equipment and infrastructure dedicated to security represented 42 percent of the overall budget, with 25 percent allocated to the governance component, 26 percent to socioeconomic development, 1.6 percent to communication, and about 5 percent to administrative costs. [13]

African Islam in a Time of Globalization

17In addition to these old, unresolved discords, there is a new dynamic—a concept of Islam has been introduced that is foreign to the region. In the 2000s, armed Algerian groups from the radical Islamists of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) settled in Northern Mali. Concretely, this redeployment in the Sahara-Sahelian zone addressed two objectives: first, to fund the struggle by taking a tithe from the trafficking across the region, primarily drugs and cigarettes, in exchange for which the jihadists guarantee convoys’ safety; and second, to rekindle the fighting that was hard-hit by the success of Algerian security forces, and which largely lost its appeal after acts of violence against Algerian civilians (placing it within the global jihadism professed by Al-Qaeda), at a time when the United States was involved militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq (Benchiba 2009).

18Initially a legacy of the Algerian civil war (Chena and Tisseron 2012), the settlement of Maghrebi jihadists allowed them to form armed groups from among high-profile actors on the Sahelian scene by relying on social and economic networks. In the radical political sphere, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a smuggler associated with Algerian terrorist groups since the 1990s, thus formed matrimonial alliances with the Bérabiche tribe to secure their goodwill (Plagnol and Loncle 2012, 42−43). [14] Prior to the Tuareg insurrection in January 2012, another Islamist armed group also appeared, born of a split with AQMI by Arab jihadists in Northern Mali—the Movement for Uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), whose first act was to kidnap Italian and Spanish humanitarian workers in December 2011 from the Sahrawi camps in Tindouf, Algeria. [15] Led by the Malian emir, Ahmed Ould Amar, but strongly influenced by the Mauritanian head of MUJAO’s legal commission, Hamada Ould Mohamed Khaïr, the group recruited many locals. [16] Indeed, for merchants and youth without jobs or resources, these terrorist groups represent significant opportunities for income in regions where inhabitants see themselves as abandoned or forgotten (Boilley 2012b, 384−85).

19However, the infiltration of radical Islam cannot be explained solely by the settlement of radical Algerian Islamists in the Sahel. For three decades, a dynamic reconfiguring the religious landscape in Africa has connected local economic and intellectual actors with transnational religious actors, bringing about a redefinition of social norms in the region’s public spaces. Promoters of a conservative Islam with Wahhabi tendencies have indeed initiated a process of renegotiation of the terms of religion in the Sahel, relying on merchant, religious, or political networks (Triaud and Villalón 2009). While rising insecurity led western NGO representatives to flee, investment in hotels or cultural centers and in humanitarian aid in the Sahel [17] by oil-producing monarchies on the Persian Gulf facilitated the spread of these interpretations of Islam (Gutelius 2007, 62−65), just as antagonistic political reasoning did on a global scale. According to Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, Afghans and Pakistanis linked with Northern Mali in spring 2012. [18] Likewise, Iran developed its presence in Africa, as part of a global strategy of counter-hegemony and dissent against the interests of the United States, Israel, and the Persian Gulf Sunni monarchies. [19]

20This globalization of African Islam, which puts it in contact with the most conservative and radical versions of Islam, encouraged the emergence of a symbolic struggle not only over legitimate religious representations and practices, but also over a model of society. Malian religious elites have thus been called upon to publicly distance themselves from terrorism and the violent acts of armed groups in the north of Mali. Concerning AQMI relations with the population in Northern Mali, the settlement of GSPC there in 2003 was annoying, as the Salafist group attracted attention and thrust it “into the shadow of the armed Tuareg movements” (Boilley 2012b, 383). Since then, relations have been forged and the power of Ansar Eddine has likely grown, thanks to the cash flow provided by the jihadists; and Iyad Ag Ghali [20] has enjoyed the support of men from the katiba Al Ansar of Abdelkrim El Targui (International Crisis Group 2012, 8 and 17). [21] Equally however, the old ideas have not disappeared. In August 2012, the people of Gao succeeded in preventing the Islamists controlling the town from cutting off the hand of a young man accused of theft, [22] a reminder that the local traditional reading of Islam is different from that espoused by the armed groups that ousted the MNLA. (The conflict between the group Ansar Eddine and the MNLA is evidence of these opposing notions.) While Ansar Eddine demands the application of sharia in Mali, the MNLA calls for a secular state and is closer to traditional Tuareg practices based on a tolerant Islam that respects the place of women in the social order. [23]

21The departure of Malian soldiers and the ousting of MNLA combatants from locations in Northern Mali has, in any case, left the field open for Islamist groups to carry out their activities, impose their law over the territory, and propagate their concept of Islam, by force if necessary. In addition to the destruction of mausoleums of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, a number of amputations have been exposed by Amnesty International (2012, 7−9), just like the increased repression of supposed non-Islamic behaviors during the summer of 2012. Patrols go around from house to house to verify that women are wearing the veil and that men are not drinking alcohol or smoking. And local radio stations are broadcasting messages demanding that women wear gloves and socks. [24]

A Debated International Military Intervention

22Confronted with the most serious crisis since independence, Mali struggled to get out of the political and military situation in which it had been trapped since the beginning of the MNLA rebellion. President Traoré officially requested at the beginning of September 2012 that air logistics support and five battalions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) be sent to Mali’s north-south demarcation line to support the Malian forces. Nevertheless, the country’s political authority remained fragile. Cheick Modibo Diarra, named prime minister over the summer, was forced to resign by soldiers of the ex-junta on December 11, 2012. Diarra, who favored quick foreign intervention in the north, also wished to run in the presidential elections scheduled for 2013 and was trying to find support from within the political class.

23Divisions in the Malian political landscape hinged in particular on the possibility of foreign intervention and the reconstruction of legitimate institutions. One group of putschists, led by Colonel Youssouf Traoré and supported by the Popular Movement of March 22 (MP22), which had supported the putsch by Captain Sanogo, [25] opposed a foreign military presence not long before the UN summit on September 26, bringing forward the safeguard of Malian national sovereignty and the blockade against arms shipments in the port of Conakry on ECOWAS orders. [26] For its part, the United Front for the Defense of Democracy, which comprises many parties and associations, criticized the interim authorities’ lack of legitimacy and resolution of the situation in Northern Mali. The presidential election, originally scheduled for spring 2012, obviously ran up against not only the partition of the territory, but also a weak field of political options, resources available to the transition government, and the attitude of part of the army.

24On December 20, 2012, on a proposal from France, UN Security Council Resolution 2081 called for presidential elections to be held as soon as possible and authorized deployment of the Support Mission for Mali (MISMA). Although the European Union therefore decided to assemble a training mission, [27] there remained strong reluctance with respect to the principle or method of international military involvement by African countries in Mali. Faced with doubts about the capacities of African troops to manage a complex operational theater, the United States, without questioning the intervention itself, was hesitant about the timetable and the potential consequences of the regional situation. The Americans thought it necessary to reconstruct a solid Malian state and install a legitimate government before any involvement by African troops. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, advised on West Africa by his Special representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), Algerian diplomat Saïd Djinnit, then also shared his concerns about the humanitarian and security repercussions of foreign intervention that could threaten the lives of hostages being held in the Sahel, or increase political instability in the region.

25Among West African leaders, despite common concerns about the changes in Northern Mali, divergent opinion about intervening made it more difficult to mobilize the soldiers necessary to form the international African force. On one side, President Mahamadou Issoufou had called several times for military intervention in Northern Mali during the summer of 2012. As his own power remained precarious, the long shared border with Mali and the recurrence of Tuareg rebellions (the most recent between 2006 and 2009) made him fear for his own stability, particularly as, during the kidnapping of seven Areva and Satom employees at the end of 2010, the kidnappers had sought refuge in Mali. [28] On the other side, in September 2012, Senegal and Ghana announced their refusal to involve their troops in such an intervention. Even the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, spoke out against an international military operation. [29] Fears of an African force getting stuck, and of criticisms concerning the Mauritanian army’s operations against AQMI, could explain why it was not opportune to get involved beyond his country’s borders at a time when the domestic order was not strong. Confronted in early 2011 with the emergence of the Movement of February 25, which brought together young democratic militants, the president was also facing radicalization of the opposition. During the summer, the Organization for Democratic Opposition—which brings together Ould Abdel Aziz’s political opponents and views antiterrorist operations as “war by proxy”—in effect rejected the proposal by the head of the Popular Progressive Alliance and president of the National Assembly, Ould Boulkheir, to promote the creation of a national coalition government. [30]

26Finally, during the second half of 2012, Algeria, fortified by its role as a regional power, revealed its reluctance to get involved militarily, even though the National People’s Army led a few small-scale operations on Malian territory to prevent armed groups from infiltrating its land and to protect its southern and western borders. Many theories could be used to explain this attitude. First of all, the Algerian leadership are wary of strengthening the French (i.e., Western) presence in a region they regard as their sphere of influence. The 2010 creation of a joint operational general staff committee (CEMOC) in Tamanrasset (and the Merger and Liaison Unit in Algiers) followed this same logic, without any concrete signs of operational success (Chena 2011, 111−12; Tisseron 2011, 105−6). Then again, the indecision characterizing the Algerian policy could be the consequence of a “risk hedging” policy resulting from poor diplomatic management of the Libyan crisis (Arieff 2012). Finally, by prioritizing negotiations with the MNLA and Ansar Eddine, which resulted in a joint declaration of cessation of hostilities in Algiers on December 21, 2012 (condemned by Iyad Ag Ghali on January 2), the Algerian leadership addressed the concerns of Tuareg populations in the south of the country. [31]


27The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime destabilized the fragile geopolitical equilibrium in Mali. The renewed claims of Libyan exiles for autonomy or independence rekindled old unresolved disputes between Tuareg groups and powerful elites. Likewise, it revealed the inability of the Malian army and state to provide security and build a nation, resulting from choices made by the authorities and by President Amadou Toumani Touré, and from the influence of transnational criminal and terrorist actors, including some who are involved, at least in part, with state institutions and the political role of the military.

28However, the collapse of the Malian state is just one dimension of the dynamic revealed by the upheavals of 2012. Thus, in the religious domain, Sahelian Islam has been affected by globalization through the activities of radical actors foreign to the region, and the displacement of Sahelians themselves to other areas of the Muslim world. In this respect, the settlement of AQMI jihadists is only the visible part of deeper religious tendencies, which affect the whole of Malian society to varying degrees. Indeed, on August 13, 2012, Bamako was the scene of a large meeting for peace, called by the Islamic High Council of Mali, whose president, Mahmoud Dicko, enjoys a growing influence.

29While the number of refugees and displaced persons was estimated by Oxfam at 400,000 in January 2013, the actions of various actors in the Malian situation appear to have had heavy consequences for the subregion, in humanitarian terms at least. For Mali alone, coming out of the crisis entered into in 2012 will require effort from the international community, beyond just the military, to rebuild a state and the rule of law, put an end to the ways of deleterious politics in the northern reaches, and strengthen the idea of a nation through political measures that will calm tensions. The National Pact of 1992 can provide a model, on condition that the choices made during its previous implementation not be repeated, and that antagonistic, ethnic, and racist speech, heard particularly within militias and implicit in representations by supporters of a Tuareg nation, not be allowed to prevail over conciliation.


  • [*]
    Salim Chena is a teaching and research fellow (ATER) at the Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux and associate researcher at the LAM (Les Afriques dans le monde) laboratory. He is assistant editor-in-chief for the online journal Dynamiques Internationales. He currently works on issues of international and transnational politics in the Maghreb and the Sahel. (
  • [**]
    Antonin Tisseron, has a doctorate in history. He is an associate researcher at the Institut Thomas-More, an independent consultant, and an officer in the French army reserve. His work currently focuses on the Maghreb and the Sahel, but he is also interested in conflict in Africa in relation to French and American policy on the continent. (
  • [1]
    The “State of the Masses” was declared on March 2, 1977, in Sebha, by a “General Congress of the People” (Parliament). In the absence of a constitution in Libya, this text is the “reference” for the Gaddafist Libyan State.
  • [2]
    The hostages then had to be delivered to the Libyan regime, who wanted to hold a currency of exchange vis-à-vis Paris (“Niger: l’enquête avance sur le matériel explosif en provenance de Libye,” Radio France Internationale – RFI, June 28, 2011).
  • [3]
    Speeches on the presence of “African mercenaries” were not based only on fantasy, even though they matched depictions placing “blacks” and “whites” in opposition (“Des centaines de Touaregs maliens et nigériens recrutés par Kadhafi (élus),” AFP, March 2, 2011).
  • [4]
    International Organization for Migration, “Returnees from Libya. The Bittersweet Experience of Coming Home,” Policy in Brief, May 2012.
  • [5]
    Ties between Gaddafi’s Libya and populations in northern Mali and northern Niger were not based solely on security. They also appear in familiar and emotional registers. In July 2011 in Agadez, for example, a demonstration to support the Libyan colonel was prohibited, while at the same moment, prayers for him were being held in several mosques (Ammour 2012, 2).
  • [6]
    The Islamic Legion is a Libyan military intervention force, known in particular for having formed the framework of the expeditionary corps rushed to the aid of General Amin Dada in Uganda. Estimated at 6000−7000 men in the early 1980s, it was officially disbanded in the late 1980s after the defeats suffered by Libya in Chad (Otayek 1986, 88).
  • [7]
    Rabani Adamou, presentation at the symposium “Sahara de tous les enjeux. Géopolitique, sécurité et développement,” Paris, Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme – FMSH, December 14, 2011.
  • [8]
    Ibrahim Bahanga died on August 26, 2011, officially in a car accident. He had been rebuilding a Tuareg armed rebel force in northern Mali, playing the role of intermediary between the various groups and arms transporters.
  • [9]
    Mohamed Ag Najim is a Malian Tuareg from the Adagh. His father was killed during the repression of 1963. He is part of the cohort of integrated Malians in the Gaddafi regime, present in Libya since the end of the 1970s, who were granted long-term residency visas and even Libyan nationality. A protagonist in the Tuareg rebellions in Mali in the 1990s, Ag Najim then returned to serve Gaddafi in Sebha, in the Fezzan, until the fall of the regime.
  • [10]
    For promoters of the Joint Organization for Saharan Regions, dividing up the Sahara administratively was a stumbling block to creating and organizing an overall Saharan economy. The project was presented to the Council of Ministers in April 1956 and Law 57-27 was announced on January 10, 1957. Its objective was to encourage economic development and the social promotion of the French Saharan zones, working particularly in the areas of land and air transport and the agricultural and pastoral sectors, etc., and cultivating the subsoil (Djibo 2002, 141; Grégoire 2010, 30; Deycard 2011, 143−45).
  • [11]
    The National Pact provided for a gradual demilitarization of the 6th, 7th, and 8th regions of the Republic of Mali, as well as the complete integration of rebels into the national forces. It also recognized the economic marginalization of these regions (called Northern Mali) and promised an economic recovery plan, all of which would be accompanied by constitutional changes transferring State prerogatives to them and opening the path to decentralized, international cooperation.
  • [12]
    The Malian Fulani, for their part, created the association “Lafia.” As for the Bellas (Tuaregs, but who consider themselves the victims of rebel violence), they called for shared management of the National Pact and informed the world that a Bella is different from a Tuareg. Incidentally, many of them rallied to the majority-Songhai Ganda Koy militia (Bourgeot 1996, 104–6).
  • [13]
    President of Mali, document of the Special Program for Security, Peace, and Development of the North of Mali. Personal archives.
  • [14]
    Deposed from his command of the katiba El Moulathamine in autumn 2012, Belmokhtar announced the creation of an autonomous group called El Mouwakaoune Bidima (Signers in Blood) in December 2012 (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 7, 2012).
  • [15]
    The three hostages were released for ransom in July 2012, following Burkinabe mediation (RFI, July 20, 2012).
  • [16]
    On January 3, 2013, the Mauritanian site Sahara Médias reported the creation of an exclusively “Songhai” squad within Mujao. Recruitment for this group was regional, however, as evidenced by the surname of its spokesman, Abou Walid El Sahraoui, who demanded the kidnapping of a French expatriate in the west of Mali in November 2012.
  • [17]
    Certain sources claim that the armed groups in northern Mali benefited from financial and even material aid from Gulf countries, particularly from Qatar (Le Canard enchaîné, June 6, 2012).
  • [18]
    “Mahamadou Issoufou : ‘des Afghans et des Pakistanais au nord du Mali,’” (“Afghans and Pakistanis in Northern Mali”), RFI, June 7, 2012.
  • [19]
    “Le double jeu de la République islamique d’Iran en Afrique,”, January 21, 2011, interview with Bernard Hourcade; “L’Iran au cœur d’un trafic d’armes en Afrique,” Armin Arefi’s blog,, November 27, 2010.
  • [20]
    After his career as a Tuareg rebel in the 1990s, Iyad Ag Ghali converted to a strict form of Islam under the Tablighi’s influence and made a trip to a fundamentalist mosque in Saint-Denis in 2002, before his diplomatic appointment to Saudi Arabia, which allowed him to move closer to fundamentalist groups (Lecocq and Schrijver 2007, 150 and 154−56).
  • [21]
    In late 2010, Algerian diplomats estimated the total in ransoms paid to AQMI at 50 million euros since 2003—about 2.5 million euros per hostage.
  • [22]
    “Application de la charia: Gao fait de la résistance,” Le Katois, August 7, 2012.
  • [23]
    The conflict between Ansar Eddine and the MNLA is not only social. Politically, the MNLA represents opponents of the Algiers Accords (those close to Bahanga) and those who were gradually deposed (members of the Idnan tribe of Ag Najim), at the expense of Iyad Ag Ghali, who had held the leading role during the resolution of the 2006 uprising. Thus, we must not forget the importance of trafficking and the struggles to gain control over it.
  • [24]
    It seems that the project to impose sharia had been planned from the beginning as something to be done gradually (AFP, “Nord-Mali-AQMI: Abdelmalek Droukdel appelle à imposer ‘graduellement’ la charia,” Jeune Afrique, May 24, 2012).
  • [25]
    Sanogo did not hold a position within the government, but he presided over a commission responsible for reorganizing the Malian army, which still gave him significant influence.
  • [26]
    “Crise du Nord, la lettre de Dincounda Traoré, le moral de la troupe: le colonel Youssouf Traoré lève le voile,” Mali Demain, September 7, 2012.
  • [27]
    This mission, called EUTM Mali, consists of 350−400 persons, including about 200 trainers with a 15-month mandate to train Malian operational units in the south of Mali.
  • [28]
    Following a request from Niamey, and with the support of France, which holds significant energy interests due to Nigerien uranium mining in Arlit and Imouraren, to be put into service in late 2013, the European Union dispatched a number of trainers in August 2012 to build the capacities of Niger security forces, under the auspices of the EUCAP SAHEL Niger mission.
  • [29]
    “Envoi de forces au Nord-Mali: le Sénégal, la Mauritanie et le Ghana disent non,” Les Échos (Mali), September 20, 2012. Senegal went back on this position, announcing shortly after the onset of the French military operation “Serval,” that it would send five hundred troops.
  • [30]
    In accordance with Mauritania’s constitution, President Ould Abdel Aziz is serving a five-year term from July 19, 2009, the date of his election. (He came to power on August 6, 2008, following a putsch).
  • [31]
    For more on the Tuaregs of southern Algeria, see Keenan (2004) and Badi (2010 and 2012).

A joint French and African military intervention in Mali, initiated on January 11, 2013, resulted in the recapture of the northern regions from jihadist groups who had pushed out Tuareg rebels fighting for the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). The destabilization of Mali is a direct consequence of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Mali’s instability also springs from the most ancient human dynamics: perceptions of the Other, connections between the authorities and their territories, changes in what is considered sacred, and the attitudes of regional actors. To understand and analyze Mali’s trajectory during 2011, a long-term view must be taken, if only to avoid oversimplification.


  • Mali
  • security
  • international relations
  • Tuareg rebellion
  • cooperation
  • military intervention


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Salim Chena [*]
  • [*]
    Salim Chena is a teaching and research fellow (ATER) at the Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux and associate researcher at the LAM (Les Afriques dans le monde) laboratory. He is assistant editor-in-chief for the online journal Dynamiques Internationales. He currently works on issues of international and transnational politics in the Maghreb and the Sahel. (
Antonin Tisseron [**]
  • [**]
    Antonin Tisseron, has a doctorate in history. He is an associate researcher at the Institut Thomas-More, an independent consultant, and an officer in the French army reserve. His work currently focuses on the Maghreb and the Sahel, but he is also interested in conflict in Africa in relation to French and American policy on the continent. (
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