Aftermath of Libyan war

Updated: 2012-04-11 08:02

By He Wenping (China Daily)

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Tuareg-led rebellion is threat to democracy and unity in Mali and could spread to neighboring countries

The spark for the recent military coup in the West African country of Mali was the government's handling of the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north of the country.

On March 21, Malian soldiers forcibly occupied the national television station, stormed the presidential palace, announced the suspension of the Malian Constitution, and established the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State to replace the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure.

The military claimed they seized power because of President Toure's mishandling of the Tuareg-led rebellion, which began in January.

In the past two weeks, the Tuareg rebel forces have seized the northern half of Mali, and the Azawad National Liberation Movement led by Tuareg rebels has proclaimed the independence of the northern region they call Azawad.

The Tuareg nomads have long been seeking "independence" and the "liberation of their homeland" and they have directly benefited from the Libyan war.

As one Malian military officer told me recently when African military officers visited China for advanced study, "NATO launched air strikes against Libya in the name of promoting democracy in Libya, but in the end it victimized Mali's democracy."

His remark pointed out the essence of the latest political turbulence in Mali, which has enjoyed stability for a long time and was once regarded as a successful democratic country in Africa.

Some United Nations officials believe that about 1,500 to 2,000 Tuareg soldiers took part in the Libyan conflict last year and that after the collapse of the Gadhafi government they returned to Mali with combat experience and a large number of weapons.

As a result, a previously stable and democratic Mali has split into two parts with the north controlled by the armed rebels and the south by the military junta. Mali's democratic politics and national unity are facing unprecedented challenges at the same time.

The African Union Charter denies the legitimacy of overthrowing a democratically elected government through non-constitutional means and the junta has met with unanimous opposition from African countries and the international community.

Under the combined pressure of the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the United States, France and other major Western donor countries, Mali's coup leadership has agreed to hand over power to the current parliament speaker and promised to allow the return of democratic rule. If so, Mali's democratic process will be back on track after a sudden and short-term "digression".

But the prospects for Mali's national unity do not look so good. The rebellion will not be easily quelled, because the rebel forces are not limited to the northern part of Mali and they have links with neighboring countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya and Algeria.

Historically, the Tuareg also have close relations with the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida's North African branch, and a number of senior members of the Islamic Maghreb are Tuareg.

After the war in Libya, arms and armed personnel were dispersed to neighboring countries such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania, resulting in the spread and exacerbation of terrorist activities during the second half of 2011.

The British think tank Tri-Service Institute said in its newly released report that al-Qaida is seeking to establish contacts with African religious extremist organizations in order to regain combat effectiveness, and the focus of anti-jihad and anti-terrorism actions has shifted to Africa.

The US Central Intelligence Agency believes that three African Islamic militant groups, the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Boko Haram in Nigeria, are now working together.

It seems that it is not only democracy and unity in Mali that is threatened by the fallout from the Libyan war.

The author is director of African Studies of the Institute of Western Asia and North Africa Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.