Conflict Heats Up Across the Sahara


A month ago, few would have suspected that Mali’s government was in line to have its power usurped by its 7,500-man army. President Amadou Toumani Touré, whose present whereabouts are unknown, has been lauded for his democratic governance and was a likely candidate for the ever elusive Mo Ibrahim prize for African leaders who voluntarily cede power. Next month’s elections were to seal the deal for the political career of a man who has played by the rules, since he first took power in a coup in 1991 that earned him the title “soldier of democracy.”

But alas, as many analysts have argued, the series of revolutions that swept the Arab world last year, have officially started to make their presence known on the other side of the Sahara by destabilizing the countries further south.

As widely predicted, the final defeat of Gaddafi’s forces in Libya has sent arms and battle-hardened fighters throughout the desert and into the Sahel, the semi-arid region just south of the Sahara. The proliferation of arms has been a particular problem in Northern Mali where Tuareg nationalist fighters have been seizing territory since mid-January.

Coup leaders count bungled management of the conflict and poor pay as the top reasons for what some have called theaccidental coup, which started with a mutiny and seizure of state media. Meanwhile, the Mouvement National de Liberation de L’Azawad (MNLA), who maintain their own slick website, are pushing in southern areas vacated by government forces, while the military junta in Bamako looks for the former president, according Reuters.

What’s to come for Mali is increasingly hard to predict, but its future will undoubtedly be tied to the rest of the region where borders are mere theoretical considerations. A recent Economist article paints the dismal picture: drought and unemployment meet the typical boogey man of Al-Qaida in the Maghreb and other Islamic fundamentalist groups–such as Boko Harem in nearby Nigeria who have claimed nearly 1,000 lives.

However, any narratives of Islamization should be understood in the context of ongoing militarization in the region.Prof. Mahmoud Mamdani has argued that more than anything, Gaddafi’s fall indicates the direction of American and European strategy in the region. He argues that the West’s inability to meet the growing economic competition of Asian powers, such as China and India, is being compensated with direct military intervention under the rubric of the Global War on Terror in order to maintain its presence in the region.

Furthermore, the positioning of MNLA and its leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who has worked alongside varying interests over his career, is reflective of a larger regional power game that includes Algeria and the US.

With these developments in the region–the recent concession to a democratically elected successor by Senegal’s outgoing President Abdoulaye Wade amid election-related violence, Gaddafi’s ghost that still haunts the region, Islamist groups that appear to be spreading in Nigeria and Niger, and economic and environmental problems that are only worsening–one thing is clear; it’s going to be a long hot African summer.

7Wendell Hassan Marsh is a graduate student in African Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is interested in the political economy of cultures in Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. He has written for Reuters, AllAfrica.comViewpoint, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Follow him on twitter @theafrabian.

About Wendell Marsh

Wendell Hassan Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. His work lies at the intersection of the study of Islam in Africa, Arabic written culture, and intellectual history. Specifically, his research interrogates the African Islamic library as a locus of knowledge production and circulation