The March 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan, introduced a new loanword into the Euro-American political vocabulary. The Taliban’s new explosion into world consciousness catalyzed, until September of that year, more hand wringing than substantive investigation of their social origins, political meaning and global import. Similarly, the July 2012 desecration of saintly burial markers in Timbuktu, Mali, tombs that were among the greatest monuments of Islamic Africa, has largely failed to register as more than cultural vandalism. These crimes against the cultural heritage of the Islamic world may presage far graver damage to the people of the Sahara. Just as the Taliban did not confine their depredations to material culture, those in control in Timbuktu have begun targeting the people of the city, stoning to death for adultery a couple they had first buried up to their necks in sand.

The Sahara has for years served as a major battleground in the global war on terror, but events in Timbuktu underline fundamental failures in policy. If Mali was a battle in the war on terror, then Timbuktu makes clear who won. Thus, events in Timbuktu reveal a persistent refusal to imagine the Sahara as a vital part of policy debates on North Africa after the Arab uprisings. The changes in Tunis, Tripoli and Tahrir Square catalyzed no similar movements in Saharan and Sahelian states. But they are connected to two secessions in Saharan Africa — one, that of South Sudan from Sudan, that is modestly successful and largely foreseen, and the other, that of Azawad from Mali, that came as a shock and threatens catastrophe.

The events of 2011 on the northern rim of the Sahara revealed fault lines underlying the desert that had long been ignored by outsiders. International attention, whether from the media or the US government, focused on the repercussions of the relatively smooth (though hard-won) transition in Tunisia, the continuing and continuously interrupted changes in Egypt, the implosion of Qaddafi’s Libya, and the echoes of these events in Morocco and Algeria. In contrast, interest in the Sahara has focused on three main issues: counterterrorism, resource politics (hydrocarbons, but also uranium and water), and the smuggling of migrants, itself increasingly connected with the drug trade. The concerns of the people of the Sahara figured hardly at all, despite the fact that the successful negotiation of other policies depends, as Mali shows, on addressing local grievances. It was not only Arabs who were watching the Arab revolts unfold.

In Mali and at the frontier of Sudan and South Sudan, local conflicts have quickly taken on transnational importance. The nature of such unrest should finally put to rest the hoary cliché of the “African civil war,” isolated from everything around it. The challenges in the Sahara attest to political questions that may prove decisive for US interests in North Africa and, more importantly, for the quest for stable, participatory government in the region. Restiveness in the Sahara threatens the stability not only of Saharan states themselves, but also of neighbors to the north and south.


After more than 20 years of democratic government marked by unusually high rates of voter participation, in the spring of 2012 Mali witnessed a military coup that induced the attempted secession of its northern portion as the nascent state of Azawad (roughly corresponding to the Malian regions of Gao, Kidal and Tombouctou). The desert dwellers who mounted the effort, the Tuareg, had resented centralized authority in various Saharan states for years. Nevertheless, the rapidity with which the secession followed the coup in Bamako took many Western observers by surprise. Mali scarcely figures in the American imagination, or even in specialist conversations about North Africa. The inchoate and internally riven armed groups operating in the Malian Sahara, however, lay bare the limitations of Western thinking. Global powers (the United States, France and China) have conducted diplomacy and strategic planning for the Sahara exclusively vis-à-vis the states of the region. Such, of course, is the normal prerogative of states. But global concerns about the potential of salafi movements and resource economics neglect their consequences for local people, and especially for the Tuareg. The failure to address these consequences has shaken the foundations of the centralized states — Mali and Niger, notably, but periodically also Mauritania — with which the United States and Europe interact.

Indeed, the first unified act of the assorted rebel groups — the unrecognized secession of Azawad — may also have been the last. Tuareg demands revolve in part around self-governance (or at least autonomy), a more just economic system and acknowledgement of the ecological changes endangering their modes of living, whether those induced by climate change or those caused by mining interests’ exploitation of water and land resources. But the militant groups have expressed far more interest in establishing a rigid regime of shari‘a law or at least destroying tombs that they consider symbols of “saint worship” and thus polytheism. As a result, many Tuareg realized very quickly that their erstwhile allies and brethren in the establishment of Azawad would do little to address their concerns. At the same time, the prospect of a safe haven for Islamist groups in northern Mali troubles policymakers in Algiers, Paris and Washington alike.

Numerous groups competed in northern Mali after the Bamako coup. The two main Tuareg independence groups, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad and Ansar Dine, formed something of a shotgun marriage that gave birth to Azawad. Although the Tuareg dominate both groups, the latter has insisted on a far stricter interpretation of shari‘a, for instance stoning the aforementioned couple, and quickly outmaneuvered their erstwhile allies. While the Mouvement did not hesitate to respond to France’s tentative overtures, Ansar Dine instead drew upon its locus of connections with jihadis throughout the region, notably Algerians and Libyans, only some of whom identify with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM). In fact, Ansar Dine has repeatedly both engaged and repudiated AQIM, at times preferring to cooperate with freelance jihadis, the ruptures occurring more for political reasons than ideological ones. As always, the mere mention of al-Qaeda elicits paroxysms of rhetoric; the French defense minister feared a “West African Afghanistan.” Such hysteria, though not entirely unfounded, ignores the central question about AQIM: No one is quite sure if it is a franchise of the infamous chain or a like-minded infringer on a non-existent trademark. Moreover, the emergence of ideologically similar splinter groups, whether in Algeria or in Mali, calls into question the ability of AQIM to mobilize large numbers of followers.

These disparate groups, then, represent less a functional movement than an uneasy and opportunistic alliance, drawn together by the Bamako coup, itself (paradoxically) sparked at least in part by the Malian military’s exasperation with the elected government’s perceived failure to maintain control over the Sahara. As controversy over the application of shari‘a in Timbuktu has demonstrated, the notion that the establishment of Azawad emerged out of consensus behind a single vision of Islamist government for the Malian Sahara is emphatically wrong, and for any political entity, whether in Brussels, Washington or Bamako, to make policy on such an assumption would prove disastrous. Focusing exclusively on the ill-defined AQIM to the detriment of the actual grievances of Malian Saharans risks unifying factions that at present are ill suited to cooperation. The steady flow of guns and mercenaries from Libya, the reluctance of Bamako (and other states in the Sahara) to acknowledge legitimate Tuareg objections, and US (and, to a lesser extent, French) policies that evince an interest in the Sahara solely in relation to energy politics or a potential Islamist threat could transform Azawad from a notional, fractious, separatist region into the very object all concerned parties fear most: an aggressive Islamist state bent on destabilizing its neighbors. The outcome of Algeria’s battle with salafi groups in the desert may hinge on the prevention of an ideologically unified Azawad, and the long-term stability of Niger and Mauritania almost certainly do. Addressing the complaints of marginalized Tuareg across the Sahara is the only route to stability in North Africa and the Sahel; continuing to ignore, and thus to perpetuate, the conditions they protest gives further credence to the arguments of Ansar Dine and their ilk. The Sahara remains sparsely populated, yet regimes ignore its denizens at their peril, as the deposed bureaucrats in Bamako painfully learned.

The bloody overthrow of the Qaddafi regime and the subsequent exodus of Libyan Africans (whether as mercenaries or as refugees) transformed the geopolitics of the Sahara. Qaddafi had relished his role as funder and manipulator of separatist groups and meddler in boundary disputes throughout Africa, dating back to his 1973 occupation of the Aozou Strip in Chad. Ross Douthat’s July 7 column in the New York Times notes that “our intervention in Libya’s civil war has vanished down the American memory hole.” And, certainly, Douthat and myriad other commentators have called attention to the large number of weapons that left Libya along with fighters and refugees, some sheltering in rural Tunisia, while the majority ended up scattered across the Sahara. “Mali today,” Douthat contends, “looks a bit like Libya did in 2011, except with a more obvious jihadi presence.”

But the Azawad secession is not simply a corollary to the Libyan civil war. The Libyan revolution toppled a dictator, for one thing, while the Bamako coup removed a democratically elected leader. In fact, Mali resembles Libya only insofar as all civil conflicts resemble one another, and, as is often the case, the invocation of “jihadis” brings spurious comparisons. The conviction that unites the Tuareg factions is not that “Islam is the solution,” but simply that all the Saharan states have failed to address their concerns. The Azawad secession happened because of Tuareg grievances; the influx of Libyan arms only made it easier. Meanwhile, Libya’s promise of greater citizen rights has passed the Malian Tuareg by.

South Sudan

On the surface, South Sudan’s declaration of independence in July 2011 bears little relation to the major issues of North African and Middle Eastern politics. Nevertheless, ideology, as much as oil, drives the simmering conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. In Khartoum, accused war criminal Omar al-Bashir has for years viewed first South Sudanese independence, then particularist expressions of ethnicity in Darfur and, increasingly, border skirmishes in Abyei and South Kordofan not merely as political challenges, but as existential threats to his narrowly Islamist, deeply impoverished government. While oil revenue from the disputed regions would no doubt ameliorate the damage of international sanctions on Sudan, it would also bolster Bashir’s own power. When, in a 2009 article, the Vancouver Sun contended that “he is not bloodthirsty and ruthless because he is a monster, the thinking goes, but because he is a calculating strategist who will do anything to stay in power,” [1] they ignored the far stronger possibility that he is both monstrous and calculating.

Nevertheless, the exclusionary vision of an Islamist state that Bashir propagates has generated more commentary than engagement or even sustained policymaking, outside of his erstwhile connections to Osama bin Laden. Violence in the south and in Darfur attracted condemnation and eventually sanctions, but there was little attention to how the multiple conflicts in Sudan interlocked. [2] The Economist detects a new game afoot, with Israel and Iran vying for clout in Juba and Khartoum, respectively. [3] Consider as well Bashir’s courting of China, and it seems inevitable that US strategists will take a renewed interest in Sudanese affairs.

Events in Egypt, moreover, add considerable complexity to an already thorny political landscape. Sudan’s strongmen will find in the new president, Muhammad Mursi, the most sympathetic audience they have yet encountered in Cairo; whatever the Egyptian military’s objections, it remains unlikely that a Muslim Brother-dominated government in Egypt will bring any pressure to bear on the Sudanese regime to curb its excesses. Almost certainly they will not abet a war crimes trial in Europe; ideologically compatible with the Brothers and a veteran of the Egyptian army, as well as the Sudanese, Bashir has little to fear from Egypt. Indeed, for the most part, the Mubarak regime remained conspicuously quiet on Sudanese affairs. Such strategic silence may be for the best: A close relationship between Cairo and Khartoum would bode ill for stability in the northeastern Sahara.

Moreover, the increasingly unpopular and autocratic regime in Ethiopia no doubt watched events in Tunis, Tripoli and Tahrir Square with some trepidation. Ethiopia has been staunchly supported by the United States as a bulwark against Somali chaos and a perceived rising tide of Islamism in the Horn of Africa. Its hostility to Eritrea and long-standing territorial disputes with Somalia raise the specter of the emergence of a new client-state politics in the region. In April 2012, Ethiopia and South Sudan moved toward cementing an alliance based on border security, followed in June by tentative steps toward resolving South Sudan’s pipeline crisis by way of routes through Ethiopia and Djibouti. This articulation of infrastructural and economic ties between South Sudan and Ethiopia would irrevocably reduce the oil income flowing to Khartoum, provide a much-needed source of investment and income for Ethiopia and South Sudan alike, and wed the two ever closer together, almost certainly in opposition to Sudan. Such contests in the Nile valley, whether through Iranian and Israeli proxies or Egyptian and Ethiopian rivalries, threaten to further unsettle the northeastern Sahara.

Separated by many miles of desert, South Sudan, long mooted and widely embraced, and Azawad, an unrecognized and unwelcome innovation, together reveal the limitations of narrowly regional strategic thinking after the upheavals in North Africa. No voice emerged in 2011 to speak for the Tuareg, and in 2012 too many did. The long-standing reluctance to address Omar al-Bashir’s regime as a regional problem, too, may shortly come to a head, once again. The massacres of Darfur, the continual flare-ups of war between Sudan and South Sudan, and the large-scale impoverishment of the Sudanese people represent not issues of internal Sudanese politics, nor less instances of a Sudanese civil war, but rather debates about the flow of oil, income and influence. Political change around the periphery of the Sahara weakened an elected government in Bamako and may have reinforced the dictatorship in Khartoum — one of the most oppressive regimes left in the region. Mitigating the violence of such repercussions, whether in Azawad or in Abyei, depends on recognizing the interests of the inhabitants, Tuareg or Sudanese, whose voices remain just as muffled today as those of Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians did before 2011.


[1] Vancouver Sun, March 7, 2009.
[2] On Darfur, see especially Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror (New York: Pantheon: 2009).
[3] Economist, June 16, 2012.

How to cite this article:

George R. Trumbull "A Tale of Two Secessions in the Sahara," Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).

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