Yesterday the MNLA, the longstanding separatist entity created by the Tuaregs, (one of many Berber tribes) declared the independence of the Republic of Azawad, essentially partitioning the country of Mali, taking the northern two-thirds for themselves.
The Tuaregs have, for ages, called that vast region of the Sahara desert the “Azawad.” These desert peoples make up about 15% of Mali’s total population, and they see themselves as not only ethnically, racially, and culturally different from the other Malians, but also as the hapless victims of the blunders committed by the former French colonialists who randomly drew national borders with little respect for the social, linguistic, and cultural distinctions of the different people groups.
The Tuaregs have kept apart from the rest of the Malians for decades. Their strong cultural differences and extreme poverty have fostered unending conflicts between them and their southern neighbors. The northern tribes also see themselves as truly devout Muslims who practice a pure Islam, in contrast to the southern populations’ more lenient practices. It is easy to see how fundamentalists could exploit both the past conflicts and the present unrest to promote their radical vision of a Taliban-style Islamic republic.
The present confusion in Mali was set off by some Malian soldiers’ actions. They believe that President Amani Toumani Toure (ATT) has intentionally limited the military’s access to arms and equipment that would have helped them contain the rebellion in the north. (And they might be right. Other African presidents have used this same ploy to postpone elections—staying in power sometimes for years.)
Poorly equipped, the Malian army has had little chance against the separatists, who are mostly Kaddafi’s former mercenaries, hardened soldiers who returned from Libya heavily armed. The Malian army, feeling betrayed by ATT, took the presidential palace.
The army’s mutiny has had at least four significant consequences. First, the junta wiped out twenty years of democracy, provoking world-wide condemnation, stern opposition, and an imposed embargo by Mali’s West African neighbors. Secondly, while many Malians feel betrayed by ATT, most do not support violence as a reasonable solution to their problems. Third, Mali is this year suffering from a particularly severe famine, food shortages, and economic irregularities, Captain Sanogo and his rookie “government” are hardly equipped to handle Mali’s XL problems.
And finally, the Tuaregs have taken advantage of the confusion in Bamako to invade key northern cities, and have now officially declared the creation of their new Republic of Azawad. Sanogo and his men want what’s best for Mali, but they have little political, organizational and administrative skills to respond decisively to these many arenas of crisis.
The MNLA separatists who made this declaration of independence did so in a way that would gain approval and support from their neighboring countries, Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger, who themselves don’t want any of the Tuaregs living inside their borders to covet their lands.
The MNLA has therefore promised that the present borders will be respected and protected. They are eager to thwart and silence their competitors within their own ethnic group, the radical Tuareg Islamist faction called “Ansar-ad-Deen” (“Upholders or Champions of the Religion [of Islam]”), heavily infiltrated by Al-Qaeda. Ansar-ad-Deen is both trying to impose Taliban-style rule (Shari’a law) in the Azawad and to take over the entire country.
France and other Western nations have stated clearly that “there can be no military solution to the problem, only negotiations that will help neutralize the efforts of Al-Qaeda’s allies in Mali.” Translation: It is better to let the “moderate” MNLA separatists have the Azawad than to risk having the radical Ansar-ad-Deen plunge the country into bloodshed and chaos in their efforts to take over the whole nation. Remember that, just a few years ago, Eritrea was created through a partition, and more recently Sudan also split into two nations. So, the present partition of Mali might stick.
In the middle of all this mess, with most borders closed, economic sanctions are slowly strangling the economy. Most banks are not functioning, and the electricity is cut for 9 to 11 hours a day, and this during the hottest season of the year. Some warn that we’ll have no electricity at all, starting Monday.
The junta is just today talking about returning the country to civilian rule – which is the condition for lifting the embargo. But, when will talk become action? Meanwhile, most expatriates, missionaries and NGOs have already left the country. Most expat schools are closed, and those of us left here feel uncertain and insecure.
Obviously, our ministries and projects in places like Timbuktu, Douentza, and Gao are going to be set back for a long time. Our Christian school in Timbuktu has been taken by the separatists. We praise God that, just 2 days ago, all our believers got out of Timbuktu. Due to no room in the buses, Pastor Yattara himself walked out,as far as the ferry on the Niger River; then he caught a ride to Bamako. Pastor Philip Sagara got his family out of Douentza safely, and took down his church sign, but he himself has not yet been able to escape. We have no news yet from Pastor André Togo of Gao, young husband and father of his first child. Please keep them and our brothers in prayer. We need to be able to offer financial assistance to many displaced pastors’ and lay families who have essentially become refugees in their own country.
Linda is leaving this Monday for the USA, and I will hopefully leave on April 17 for the special conference in Palermo, Italy, after which we will assess the situation and make a decision about when we return to Bamako.
Just a few days ago, at our self-sufficiency agro-pastoral project, as I led our Muslim workers (several of whom are Wahabbis) in our daily devotional, I read the story of the storm that overtook the boat that Christ’s disciples were trying to keep afloat. The Lord was awakened by His distraught disciples only after all their efforts had failed. The Lord chided them for their lack of faith and then rebuked the wind and the waves.
I then explained to the workers that we should not wait to call on the Lord for help – both for our personal lives and for the raging storm in Mali. They took it to heart and prayed with me for divine intervention. I trust the Lord to act in such a way that these Muslims will ask, as the disciples did, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” (Luke 8:25).
Thank you so much for covering us with your prayers and for sustaining us financially during these difficult times. As we rush to cry out to the Lord about Mali’s needs, we believe that, in His mercy, the Lord will avert much suffering, and we will have great opportunities to further the Kingdom of God, even now in this troubled time.
Linda and David (Faouzi) Arzouni