For Rebels in Mali, Odds of Establishing a Nation (Somaliland) Are Slim
10 Apr, 2012 - JOHANNESBURG — Lines etched in sand are playthings of the wind. So it is no wonder that the nomadic Tuareg people of West Africa, who have for centuries plied caravan routes that crisscross the Sahara with little regard for national borders, have long believed in their right to their own state. And on Friday, by their lights, they got one: rebel fighters in the ancient crossroads of Timbuktu, Mali, announced the birth of a nation called Azawad.
In a declaration on its Web site, the rebellious National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said it proclaimed “irrevocably the independent state of Azawad, starting from this day, Friday April 6, 2012.” The declaration said the rebels recognized the inviolability of their borders with neighboring countries and promised to draw up a democratic constitution.
But the declaration is unlikely to be embraced by anyone. The African Union has a near-ironclad policy against the dismemberment of its member countries. Algeria, which shares a desert border with Mali, and the West African regional trade bloc, known as Ecowas, were reported Friday to have opposed the nation’s partition. The United Nations is all but sure to reject the claim, too. Western powers, concerned about vast, ungoverned territory in the desert being used by local affiliates of Al Qaeda, have already registered their displeasure.
Defense Minister Gérard Longuet of France said Friday that a unilateral declaration “which is not recognized by African states would not have any meaning for us.”
The name Azawad refers to the areas where Tuaregs live in Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, and they base their claim to independence on the uniqueness of their lifestyle, language and history. A light-skinned, nomadic people never fully subjugated by French colonizers, they have always lived a life apart from the darker-skinned southerners who govern them in Mali and Niger.
The rest of Mali is in disarray after a military coup that toppled the elected government last month, and even if the junta returns power to the nation’s democratic institutions — as it told reporters on Friday that it would — there is little likelihood that anyone will defeat the Tuaregs on the battlefield anytime soon.
Still, they face slim odds of establishing a nation. Just ask Ahmed Abdi Habsade, a government minister in Africa’s other unrecognized state, Somaliland. “We have many problems,” Mr. Habsade said in a telephone interview from Somaliland’s capital, Hargeysa. “The country cannot get donations from the U.N. or other governments. We are not having a budget to develop our country.”
Somaliland, which sits in the northwestern corner of Somalia, has been a de-facto independent nation for the better part of two decades, and an oasis of calm in the chaos that has swept up Somalia. Its claims to independence date from the colonial era, when it was a British protectorate while Somalia was controlled by Italy. The two states merged after independence, but the Somalilanders had almost immediate regrets, and have been trying to break free ever since.
Somaliland has had successes, including holding peaceful elections, yet it has struggled without an international stamp of approval on its nationhood. The country lacks many of the trappings of a state. It has no real banking services, leaving people dependent on the hawala money transfer system and a cellphone payment network to make small purchases. Its passports are largely meaningless.
Najiib Hassan, 43, is a consultant to the Somaliland government and a proud citizen of it. But he travels on his United States passport when he is abroad — he grew up in Oregon, where his parents had emigrated.
Somalilanders who do not have a foreign passport have little choice but to go to Somalia to get travel documents, a great humiliation, Mr. Hassan said. “It is unfair,” he said. “When it comes to Bosnia and other places in Europe, they recognize their claim. But when it is black people, they don’t care or pay attention.”
An African Union fact-finding mission in 2005 said that Somaliland might have legitimate claims to independence, calling it “unique and self-justified in African political history.” Seven years on, the African Union has yet to change its position.
The claim of the Tuaregs, who have risen up against the government repeatedly since Mali won its independence from France in 1960, has even less legitimacy, analysts say. Unlike Somalia, Mali is a functioning nation that, until the coup last month, had a functioning, democratically elected government.
Seeking to bolster their claim, the rebels on Friday cited the charter of the United Nations and separatist ambitions dating to 1958, two years before Mali’s independence, and urged foreign powers to recognize Azawad as a new nation.
But divisions are already emerging between the main rebel faction and an Islamist group fighting by its side, Andar ud-Dine. “We are against independence,” declared a man identified as the military chief of the Islamist group in Timbuktu this week, in a video released by Agence France-Presse. “We are against all rebellions not in the name of Islam.”
Africa’s borders are in many ways fictions. They are largely a creation of European colonial powers, who carved up the continent in the 19th century for their own convenience, paying no mind to ethnic, religious and linguistic borderlines that had existed for centuries before any white man set foot on the continent.
But when African leaders formed the Organization of African Unity in 1963, one of the guiding principles was that the colonial borders, no matter how inconvenient they might be, should be sacrosanct. The alternative — a continent smashed into thousands of shards, constantly at war — was unthinkable. The organization, which came to be discredited as a club for despots, was disbanded in 2002, and restarted as the African Union. Much of the old structure was jettisoned, but the commitment to colonial borders remained.
There have been a few exceptions. Eritrea won its independence in 1993 after a long and very bloody war with Ethiopia. South Sudan, which had been operating as all but independent from the northern half of Sudan, voted to become independent in 2011 as part of a peace deal that ended a 20-year civil war.
But the story of separatism in Africa has been one of thwarted dreams and hard-won compromise. When the Igbo people of southern Nigeria tried to break free in 1967, the civil war was so brutal that no other group in that polyglot nation has tried with such force again. Separatist movements, both armed and peaceful, grind on in Ethiopia, Angola and Cameroon, among others, with little hope of success.
The only real solution to the separatist problem in Africa is more development and integration, said Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who has written about conflicts in northern Africa.
“Ultimately the best way would be to do what we have been seeing in Europe,” he said. “If there is great unity economically and cooperation, the national boundaries are not that important anymore. The less that these artificial boundaries are important in the grand scheme of things, the less that these groups feel like minorities.”
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