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The 2012 Malian crisis has placed Amadou Toumani Touré’s regime in the jeopardy. Accused by many of being the culprit for the breakdown of his country, President Touré has at times appeared to be the sole scapegoat for the conflict. However, the crisis of 2012, which will be recounted briefly below, was also undeniably the result and most recent manifestation of Mali’s political history as well as the long-standing distrust between different ethnic communities. Economic frustration, political resentment and strategic opportunity-taking, all of them rooted in the fragmented nature of the country, played a significant role in the crisis. As a result, any effort to achieve sustainable peace now needs to address not just the immediate run-up to the latest armed conflict in the country, but also the conditions that account for the recurrence of crisis.

The 2012 crisis: the fissures of a united insurrection

On 17 January 2012, three years after the last north-south peace agreement in Mali, a fourth ‘Tuareg’ rebellion was launched through the attack on a Malian military garrison in the north-eastern town of Menaka. Contrary to previous attacks, the rebel combatants seemed better prepared and organised, and above all appeared to have much more equipment than their predecessors, boasting ‘the most impressive arsenal ever seen in the north of Mali’.[1]

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), created in October 2011 by former Tuareg exiles in Libya, succeeded in gathering all the rebellious factions that had been divided and weakened by political disputes over time. As a result, the MNLA managed to represent all the main communities of the northern regions of Mali.[2] The accidental death of the MNLA’s chief instigator, Ibrahim ag Bahanga, in a car accident in August 2011 near Kidal could have endangered its military plans and encouraged new divisions. However, neither his death, nor Iyad ag Ghali’s failure to impose himself as the political leader of the MNLA,[3] undermined the planning that led to the January 2012 rebellion. Iyad ag Ghali, an historic figure of the Tuareg movement, was one of the key negotiator in the conclusion of the 1992 National pact. His stance in the negotiations, mainly advancing the interests of his own clan, coupled with his rampant radicalisation during the 1990s, had lost him the trust of other Tuareg communities.

Historical lack of understanding and mutual distrust between Bamako and its northern territory have played an important role in Malian instability for decades. By ignoring northern aspirations for economic development (especially social and economic infrastructure) or political representation (lack of governmental seats for instance), the Malian authorities have paved the way for violent contestation and separatist actions. The popular support among Tuareg and Arab populations for some rebel movements and armed groups, and the authority the rebel leaders have had over some northern populations, are good illustrations of the inequalities collectively experienced by the northern population. The subsequent rebellions in Mali have, in turn, aggravated the long-standing community distrust. The aftermath of the rebellions and the negotiations that led to ‘peace agreements’ also fostered tensions among northern communities, as some groups used those situations to advance their own interests. The ethnic divisions and lawlessness, due to the withdrawal of the Malian state, that characterized the aftermath of rebellions presented a window of opportunity for terrorist groups to settle in the north. Thriving on illicit trafficking and mixing with local populations, these groups managed to gradually gain influence before the 2012 crisis.

Constant rebellion: the historical continuity of Tuareg anger

From 1960 to 2012, there were four Tuareg rebellions and five different (and so far ineffective) north-south peace agreements. Despite these peace agreements, disarmament programmes and other foreign economic sponsorships (from Algeria and Libya, but also from Western countries), the Malian central state has been accused of marginalising the northern regions and, as a consequence, north-south relations remain tense. By repressing the rebels or buying a precarious peace (e.g., co-opting rebel leaders), Malian authorities tended to set aside the real – political and economic – roots of the conflict. Moreover, by giving to some rebel leaders a disproportionate influence in the negotiating processes (Iyad ag Ghali for instance), Bamako altered the nature of the conflict and fed divisions within the northern groups.

Historical tensions between north and south have always played a decisive role in the cycles of rebellion, although other factors have also fed resentment and helped to perpetuate the conflict. The peace agreements and economic incentives given to some combatants in order to disarm them have indirectly encouraged, in a depressed economic environment, a rebel economy and the emergence of local entrepreneurs of violence. Foreign interference and the central position of northern Mali in the regional race for Sahelian leadership have also influenced the conflict. By actively sponsoring the rebels or indulging them through cross-border movements or supplies, some neighbouring countries (especially Libya and Algeria) permanent tensions.