By Derek Henry Flood
“He is a black man! From Africa!” was how an exuberant Libyan rebel fighter described to Asia Times Online a purported Chadian national captured from pro-Gaddafi forces after the rebel victory in the immediate aftermath of the first battle of Brega on March 2, 2011.
Brega, a key oil terminal town west of Benghazi, was significant for not only being the first clear military victory for the rebels against regime forces who had begun to creep eastward toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, but also for more quietly being the place where rebel forces began to disseminate statements to journalists about the importance of sub-Saharan Africans in the war that at times bordered on hysteria.
Though the Libyan conflict in 2011 was lumped in with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world as yet another front in the mushrooming “Arab Spring”, it became immediately clear that Libya, due to both its geographic reality and its political history, was as much an African as well as an Arab conflict.
The hype over the place of sub-Saharan Africans in the Libyan war seemed more propaganda than fact at many points because of the rebel claims were most often impossible to independently verify. Certainly there were plenty of black Africans in the Libyan theater, but many of them were migrant workers encouraged to look for work in Libya either by Muammar Gaddafi’s polices proclaiming “brotherhood” with Libya’s southern neighbors or simply drawn to Libya’s relatively immense energy-derived wealth coupled with Gaddafi’s renewed economic ties with an opportunistic West.
Western companies and governments along with their autocratic counterparts in Russia and China were suddenly eager to do business with a post-sanctions Gaddafi. His image had been skillfully rehabilitated after the disastrous invasion of Iraq had made the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” appear, through the prism of a woefully distorted neoconservative worldview then dominating international affairs, as if he were a secular liberal
Then there were those who simply hoped to transit Libya en route to Italian shores and the seemingly bountiful European Union across the Mediterranean. Given the long range of Gaddafi’s artillery men and snipers, journalists were mostly unable to get a close enough look at the regime troops to ascertain their ethnic makeup, relying solely on rebel conjecture along with some flat-out lies about the proportion of enemy forces made up of African “mercenaries”.
In the midst of all this chaos, innocent Africans were tortured, imprisoned and even killed after being easily marked with the mercenary label. They were targets of rebel rage, xenophobia and ignorance of the “other”. They were also victims of an oversimplification of the ethnic dimension to the Libyan conflict.
Asia Times Online observed a number of competent officers and logisticians of sub-Saharan background propelling forward the anti-Gaddafi forces of the The National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) on the front lines in the battles for Brega, Ras Lanuf and the Jebel Nafusa region.The NTC ran a schizophrenic propaganda campaign emphasizing their fight as a colorblind one that did observably entail Libyans of all hues while constantly denouncing, in terms that seemed to stray into racism at certain points, their enemies’ exploitation of African soldiers.
In the globalized conflicts raging in the early 21st century, few wars exist in a vacuum. Weapons, material and men move easily across porous borders, poorly thought out regime-change scenarios are imposed from outside, and assorted strong men fall throughout the developing world. Virtually all state and non-state actors alike trade barbs about their opponents utilizing so-called foreign fighters in order to bolster their own claims of victimhood while de-legitimizing the enemy’s supposed nationalist or indigenous war-fighting goals.
Colonel Gaddafi did have foreign nationals fighting alongside his troops to be sure, but their role in the war is far from clearly understood. Gaddafi integrated himself into conflicts across the length and breadth of the African continent to make himself the indispensable interlocutor until he was pulled from a sewage portal on the outskirts of Sirte and summarily executed by jubilant NTC fighters on October 20, 2011.
Gaddafi deftly positioned himself as the solution to many of Africa’s persistently unstable regions whilst often stoking these very same disputes with arms and boilerplate rhetoric about perennial Third World revolution. Now five months after Gaddafi’s deadly demise, Libya’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Gulf Cooperation Council-backed revolution threatens to destroy or at least bifurcate the wobbly Republic of Mali, whose president was overthrown in a military coup in the capital of Bamako on Thursday morning.
As the Gaddafi ship was definitively sinking, Malian and Nigerian ethnic-Tuareg fighters returned to their respective bastions in the Sahara armed to the teeth with looted Libyan arms. The Malian state, which until earlier this week was led by President Amadou Toumani Toure, is now facing an almost insurmountable security challenge in the country’s vast under-governed north due south of the Algerian border as an insurgent group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad-MNLA).
Shown in footage careening across Mali’s Saharan north in vehicles identical to Libyan army issue Toyota Hi-Lux technical trucks brandishing Soviet bloc small arms, the MNLA seeks to secede from the Malian republic and form an independent nation called Azawad. The MNLA has overrun towns and army garrisons along the borders with Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, causing thousands of refugees and, in the case of Algeria, Malian soldiers themselves-to flee Mali’s borders.
The current crisis began on January 17 with an MNLA attack on the eastern town of Menaka. It was however borne of Libya’s internationally backed war on the cheap and has the potential to create further destabilization in the wider Sahara and Sahel regions beyond the current chaos in Mali. In simplest terms, the Arab Spring has now bled into Africa. And the mercurial, egomaniacal Gaddafi is no longer available to mediate such deadly disputes.
In response to President Toure’s impotency during his last days in office, a group of military officers led by an army captain named Amadou Sango and calling themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (Comite national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de la democratie et la restauration de l’etat – or CNRDRE).
The CNRDRE has announced that it has immediately suspended the Malian constitution and claims to have detained several government ministers in Bamako in one of its initial actions. None of this bodes well for Mali and Libya’s neighbor Niger, which suffered its own coup in 2010 and dealt with a Tuareg rebellion in its north from 2007-2009. With Gaddafi now gone, these enfeebled states will have to look to supranational bodies like the African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) to attempt to sort out their differences.
In Niger, authorities arrested a notorious Tuareg rebel leader, Aghali Alambo, who led an armed revolt against the central government in Niamey from 2007-2009. Alambo was one of the key leaders of the Nigerien’s Movement for Justice (Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice-MNJ) with which he agitated against the French-led uranium-mining consortium Areva.
The Tuareg, Tubu and other traditionally nomadic and pastoralist minority groups in Niger’s rugged north claim to see virtually no benefit to their communities even as the price of uranium has climbed upward in international markets.
After Gaddafi intervened in Niger’s Tuareg troubles, Alambo was exiled to Tripoli, conveniently enough, where he was reported to have quickly become a close confidant of the doomed Gaddafi. Nigerien police stated that Alambo was believed to have orchestrated the smuggling of a substantial amount of Libyan explosives in Niger before his arrest.
Gaddafi, while crushing the aspirations of Libya’s Amazight (commonly referred to as Berber) minority at home, supported the national liberation struggles of various minorities abroad. In turn, Niger’s Tuareg still maintain a degree of loyalty to the late Libyan dictator, evidenced by the dilemma over son Saadi Gaddafi and three high-ranking military figures who were spirited into Niger following the fall of Tripoli late last August. Officially, Niamey states that it will not extradite Saadi to an NTC-ruled Libya due in large part to the gruesome, humiliating fate of his bedraggled father.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations in absolute terms and unable to feed its own citizenry, has suddenly become a champion of human rights for wealthy, disgraced Libyan regime figures. But beneath the surface Niger has real, paramount security concerns.
It cannot afford to rupture the tacit, Gaddafi-brokered peace with the Tuareg and other disgruntled groups in place since 2009. Niger does not want to further provoke the oft rebellious Tuareg by mishandling the Saadi case. Nigerien officials are also rightfully irate about the treatment of Nigeriens by the NTC’s rebel forces and the flight of Nigerien migrants back to Niger as well as those accused of fealty to Gaddafi stuck in limbo in the NTC’s ad hoc justice system.
The independent states in West Africa that the Tuareg inhabit have been plagued by just how to manage the Tuareg question since their inception. Muammar Gaddafi was adroit at manipulating Tuareg historical grievances to his own advantage while simultaneously portraying himself as peacemaker to black African leaders troubled by recurring Tuareg insurrections.
Now President Toure of Mali, who still claims to cling to power amidst a reported coterie of loyalist soldiers and was only to have theoretically remained in power until presidential elections scheduled to begin at the end of April – and Niger’s former opposition leader-cum-President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has been in power less than a year – must contend with insurgent leaders on their own.
Complicating all of these matters is the specter of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is described as everything from al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, an elaborate cover for a massive transnational kidnapping-for-ransom and drug smuggling operation to a front for Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security (Departement du Renseignement et de la Securite-DRS), as posited by more conspiratorially minded academics and journalists.
In the Malian conflict, both belligerents are hurling mostly baseless accusations at each other with regard to the role of AQIM in the region. The MNLA has stated that part of the reason it is fighting for an independent state of Azawad is to rid the region of AQIM. Meanwhile, Bamako has put forth that the MNLA is in league with AQIM to impose a violent brand of Islamism in northern Mali.
The MNLA’s agenda should not be confused with that of a more religious-minded, smaller outfit called Ancar Dine that has proclaimed it is fighting for the implementation of sharia law in Mali’s troubled northern regions. Ancar Dine is led by a nonagenarian Salafist and lifelong Tuareg rebel called Iyad ag Ghali, who stated that his men fight now not for the liberation of the imagined state of Azawad but for the establishment of an Islamic republic.
The MNLA countered talk of Islamic law by issuing an official communique by its Paris-based spokesman, Mossa ag Attaher, that the rebel’s goal is solely for the secession of Azawad from Mali and intimated that no other ideological agendas will be entertained nor folded into their avowedly secular rebellion. However unpalatable Ançar Dine’s plans for Mali may be, the group is not to be confused with the Algeria-centric, Ayman al-Zawahiri affiliated AQIM.
Until Wednesday, it may have been possible to paint the situation in Mali as relegated to that country’s isolated, rough northern reaches with limited refugee spillover into adjacent nation-states. Disaffected Malian soldiers who have suffered the brunt of the northern violence staged a mutiny at the Kati barracks just 20 kilometers outside the capital of Bamako.
Tensions at the barrack spiraled out of control after a visit by Defense Minister Sadio Gassama meant to address troop worries about a lack of appropriate weapons to counter the MNLA’s sturdier Libyan armaments among other dire concerns. After embittered soldiers pelted the defense minister’s car with stones as he sped away in retreat, a mutiny gathered steam as soldiers stormed the state radio and television facilities in downtown Bamako. Conflicting reports vacillated on just whether or not Wednesday’s drama was a fit of mutinous rage or an attempted palace coup.
President Toure’s official Twitter feed emphatically stated the soldiers were not engineering a coup, while Reuters quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry official as stating that the events were in fact a potential coup d’etat. By Thursday morning, the CNRDRE announced on state television that it had taken power. President Toure has supposedly been deposed – although at the time of this writing Toure was claiming otherwise.
If it is true that the CNRDRE has gained control of the Malian capital, it means nothing for parts of the north, east and northwest that remain under MNLA rebel control. What is certain is that the Arab Spring has claimed its first African leader. Rather than a classic, autocratic “Big Man” of Africa, however, Toure was a democratically elected leader who was on the cusp of stepping down in what should have been a peaceful transition of power.
Toure’s nickname in Mali is the “soldier of democracy”, in reference to the coup he lead in 1991 to help transform Mali from a military dictatorship to a reasonably representative government. Quite unlike the previous Nigerien leader, president Mamadou Tandja, who was ousted on February 2010 for amending the constitution in that country to extend his stay in power, Malian President Toure appeared to be making good on his word allowing to the preparation for elections meant to begin April 29.
Mali faces escalating problems – among them the heavily armed rebels stemming from Libya and soldiers suffering from low morale after a series of strategic defeats like that of the capture of the remote northern town of Tessalit’s army base and airport.
Now the capture of Gaddafi’s infamous intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, in Mauritania, arriving on a flight from Casablanca, Morocco, reportedly on a forged Malian passport, illustrates that the effects of regime change in Libya will be felt across Africa for some time to come.
Following Wednesday and Thursday’s climatic affairs in Bamako, it is now clear that the consequences of the Western-backed Libyan campaign have now unequivocally traveled from North Africa to what is distinctly West Africa.
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and has covered many of the world’s conflicts since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twiiter @DerekHenryFlood
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