It’s not clear what’s going on in Mali’s north. Are the Tuareg rebels in control? Or have the Islamists taken over, imposing Sharia law in their wake? No one seems to know. The AP reports that the Islamist group Ansar Dine has wrested control over Timbuktu, drawing a flood of foreign jihadis to the fabled city. Despite the article’s claims that numerous “witnesses” cite the presence of both al Qaeda members and militants from Boko Haram in some Northern cities, the only people directly cited—other than the ousted mayor of Timbuktu—are Western “experts” of varying degrees of actual expertise on Mali. Finding actual firsthand reporting is, unsurprisingly, not easy. (World War 4 Report has a rundown of some of the conflicting claims on who is actually in control in Mali’s north.)
What is clear is that the main Tuareg insurgent force, National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, have declared a ceasefire—as well as independence from Mali. The next step for the NMLA would naturally be negotiations with the Malian government—which is itself in flux—to resolve the conflict. But, these negotiations face two significant barriers, one obvious and one less so.
The first barrier to these negotiations is, of course, the specter of “terrorism”—specifically, “Islamist” terrorism. As mentioned above, it’s really difficult to know the extent of involvement of Islamists forces in general—and Ansar Dine in particular—in the uprising. The Western media has zeroed in on Mali as the newest “terrorist hotspot,” but, as in all things terrorism-related, hyperbole abounds. According to Foreign Policy’s Gregory Mann Ansar Dine’s membership is somewhere around 200-300, whereas the MNLA’s ranks number in the thousands, including many battle-hardened soldiers who fought for Gaddafi in Libya.
The Malian government will likely use "terrorism" to its advantage. In particular, the Obama Administration—aided by their French allies, who always seem to be up to no good in Africa—has demonstrated an interest in expanding the “war on terror” (or whatever they’re calling it these days) in the region. This isn’t to say that jihadi groups aren’t operating and killing large numbers of innocents in Africa—though the claims of an “al Qaeda expansion” may be a bit overblown. Nevertheless, the fear of al Qaeda gaining a foothold in Africa may prompt powerful Western states—i.e. the U.S. and France—to push for a “no negotiations with terrorist” policy in Mali. And this will likely be played up by the Malian government, civilian or military, so as to prevent the loss of territory to nationalist rebels.
The separatist aims of the insurgents may be an even more powerful barrier to negotiations and conflict resolution in Mali, despite the West's lack of attention to it. The salience of separatism is especially significant for other African States, who are quickly involving themselves in the conflict. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—which has announced plans to deploy 3,000 troops to Mali—has stated that their aim is to “to restore Mali's territorial integrity.”
A simple truism of the geopolitics of separatism is that states tend not to support nationalists rebellions because of the fear that successful struggles abroad will encourage their own restive ethnics to demand autonomy or outright independence. Why else would Spain not recognize Kosovo’s statehood and potentially block Scottish efforts to attain independence?
Western Africa is not exactly a hotbed of separatism: ethnic political organizations tend to seek control over the state—and thus distribute its goods among their own—rather than to separate from it. But, with the extreme ethnic fragmentation within African states, separatism’s salience could grow, especially among disadvantaged groups.
In addition to internal ethnic fragmentation, the existence of transnational ethnicity—ethnic groups divided by state borders—is a common characteristic of West Africa in particular. The Tuareg’s possible success in Mali could be destabilizing for neighboring states (i.e. Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Libya) much as the autonomous status of Iraqi Kurds has been a cause of concern for the Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian states.
However, it’s not all bad news for the Tuareg rebels. Last month’s military coup, motivated by junior officers’ desire to strengthen the military's fight against the insurgency, has had the opposite effect. It may prove difficult to dislodge the rebels—though ECOWAS and French/US support would certainly help. Between the fragility of the country’s political system and the fractious nature of the body politic, a restored democratic government may have little choice but to enter negotiations. If the MNLA were to limit their goals—accepting regional autonomy rather than full independence—and turn on their Islamists allies, this would certainly facilitate a negotiation process, removing two of the most significant barriers for conflict resolution.