Mali, its borders nonsensically drawn by French colonialists, straddles two very different ecological and cultural zones. The southern half is largely forest, the northern half savannah and desert. The northern half is home to a mix of people that includes nomadic Tuaregs, while the southern half is dominated by settled black Africans. Tuaregs and allied Sahara tribes have been rebelling against their governments pretty much forever, but since they Europeans divided up African in the nineteenth century they have never ruled themselves. How did they succeed this time?
The current rebellion, which only kicked off last January, took over northern Mali with lightning speed. It owes its success in large part to the demise of the Qaddafi regime last summer. Libya’s previous regime had incorporated Tuareg fighters from previous rebellions into its armed forces, and when it fell, they fled back to Mali with large stockpiles of weapons.The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is a secular organization, but much of the fighting was done by extremist Muslim groups such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. These soldiers fly the black Salafi banner rather than the flag of Azawad, and their leaders rejected the Declaration of Independence issued by the MNLA. Nobody really knows who, if anyone, is in control in Azawad. Disgusted by their government's failure to fight effectively against the rebels, a group of army officers declared a coup in Mali two weeks ago. They intended to unify the country to fight the war more effectively, but so far the chaos has only helped the rebels solidify their control.
Under the leadership of the MNLA, Tuareg rebels have since conquered the Sahel and Sahara regions that make up northern Mali, culminating in the takeover of the region’s three main cities: Kidal, Gao and the fabled mud metropolis of Timbuktu, which fell on April 1.