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Sahel Blog: Tuareg rebellion in Mali's north sparks protests in South

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Protests yesterday in Mali’s capital Bamako showed that the ongoing Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is seriously affecting politics and interethnic relations in the southern part of the country. Reuters describes the scene:

Hundreds of Malians set up barricades and burned tyres in the streets of Bamako on Thursday, shutting down the capital in the latest protests against a rebellion that has seized several northern towns, and the government’s handling of it.


A Reuters reporter in Bamako said shops were shuttered early in the afternoon and smoke hung over parts of the city after tyres had been set on fire.

The centre of town was largely deserted except for groups of youths wandering around, the reporter said.

Yesterday’s demonstrations made international news, but protests actually began several days earlier. Military families began protesting in Kati, a town near the capital Bamako, on January 30th. Le Pretoire (French, my translation), writes that on Tuesday the 31st, “The women of the military base in the town of Kati went out and marched in the direction of Koulouba [the presidential palace], burning tires on the Kati-Bamako highway.” On Wednesday, military families reportedly “attacked government buildings and targeted at least one business run by a Tuareg in…Kati.” Protesters have also, the BBC says, targeted Tuareg shops in SegouJeune Afrique has begun to speak of “anti-Tuareg pogroms.”

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Protesters are angry in part over what they see as the military’s lack of proper equipment. The protesters may also feel scared about the difficulties (French) and setbacks the military has faced so far. There also seems to be a perception among some protesters that the Tuaregs in the south are sympathetic to, or to blame for, the actions of their fellow tribesmen in the north. As Reuters comments, “The demonstrations, sparked by local reports that the military ran out of ammunition and that dozens of soldiers may have been executed during rebel attacks, have raised the prospects of clashes between Malian communities.”

Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure, who has only a few months left in office, has attempted to reassure his nervous nation and to defuse ethnic tensions. For the first time since the Tuareg rebellion resumed, he addressed the nation on Wednesday, “pledg[ing] not to give in to separatist demands but, in a sign of concerns that the conflict could spread, call[ing] on Malians to refrain from attacks on any particular community.” (Read the full text of Toure’s speech here, in French).

The administration is doing a lot of talking behind closed doors as well. Government representatives are meeting Tuareg representatives in Algeria; all signs indicate that thegovernment wants a diplomatic solution and believes one is still possible. Toure is also moving to assuage the protesters’ anger; yesterday morning he met with military wives.

So long as the situation remains bad in the north, though, the possibility of protests and pogroms will remain in the south. This is a bad moment for Mali, and indeed for the region. As Fatoumata Lejeune of the UNHCR wrote on Twitter yesterday, “Touareg uprising in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Wade reelection bid in Senegal. Too much trouble in West Africa these days!”

For updates on the situation in southern Mali, I recommend following Martin Vogl, a journalist based in Bamako who frequently writes for major news outfits.

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- Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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