There is a wide agreement among analysts on the fact that the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is basically made up of Tuareg fighters trying to establish the first-ever independent Tuareg state in modern Africa. Most of MNLA leaders are Tuareg, just as are Tuareg the best-known advocates of an Azawadi state, the members of renowned music band Tinariwen. Does this mean that MNLA is introducing itself to the world as a proponent of an ethnic Tuareg state trying to secede from Mali? Not at all. And they would be fool if they did so.
Simply take a look at an ethnic map of Africa and superimpose state borders on it. You will soon realize that ethnic demarcations never fit international boundaries. Not even in small monoethnic countries this happens: the Sotho people spreads well beyond the borders of tiny Lesotho. This being the case, secessionist movements in Africa frequently resort to colonial borders or agreements in order to legitimize their claims. This is true in cases such as Somaliland, Cabinda, Barotseland and (formerly) Eritrea. In other words: a territorial, non-ethnic definition is shared by virtually all national identities in Africa south to the Sahara, whether they are nation-states or stateless nations. Being aware that Azawad cannot claim to have ever existed as a separated territory under French West Africa, MNLA’s leaders obviously know that their only realistic hope to build a national discourse that could eventually be accepted by other African states is to demarcate their would-be country in a truly African style.
This is why MNLA is making efforts to “sell” to the world a diverse Azawad. In its declaration of independence, for instance, MNLA only refers to “the people of Azawad”, with no mention to Tuaregs or any other ethnic component of it. Furthermore, what are they explaining in their official website? The newest (as of 18th April) post refers to a so-called “declaration of support of the Arabs to Azawad”, while the previous information explains that the Kunta community is also backing the newborn republic. Mossa Ag Attaher, MNLA speaker in Europe, even claims that “a good deal of Songhais and Peuls” support the independence movement (interview in Le Monde, 25th January). The flag chosen by the MNLA for Azawad does not recall any specific Amazigh/Tuareg identity either: it includes all the four colours (yellow, red, green and black) that are used in most African flags.
I am not saying that MNLA is really a multiethnic movement with the goal of establishing a multiethnic Azawad. I honestly admit that I ignore what is in their minds, and I cannot predict the future either. What is more, it seems quite clear that Tuaregs are the engine of the Azawadi struggle and that Songhais and Peuls may not be particularly happy to be included in a Tuareg-majority state. But it is also true that some political goals -however fair they may be- have better chances to be successful if properly disguised.
(Picture: two MNLA rebels hold the flag of Azawad. Image by Magharebia.)
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