By Derek Henry
24 March 2012
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Source: Asia Times