Azawad: Shades of Biafra

It has now been over a month since the original coup in Mali sent the once proud democratic nation into chaos. After the Toure government in Bamako was overthrown, the Tuaregs in the north took advantage of the power vacuum to forge the independent state of Azawad and finally grant the Tuareg people a homeland. According to the MNLA’s declaration of independence, the state of Azawad was founded as a secular, democratic state. The MNLA also cites the United Nations charter and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its reasoning for declaring independence. The MNLA has also opposed the radical Islamic groups such as Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in Maghreb that have also moved in to the north after the rule from Bamako collapsed. Additionally, the MNLA has attempted to downplay the Tuareg aspects of the independence movement to allow all ethnic groups in northern Mali participation in the new state. With these lofty goals, one would think that the international community would welcome the formation of Azawad. The MNLA is certainly acting more competent than the coup leaders in Bamako, who resisted implementing civilian rule and seem to be heading down the path of most military juntas.

Unfortunately, the response by the international community to the declaration of an independent Azawad has been overwhelmingly negative. The African Union, ECOWAS, the European Union, and several states including Canada and the United States have rejected Azawad’s independence claim. The reasoning that these organizations and countries made was that they were respecting Mali’s territorial integrity. Tied to this reasoning is the thought that recognizing Azawad’s independence would lead to more civil strife in Mali and possibly the neighboring countries who also possess minor Tuareg populations. However, in the African context, that thought is wrong. The African Union’s strict adherence to the idea of border fixity is only causing ethnic tensions in African countries to rise to the point of outright civil war. And this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

The situation that Azawad has been put into is strikingly similar to the geopolitical forces facing the Republic of Biafra when it declared independence in the 1967. In 1966, Nigeria was beset by a coup and counter-coup that plunged the country into a civil war between the Christian and animist south and the Muslim north. The civil war also escalated Nigeria’s ethnic tensions. After the Muslim north launched the counter-coup and took control of the Nigerian government, the region of Biafra seceded from Nigeria and launched its own republic. The British, American, and Soviet governments supported the Nigerian government in its efforts to suppress Biafra, and after a bloody three year war Biafra was reincorporated into Nigeria.

Since the creation of the Organization for African Unity in 1963, the OAU and the African Union have had it in their charters to maintain the current borders and the territorial integrity of the member states. While this is a noble goal, I believe this goal has only served to exacerbate the internal problems in the countries. Because of this commitment, ethnic groups that are being marginalized by the larger government cannot forge their own nation-states, such as Biafra. Yes, there have been few border changes in Africa since decolonization. However, of the new nations that have been created since then, South Sudan and Eritrea were only allowed independence after decades of massacres and oppression by Sudan and Ethiopia. Additionally, this commitment to border fixity has stunted development of de facto independent nations such as Somaliland and allowed internal strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia to reach such an extent that the federal government has virtually no control over large parts of the country.

so how bad must the situation in Azawad get before the African Union and other members of the international community will grant the MNLA their sought after independence? Ever since Mali became independent from France in 1960, the northern regions have been marginalized economically and politically. And now with the coup leaders in Mali stalling on a return to civilian rule, the MNLA and Azawad definitely seem like the most reasonable governing entity in the country. But the international community still refuses to recognize facts on the ground. Will Azawad end up like Biafra and be crushed with the help of foreign intervention, or will it end up like Somaliland and run itself in isolation from the rest of the continent? Hopefully, the international community will see that in the current circumstances, recognizing Azawad is the best path to take.

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