Long live Africa's newest state, Azawad. After three weeks of fraught interactions between nomadic pastoralists, the Tuareg, and Malian government, which began with a military coup March 22, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad has declared independence from the rest of Mali. The new state stretches Timbuktu to the Mopti region, covering much of the desert region of the country. Though news of the recent military coup may be an unsurprising narrative for those familiar with African politics, the situation in Mali could be the push the international community needs to realize the significance of ethnic identity in defining the long-lasting struggle for liberty in Africa.
Indicting the junta who seized control last month may seem natural, given the conventional definition of democracy; however, the international community should not take the events leading up to the coup in Mali out of the post-colonial context which defines the region. Even though Mali gained independence in 1960, the impact of its French colonizers has left a country that is fated to remain ethnically fractious. When the British, French and Belgian governments divided up the African continent, any recognition of the range of African culture and interests was swept aside in the colonizers scramble for Africa.
But the Tuareg in the last few weeks have claimed their right to form a state that reflects their culture and its corresponding values. There was a similar situation in Sudan last July, after a long, hard-fought civil war came to a dissatisfying resolution. Even though 98.9 percent of Sudanese people voted in favor of secession, relations between the two countries remain tense. The presence of South Sudanese troops in a disputed border region between the two nations started a war of words Thursday between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kiir which Friday ended in armed blow-out. The Sudanese example suggests that any transition the new independent Tuareg nation has to make will likely need to be made cautiously. But the push should be made.
Even though Mali has started to pay the costs for the Tuareg's independent-mindedness, the violence currently occurring in Mali should not be a deterrent to people viewing the situation.
Recently the U.N. condemned the Tuareg's actions, and the international community, at least the portion interested in foreign affairs, has joined the pejorative party. But what is most disappointing is the response of Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore, who took office Thursday. "We will not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war," Traore said. This is his opportunity to shake off the remnants of colonialism by acknowledging the ethnic diversity which has been stuffed into squared-off state boundaries. But he did not do that, and in failing to do so he has undermined the freedom of the Tuareg to choose autonomy, despite death.
Truthfully it is impossible to justify violence for independence, but the religious and ethnic diversity which characterize the African continent must play a role in the creation of state boundaries.
You may still feel the Tuareg undermine democracy, spread violence and promote disunity. But the only way to guarantee the right ending to this all-too-familiar narrative is to safeguard the right of the Tuareg to make their own choices.