[17:30 This post has been edited slightly since a number of errors of fact and thought were pointed out to me.]
Ever since the coup in Mali a few weeks ago I’ve been waiting for my thoughts to crystallise into something coherent that I could post. As it is, things have changed a little and now I suddenly have far too much to say.
The initial Communist President of Mali, Modibo Keïta, was overthrown in 1968 by a military coup headed by Moussa Traoré. Traoré then stayed in charge, consolidating power around himself while the economy collapsed in slow motion. He himself was overthrown in 1991 by Amadou Toumani Touré (known as ATT). ATT promised to stand aside to allow for elections, and then subsequently shocked everybody by actually doing so. His successor, Alpha Oumar Konaré, ruled for two five-year terms and then stood aside when his time was up. ATT stood in the 2002 election against Konaré’s party’s candidate and won. The ruling party accepted this and stood down. ATT was re-elected in 2007. Mali thus demonstrated, until a month ago, a good tradition of democratic politics, having experienced four genuinely free elections and three painless changes of power, an enviable record in West Africa. ATT was about to finish the final month of his second term when he was overthrown last month. The head of this most recent coup, Captain Sanogo, toppled ATT largely by accident. A military protest against the government’s inactivity in the face of the fourth Tuareg rebellion since independence went rather further than was intended, and Sanogo ended up as head of state.
(Congratulations: you now know more about Mali than 95% of the world’s population outside of West Africa)
For once, the international community’s desire to preserve the status quo coincided with my own feelings on a matter: nearly everybody who expressed an opinion told Sanogo he should step down for the good of Mali. The African Union suspended Mali, only the second time such a step has been taken. Autocrat and all-purpose bastard Blaise Compaoré, the current President of Burkina Faso, who murdered his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987 with the assistance of the French, won my vote for Most Ironic Act of March 2012 by insisting that Sanogo should stand down and respect democracy. ECOWAS (the West African economic union) blockaded Mali and shut off all its borders. As Mali is landlocked and imports all of its gas, this persuaded Sanogo to promise to resign over the next few days. Power will now go on an interim basis to the President of the National Assembly, Dioncounda Traoré, who went into hiding after the coup and whose whereabouts are currently unknown. So far, so simple.
But now the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, ie. the rebel movement which Sanogo staged a coup in order to destroy) have conquered the northern two-thirds of the country, an area the size of France, and declared it independent as the State of Azawad (flag at right). Anyway, if there’s one thing I love more than unexpected changes of government, it’s an unrecognised de facto state. My enthusiasm is not shared by the world at large.
If you read over international reactions to the Azawadi Declaration of Independence (text, or en Français, they feature two things: firstly, an insistence that the nation in question will completely ignore it – in fact they’re so determined to ignore it that they’ve gone to the trouble of informing everyone just how much they’re ignoring it; and secondly, the phrase “the territorial integrity of Mali”.
My problem with calling upon territorial integrity in this situation is that it conceals another, better reason to hold reservations – the popular will. Although Azawad has been declared independent by the Tuareg, they are a minority in the area they have claimed for their own. Cities like Timbuktu and the whole of Mopti province are not even half-Tuareg, and to draft them into a Tuareg state is an unfair as the original French decision to draft the Tuareg into Mali. That is the real basis on which we should judge Azawad.
Territorial integrity in Africa has always been a thorny issue because nearly all the borders were created the 19th-century European powers. Therefore almost every state in Africa has at least one restive minority longing for an independent nation. In 1960s, a number of unrecognised states sprang up: Biafra in Nigeria, Cabinda in Angola, and Katanga in the Congo. Rwenzururu in Uganda lasted until 1982. Only three internationally-accepted African nations have been formed since decolonisation: Namibia in 1990 from South Africa; Eritrea in 1993 from Ethiopia; and South Sudan last year. But there are many more lurking on the horizon, and this is why Azawad terrifies African leaders. In the end I suspect it won’t make much difference – everyone said the same thing about Somaliland in 1990 and it’s still there, and Azawad’s varied ethnic make-up and incipient Islamist problem are far better reasons to be wary of recognising it.
But in general, the abuse of the doctrine of territorial integrity revolts and annoys me. Countries change – some separate, some vanish, independence movements appear and collapse. This is how history progresses. There have been more changes in global political geography during the 22 years I have been on this planet than I can rightly keep track of, and that is as it should be. Trying to keep everything fixed is what makes change into a problem in the first place. While I appreciate that the modern system allows for international standards of behaviour to be enforced, I can’t help feeling that it would be more constructive to encourage referendums in areas of long-standing separatist sentiment rather than to regard such sentiment as inherently counterproductive.
As a foundation for discourse, territorial integrity is just as susceptible to hypocritical abuse as the language of ‘democracy’, except that it doesn’t spark as much critical reaction. To this day I have never seen or read about any application of ‘territorial integrity’ – or any decision not to apply it – that wasn’t based totally on self-interest. This, of course, is how international politics works, but it would be nice if the countries acting for their own self-interest could at least stop pretending to be doing things for moral reasons.
Here’s a lovely little object lesson in the morality and analytical power of territorial integrity. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence. The West at large (with the exception of some countries, such as Spain, which don’t want to encourage their own separatist movements) recognised it immediately, and condemned Russia for not doing so out of ‘self-interest’. Later that year, after the War in Georgia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia recognised both of them as independent republics, drawing the ire of all the nations which had recognised Kosovo.
Of course, neither side here is truly acting morally – both the West and the Russians, acting as patron states, use recognition when they see fit and cry foul the rest of the time. The difference is that the Russians acknowledged they were acting out of self-interest in Kosovo, whereas the West decided that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legally sui generis, meaning it was a one-off and could not be used as legal precedent for other cases (this is also known as “do as I say, not as I do”). In truth, the most morally well-guided countries in the world might be Nauru and Tuvalu, as they have recognised South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Kosovo (although, lest they feel too proud of themselves, they’ve ignored Somaliland).
It’s difficult to see exactly where the situation can go from here. Once Dioncounda Traoré has been tracked down and installed in power as interim president, the exciting business of trying to hold an election will commence. Whether this happens before, after, or during military intervention to ‘reclaim’ the north is a key consideration. Looking at other African states, here are three possibilities, none of them particularly lovely:
1. Eternal ‘Transitional’ Government – The Eritrean Model: The Malian government, unwilling to hold an election in only a third of its territory, decides to reconquer the North, possibly with the assistance of surrounding states. The war drags on and a stalemate results, with elections eternally postponed until the country is secure enough.
1b. Regional War – The Caucasus Model: This subsidiary outcome would depend largely on the states which got militarily involved in the push to reclaim the North. There are three nations bordering Mali whose own populations of Tuareg might feel a little restive at the idea of a war against their own people: Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger. Niger, as a member of ECOWAS which has suffered from its own Northern insurgency since time immemorial, is the most likely to become involved. If this happens, a regional war is not impossible, and even if the rebellion is successfully crushed, other self-declared states may arise.
2. De facto Separation – The Somali Model: There are several Islamist movements in Azawad with which the MNLA has an uneasy and unclear relationship, most prominently Ansar Dine and AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). These groups have made it clear that they want a united but Islamic Mali rather than two states. Thus it seems unlikely that they will limit their activities to Azawad, even if right at the moment they are keep to establish a hold there because no-one else has effective authority. Suppose they spread into the rest of Mali, which is already anarchic, and further destabilise it. A smaller but secure Azawad emerges, perhaps centred around Gao, as Mali collapses into Islamist anarchy.
Captain Sanogo has undone two decades of democratic tradition by overthrowing an elected leader by accident less than one month before the end of his final term in office because of his perceived inaction in the face of a rebellion which, thanks to the chaos following the coup, has now conquered two-thirds of Mali’s territory and establishing an independent state. The moment Sanogo stands down he should be arrested and tried, as I suspect the damage he has done to Mali and West Africa will take some time to heal.
Current states with limited recognition (excluding UN members or observers):
- Abkhazia and South Ossetia (from Georgia, 1991; patron state: Russia)
- Azawad (from Mali, 2012; no patron state)
- Kosovo (from Serbia, 2008; patron state: the UN/USA)
- Nagorno-Karabakh (from Azerbaijan, 1992; patron state: Armenia)
- Somaliland (from Somalia, 1991; no patron state)
- Taiwan (claimed by PRC since 1949)
- Transnistria (from Moldova, 1990; patron state: Russia)
- Turkish Northern Cyprus (from Cyprus, 1983; patron state: Turkey)
- Western Sahara (claimed by Morocco since 1976)