Mali coup shows Arab Spring instability bleeds over borders
The winds of the Arab Spring that blew down the gates of dictators across the region have also galvanised movements farther afield. It is no coincidence that in the same year the Arab uprisings began, North Americans and Europeans took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. The example of the uprisings has been felt far beyond Arab cities.
But the consequences haven't always been positive. As the aftermath of the uprisings begins to be felt, it is clear that the collapse of North African regimes is affecting countries further south.
The coup in Mali is the most serious example. Lying on the other side of the Sahara from Libya, Mali has felt the repercussions of the demise of the Qaddafi regime. Tuaregs, a historically nomadic ethnic group that numbered in the hundreds of thousands inside Libya, fought for Qaddafi and many fled south after his defeat, taking heavy weaponry with them.
In January, a group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad began a military campaign for a separate homeland in the north of Mali, a region Tuaregs call Azawad. Better armed than the Malian army, the rebels inflicted serious losses on the soldiers in the north, prompting a mutiny that led to the recent coup, which has sent President Amadou Toumani Toureto, the democratically elected leader of Mali, into hiding.
The situation is rapidly deteriorating - rebels yesterday took control of the ancient city of Timbuktu and France urged its citizens to leave the country.
It is not only Mali. Chad, which shares a long desert border with Libya, is also feeling the effects of the aftermath of the uprisings. The volatile north, where Libya, Chad and Sudan intersect, has a history of armed groups beyond the reach of weak states.
In recent years, Qaddafi's government helped to stabilise the border region by mediating with these armed groups. With Qaddafi gone, and the focus of the Libyan state elsewhere, the conflicts are returning: last month, around 100 people were killed in clashes between two ethnic groups in Kufra, a small town in the far south-east of Libya. There were further clashes in the nearby city of Sebha, which led to a truce brokered by Libya's transitional government.
The case of Chad mirrors the case of Mali in one crucial respect: the borders between the states on this side of the Sahara are porous. The ethnic group most affected in the south is the Tabu, a traditionally nomadic people who live across the borders of Chad, Niger and Libya, and trace their origins to Yemen. Now, fearing that the clashes could be the start of a longer conflict, Tabu leaders have announced they may push for a separate state, as did South Sudan.
There will be more to come. In the African countries directly south of North Africa, a cocktail of issues is mixing itself after the Arab Spring. Combined with weak states, this is likely to continue to destabilise the region.
First, the eyes of Arab leaders are elsewhere. The majority of the populations of Egypt, Libya and Algeria live near the coast, not in the vast expanses of desert in the south. As Egypt and Libya seek to stabilise their countries, and Algeria tightens its grip to try to avoid a similar change, the focus of governments is on their coastal cities. The Saharan belt is being neglected and the governments of sub-Saharan African countries, with the exception of Nigeria, lack the resources to police these vast spaces.
Second, the triggers of the Arab Spring are also present in the rest of Africa. Africa's population is growing rapidly, and is getting proportionately younger. At the same time, governments are struggling to provide work for young people and, in many cases, even food. Food scarcity is especially acute in the region bordering the Sahara - Niger, which shares borders with both Libya and Algeria, accounts for a sixth of all child deaths from malnutrition in the world. This provides ample opportunity for radical political movements.
And radical politics represent the third trigger. Militants in North Africa have been squeezed in the last few years. The Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which sought to overthrow the government in Algiers, was almost destroyed by the security services before announcing a link to Al Qaeda, rebranding as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and expanding its sphere of operations.
An offshoot of AQIM is now holding three European aid workers, demanding €30 million (Dh147 million) for their release. That group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, is expanding its operations.
In these cases, the squeeze in North Africa has pushed fringe groups south, where they have found a fertile swamp in the poverty and lawless spaces near the Sahara.
With the international focus on post-revolution countries and tensions in the Gulf, there is a lack of political will to tackle these issues before they escalate. As the Malian experience shows, the situation in weak countries can rapidly deteriorate, and draw in neighbouring countries.
The coup in Mali is just one example of how the upheavals that convulsed North Africa are having knock-on effects elsewhere, increasing instability across this band of Africa. The winds of revolutions from the north will bring unintended changes to the African continent, not all of them positive.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: April 3, 2012 04:00 AM