22 March 2012

West Africa: Tuareg Insurgency Exacerbates Food Insecurity in Sahel Region


The South African government, quite unlike to its response to the Somali famine last year, announced on Wednesday an "intervention" into the Sahel crisis.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Sahel region, the Western shoulder of the African continent, currently faces a food crisis that could affect as many as 16-million people.

A day after the African Union's Peace and Security Council met in Bamako, Mali to discuss the worsening security and humanitarian situation in the Sahel region, Bamako was beset with titillating rumours of a coup d'état.

The Malian presidency responded swiftly to the rumours, insisting that the government had not been overthrown, and that too on Twitter. The presidency countered the rumour with an actual confirmation of a mutiny by armed forces based in a garrison in Kati, about 20km north of Bamako.

The mutiny on Wednesday is the latest in a series of riots disrupting barracks in Mali in recent weeks. A rising number of disgruntled Malian soldiers have joined a military uprising further hampering efforts to stem a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country.

Jeremy Keenan, writing for Al-Jazeera believes that after two months of fighting, the Malian army has lost control of most of northern Mali. "The number of troops that have either been killed, taken captive or deserted is now thought to be at least 1,000," he says.

Keenan illustrates the severity of the lack of resources within the Malian army with an incident at an army base at Aguelhok in late January. In battle against Tuareg forces, or Kel Tamasheq, (the Tamasheq-speaking people, as they prefer to be known) Malian troops defending the base ran out of ammunition. And it is just one of several humiliating setbacks the Malian army has endured. The number of soldiers killed, taken captive or deserted, along with equipment destroyed or captured in these setbacks is thought to be considerable. As the army loses more ground to the Tuareg rebels, soldiers have grown dispirited, complaining of a lack of adequate equipment and, in some cases, food.

A mere month away from presidential elections, anger against the government's handling of the rebellion is growing unabated. Last month, wives and mothers of soldiers deployed in the battle against the Tuareg protested in Bamako against the government's perceived incompetence in handling the conflict. Disgruntled soldiers complain they lack adequate equipment to battle the rapid advance of the rebels.

This is of course not the first skirmish between the Tuareg and government forces in the region. The Tuareg have historically launched several military campaigns for greater autonomy in both Mali and Niger.

The first rebellion of the Tuareg against a Malian government broke out in 1963 when a young renegade called Alladi Ag Alla attacked two camel-mounted policemen in the north of the country. "Mali had only just won its independence from France, and the Kel Tamasheq, detached from world events in their far flung d

esert home, simply could not understand why their cherished independence and age old nomadic culture had been subsumed into a new state ruled by black Africans living hundreds of miles away who had never proved their right nor their fitness to become the Tuareg's new masters," explains Andy Morgan.

The latest rebellion, however, comes after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

The Tuareg and Gaddafi shared a relationship of mutual opportunism. Many Tuareg fought on the Gaddafi side in the civil war in Libya last year but Morgan notes they were often obliged or paid to do so.

"It was a matter of expediency rather than belief," he says. But as thousands of Tuareg people returned to Mali and Niger after Gaddafi's death, well armed but empty handed, coupled with the expedient timing of internal Tuareg politics, it was an opportune time to launch a new campaign to assert the autonomy of the Tuareg people.

And so on the morning of Tuesday, 17 January 2012, a new Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked the town of Menaka in the north east of Mali.

The clashes have exacerbated a lack of security in a region plagued by fighters linked to al-Qaeda. And indeed for many in the West, the Tuareg rebellion is seen as proof of an ascendant al-Qaeda faction in the region.

And while many outside Mali continue to cheer the Malian forces on, the fight spirit in Malian soldiers is rapidly waning. The mutiny on Wednesday occurred after a visit by the defence minister to a barracks in Kati.

The minister is said to have visited Kati to speak to troops about their grievances against the government but soldiers were unconvinced. Dozens of them took weapons and vehicles from the army stores and marched to the capital, firing shots before storming the state broadcaster to demand better equipment to fight the Tuareg insurgency.

The conflict has so far killed several thousand people and forced nearly 200,000 civilians to flee their homes, severely compounding the threat of food insecurity in the region. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the Sahel region, the Western shoulder of the African continent, currently faces a food crisis that could affect as many as 16-million people. This includes 3-million in Mali, 5.4-million people in the Niger, some 1.7-million in Burkina Faso, 3.6-million in Chad, 850,000 in Senegal, 713,500 in the Gambia and a further 700,000 in Mauritania.

Under strain from its ineffectual attempts at warding off the Tuareg rebellion and attempts to address a looming food crisis, Mali have requested South Africa's help to ease the humanitarian burden in the country. The South African government, quite unlike to its response to the Somali famine last year, announced on Wednesday an "intervention" into the Sahel crisis. It's not quite the military intervention the Malian government may well welcome but South Africa's pledge to send vital aid to Mali - as well as Niger, Chad and Mauritania - is a timely reminder of the humanitarian emergency beneath the Malian conflict.

The depth of the food crisis is of course not easily explained. Drought, sharp declines in cereal production and high grain prices, a shortage of fodder for livestock, a reduction in remittances from migrant workers in several countries, environmental degradation, displacement and chronic poverty have all contributed to entrench the crisis. The Tuareg conflict could not have arrived at a worse time.

The human cost of this conflict is telling in the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes in northern Mali. Between 65,000 and 70,000 people are internally displaced persons (IDPs) according to estimates by the Malian government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Over 70,000 others have fled to neighbouring countries. These include over 30,000 in Mauritania, nearly 20,000 in Burkina Faso, more than 5,000 in Algeria and about 16,000 in Burkina Faso, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

Speaking to reporters at a news briefing in Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said refugees fleeing Mali are afraid they too will be caught in the conflict. "They are also concerned about bandits, who are taking advantage of the prevailing instability to loot homes and property," Mahecic said.

The UN estimates some 1,500 refugees arrive from Mali to Mauritania every day. For perspective, at the height of the Somali famine last year, it was said about 2,000 Somali refugees were arriving at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya daily.

Mauritania is itself reeling from political instability and food insecurity. The toll of the Tuareg conflict is fast outstripping Mali's border. Once again conflict and hunger haunt Africa together.

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