The west African nation of Mali is in the midst of a growing set of crises: Two weeks ago, a group of junior army officers seized power from President Amadou Toumani Toure, producing significant political instability; a looming regional food crisis threatens to overwhelm many parts of the population; and Tuareg rebels have seized many key towns in the country's north, the closest they've come in decades to forging their own independent territory.
Now, the rebels - a group of different factions recently united under the banner MNLA (the French acronym for Asawad National Liberation Movement) - have announced they are suspending further military action, claiming they have already captured enough territory to form their own state.
The rebels' recent military successes have prompted widespread worry among Mali's neighbours and in the world beyond, out of fear that it will create a safe haven for Islamists, al-Qaeda or other rogue elements in the desert.
The MNLA statement may ease some of those concerns, though there has been no independent word from Ansar Dine, the MNLA's Islamic wing. When the MNLA took the storied town of Timbuktu recently, there were reports that Ansar Dine's black flag was planted over the local military garrison. The group is associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Saharan offshoot of the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden.
But the Tuareg quest for an independent homeland has long preceded any Islamist connections - links that, according to a CBC interview with expert Stephen Brown of the University of Ottawa, are probably overstated: "[Brown] feels the Islamist element in the Tuareg uprising is 'more a marriage of convenience than a fundamental meeting of the minds.' He says that Islamist elements could help the cause of independence, but cautions that 'not all people who want independence or greater autonomy are Islamist. And not all Islamists would necessarily support the rebellion.' "
The history of the Tuareg insurrection is one of struggle to regain control of traditional lands from a distant central government. And, as shown by some interesting research by The New Yorker, it can recounted in song:
In an excellent piece for the magazine, writer Rollo Romig considers the Tuareg struggle for an independent state of their own through the music of Tinariwen, the Grammy-winning Tuareg rock band that has brought the sounds of Azawad (as the Tuareg themselves refer to their territory) to audiences around the world. (In fact, the band is currently on tour in Europe, with some North American dates planned for June.)
We'll leave it to you to follow Romig's complete (and fascinating) history - click here to read the story; you can also check out the Spotify mix that accompanies it - but we've added a few clips for reference. The writer starts with the first Tuareg rebellion in 1963, which is commemorated in the Tinariwen song "Soixante Trois":
Following the failure of that uprising, the story moves on to difficult times that followed, in particular the period of drought and famine that drove many Tuaregs to Libya, as recounted in the song "Ahimana". It was while in Libya that Tinariwen refined their sound, but it was also where they began making music inspired by calls for rebellion. In 1983, they wrote "Tamatant Tilay" (Death Is Here) as a call for liberation:
Rowig continues his musical history up to the present day, and is certainly worth checking out. If nothing else, it shows that the narrative of the current insurgency is far from simple.