Wikipedia, Azawad, and the Art of Internet Statecraft

Snubbed by the U.N., the Independent State of Azawad earned legitimacy online.

Apr 24 2012, 1:00pm

On Friday, April 6, at 0224 hours GMT, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declared independence from Mali, taking the northeastern two-thirds of the country with them. Said to be substantially composed of returning mercenaries from Qaddafi’s Libya, the MNLA emerged last fall as the latest separatist movement pitting Tuaregs, who are Arab-Berber pastoralists of the sort romanticized in SUV names (cf. Cherokees), against the sedentary and much more densely populated black-African south. Claiming the government was doing too little to fight the rebels, Malian army officers staged a coup last month; only after they seized control in Bamako did the MNLA, with uneasy Islamist allies, overrun the north and proclaim Azawad founded. Reuters called the coup “a spectacular own-goal”. The military has now been forced to hand the reins back to an interim civilian government, which finds itself with some 300,000 sq. miles to reconquer.

No foreign government or supranational organization has recognized Azawad’s sovereignty, and none seems forthcoming.

The African Union — which is basically pledged to maintaining the crazy-quilt borders left by European imperialists — called the Tuaregs’ online declaration “null and of no value whatsoever.” For months the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had already been quietly considering intervention against the northern rebels; events whiplashed the 15-member bloc into putting down the junta in the south first.

Opinion outside Africa was unanimous, terse, and more than a bit generic. “A unilateral declaration of independence…would not have any meaning for us,” assured the defense minister of France, Mali’s old colonial master.

Farther afield, condemnation was left to aides and press releases. “The E.U.,” a E.U. spokeswoman said on April 6, “has made clear throughout the crisis that it respects the territorial integrity of Mali.” Russia, so fond of its own breakaway client states, said that “there are virtually no chances…for legitimization” of the Tuaregs’. The U.S. State Department issued a seven-line statement “reiterat[ing] our support for the territorial integrity of Mali” and “urg[ing] all armed groups…to find a nonviolent path forward for national elections and a peaceful coexistence.”

The U.N. Security Council did not hash out its own (14-line) press statement on the “need to uphold and respect the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Mali” until April 9; an earlier “Statement on Mali Crisis,” released post-coup on March 22, didn’t specifically mention the north or its insurgency at all.

But if the planet’s statesmen and diplomats failed to anticipate the course (let alone support the cause) of Azawadi nationalism — falling, when pushed, on the usual professional platitudes for faraway (non-)countries of which we know nothing — one great global institution took to the murky events in Gao and Timbuktu with remarkable avidity, and shows no sign of relenting any time soon. Happily for the Azawadis, Wikipedia’s interest may, in the long run of facts of things, prove the most critical “recognition” of all.

Just as happily for the amateur historian, its grand debates and minute deliberations — or, the Azawad talk page and revision log, respectively — are always already in the public record; no waiting on state archives or leaked cables here.

Read the rest of Part 1 - and continue on to Parts 2 and 3 - over at Motherboard.

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