On Thursday, January 10, a public bus operated by the Sonef transport company arrived on the outskirts of Konna, a small town 700 km north of Bamako, the capital of Mali.

It was market day in Konna, and soldiers at the checkpoint on the Konna-Gao road waved the bus through. At the next checkpoint at the entry to the town, soldiers clambered into the bus for a routine security check when the passengers gunned them down. Heavily armed Islamist rebels poured out of the bus, destroying the checkpoint as more fighters arrived in a convoy of jeeps and pickup trucks and fanned out across the town. The Malian army retreated to their base, an hour’s drive away in Sevare, according to a Malian soldier who witnessed the attack. Lt. Colonel Diarran Kone, spokesperson for the Malian Army, confirmed that the attackers arrived by a public bus but refused to offer more details.

Sonef has disputed these claims, insisting that the company is a victim of a conspiracy. "There were no rebels in the bus," said Khalifa Ould, General Manager of Sonef, "Passengers had alighted from the bus at the police checkpoint when the rebels came from nowhere and attacked the checkpoint. They definitely did not come from inside the bus."

Soon Konna was in rebel hands just like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and all of northern Mali – a vast span of desert that makes up about two-thirds of the country and is about the combined size of Spain and France. The area is now controlled by self-declared Islamists who have gained international notoriety for setting up ad hoc tribunals and administering harsh punishments like stoning presumed adulterers and amputating the limbs of alleged thieves.

En route to Sevare on Thursday evening, this correspondent spotted fast-moving helicopter gunships headed north. Over the telephone, Sevare residents said they spotted French soldiers, helicopters and cargo planes at the airport. Malian officials declared Sevare out of bounds for journalists; this correspondent was turned back at the Sevare checkpoint on two separate occasions.

On Friday morning, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France would come to the aid of its former colony as French helicopter gunships and jet fighters attacked Konna. The rebels shot down a French helicopter, killing the pilot, before melting back into vast deserts to the north. Malian officials are yet to confirm the number of rebels, civilians or soldiers killed in violence on Thursday and Friday. “We have regained control of Konna and are checking it for mines,” said Lt. Col. Kone over the telephone on Saturday.

Malian President Dioncounda Traore has asked the international community for assistance and imposed a state of emergency across the country. “On behalf of France I have responded to the request,” said French President Francois Hollande on Friday, “This operation will last as long as necessary.” At the time of going to press, hundreds of French troops had arrived in Bamako to protect French interests and assets in the capital.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member regional bloc, has authorized the immediate deployment of troops in Mali, but it is unclear how many troops will be available at short notice.

The battle for Konna offers a window into the multi-dimensional conflict that threatens to consume Mali, a nation of about 14.5 million that has struggled to contain the divergent aspirations of its northern and southern ethnic groups since its independence in 1960.

Race is a contested and emotive topic across the Sahel, the semi-arid grasslands that stretch from Senegal to Sudan. Numerous ethnic groups draw their identities from the intersection between profession — e.g. nomadic herders or sedentary farmers – and ‘race’ — like the light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs and the black Africans.

In Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, historian Mahmood Mamdani argues that ‘racial difference’ began as a colonial construct, popularised by colonial administrators and historians, that posited the idea of black original-settlers and Arab settlers who usurped power across northern Africa.

But In A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, historian Bruce S. Hall argues the opposite: In Mali, racial differences between the nomadic Tuaregs and sedentary black Africans predate colonialism and shaped the eventual French conquest. Historically, the two groups clashed over access to land, water and grazing lands in the desert. Relations were further complicated by the Tuareg practice of enslaving a specific ethnic group known as the Bella, who the Tuaregs designated as ‘black’.

At independence, several prominent Tuareg leaders lobbied for a separate Tuareg homeland consisting of northern Mali and parts of modern day Algeria, Niger, Mauritania. “My brother, we are like the Palestinian people upon whom the domination of the Jews was imposed,” wrote Muhammed Ali Ag Attaher, a Tuareg leader, in a letter to French President Charles de Gaulle, “We will never accept domination imposed over us. The nomads who pretend to accept this are gutless hypocrites.”

Meanwhile black politicians like Modibo Keita, Mali’s first President, made it clear that independent Mali would not cede its northern territories.

Modibo Keita won and his government shattered the power of the Tuareg elites. Turbulent rebellions broke out in 1962-64 and again in 1990, each of which was brutally put down by the Malian army.

In the intervening years, a pan-Sahel drought devastated Tuareg populations — forcing thousands to migrate to neighbouring countries and Libya, where Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi incorporated them into his army. With Colonel Qadhafi’s fall in 2011, a faction of heavily armed Tuaregs, organised under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) returned to wage a war of liberation.

Sidelined

The MNLA was subsequently sidelined by groups of drug-traffickers-turned- self-identified Islamists called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO); the Ansar Dine; and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They have expanded the rebellion beyond the Tuaregs by incorporating a number of ethnic groups like the Bella and Songhai (who have historically opposed the Tuareg) into a multiethnic attack on Bamako.

In the interim, Southern Mali saw its own share of turmoil: Four years after suppressing the Tuaregs, Modibo Keita was ousted by Moussa Traore, an army lieutenant, who ruled the country for the next 23 years. He was overthrown by a counter-coup in 1991, during the second Tuareg uprising. Alpha Oumar Konare, a career politician, won two successful terms as President from 1992 to 2002. He was replaced by Amadou Toumani Toure, a retired general who led the 1992 counter-coup against Mr. Traore.

The two peaceful transitions of power in 1992 and 2002 prompted international media outlets to describe Mali as a ‘bulwark of democracy’ but internal audits revealed several discrepancies. “Seven million of a total population of 14.5 million are on the electoral rolls,” said a diplomat involved in electoral reform. The median age of citizens is only 16.5 years; and 8.25 million Malians are under 18 according to a 2010 census, suggesting at least a million fraudulent voters.

Mr. Toure served two terms and was due to step down in the summer of 2012 when a renewed Tuareg insurgency precipitated another coup, this time led by Amadou Sanogo, a Captain in the Malian army.

Weak Army

The constant and real fear of a military takeover, opposition parties say, led Mali’s politicians — particularly Mr. Toure — to weaken the army by creating an elaborate and corrupt patronage network of generals and businessmen. “The army of Mali was destroyed by the powers and they robbed the election every time,” said Oumar Mariko, Secretary-General of African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI), a leftist opposition party, adding, “since 1992 there has been not been any clear election in Mali.”

Mr. Mariko said he supported the 2012 military coup because coup-leader Captain Sanogo “represents the proletarian faction of army” who have been exploited by the generals; Mr. Mariko’s detractors believe he allied with Captain Sanogo to seek the fastest route to power.

Since then, a transitional government, installed at the urging of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (A.U.), has plunged the country into political and military chaos as chains of civilian and military command have snapped. “No one knows who is in control in Mali, the politicians or the Army? Who in the Army? Sanogo or the Generals?” said a senior Malian journalist who preferred not to be identified.

The army has been reduced to about 5000 poorly trained fighting men, according to European diplomatic sources, and lacks the basic equipment and skills to fight off the battle-hardened rebels. A recent clip circulated on the Internet shows a training exercise in which army men point rifles at imaginary targets and verbally mimic the sound of gunfire to simulate a battlefield.

The fall of Konna suggests that, if anything, the situation is actually worse than imagined. “There were no Tuaregs in the bus [that led the attack], they were all black Malians,” said a soldier who witnessed the attack — suggesting the Islamists have recruited a multi-ethnic fighting force.

A Songhai refugee from Gao confirmed that the Islamists gathered significant support from the local population, and spoke of a lingering resentment against the Tuaregs. “First the Tuaregs came and they beat people,” he said, adding “The Islamists saved the population in the North. They fought the Tuaregs, that is how they got the trust of the population. After that they did some terrible things.”

By sidelining the MNLA, the refugee said, the Islamists gained significant traction — particularly amongst the Songhai and the Bella who felt that the peace deal signed by the Tuaregs and the Malian government in 1995 gave disproportionate powers to the former, “The Malian government gave everything to the Tuaregs. Some Tuareg doesn’t write, doesn’t read but they get a great post in the government or army,” he said.

Further conflict

As French and international troops seek to recapture territories under former rebel control, advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) fear that ethnic groups nurturing past grievances could settle scores by inflicting collective punishment on innocents and sow seeds for further conflict.

Recently, international media outlets have written largely laudatory reports about informal militias called the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Soil), trained by the Malian army to fight the rebels. The Ganda Izo is a reincarnation of the Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land) — Songhai militias responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tuaregs in the north in the 1990s.

“Fellow citizens of the North, let us sweep away all nomads from our villages and cities, even from our barren land. Black sedentary people…let us take up arms for the great battle that awaits,” exhorted a Ganda Koy pamphlet of that period, “Tomorrow the nomads will install themselves there as dominators…Why are there army posts for the nomads? Why are there seats in parliament for armed rebel-bandits? We should create insecurity for the nomads as they have created it for the sedentary populations.”

On Friday evening, as the Malian army reasserted its control of Konna, a group of soldiers attacked the office of the Sonef transport company in Bamako. “The military told us that the rebels had used a Sonef bus to enter Konna,” said a bystander. By the evening, rumours claimed that Sonef was owned by a wealthy Tuareg family. The rumours were false — the owners are Malian Arabs — but it didn’t matter. A new rumour suggested the Arab family had long-standing ties with the Islamists.

"We are being targeted the company because of where we are from, we from the North of Mali, we are Arabs," said Khalifa Ould of Sonef, "We don't have anything to do with the Islamists, we are also victims of what is happening in the North."

This article has been updated on January 18th to incorporate the views of the Sonef Transport Company.

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