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Azawad: Africa's Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it's an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I'd been to. I answered, "29-31 depending on your definition." I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say "most of the world" because I've been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn't recognized by 32 other nations.

I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world's nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I've visited is Palestine. I know it's politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn't. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine's statehood and that's good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali's government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn't lend confidence either. I've spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women's faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it's a country I'd love to add to my passport. It's an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that's home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that's in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad's independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region's affairs, however, it's doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Learning, Festivals and Events, Africa, Mali, News

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