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Post-Gaddafi repercussions in Northern Mali.

1. Introduction

When I was doing research (2) in the tiny West-African country of Guinea-Bissau in the spring of 2011, some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries started bombing military installations and army units in Libya in order to support the Libyan 'revolution'. Libyan rebels had followed the example of their Egyptian and Tunisian neighbours and had risen against the country's 'leader', Gaddafi. The events in North-Africa had repercussions throughout the continent, especially in West Africa where Gaddafi had either invested in respective national economies, or had performed on numerous occasions the role of 'traditional chief' by distributing considerable amounts of money to a number of individuals, thus dispensing largesse as one of the most important tools of power of traditional leadership.

Colleagues and friends from the national research institute in Bissau, the country's capital, suggested at the time organising a public conference to which I was invited. The conference, attended by mainly scholars, academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and development agencies, aimed at shedding light on the Libyan events and the impact on West Africa. Participants fervently discussed the events in Libya and possible prospects for a post-Gaddafi era in West Africa. Most of them argued against the NATO intervention in Libya and in favour of Gaddafi; with only few supporting the Libyan rebels and the Western forces. At the time, it seemed as if the Libyan events would present an important historical turning point able to change the course of Africa's political history.

About one year later, in June 2012, the Kofi Annan International Peace Keeping Centre in Accra, Ghana, in collaboration with the Nordic Africa Institute of Uppsala University, Sweden, invited a number of scholars, military officials and political decision makers to explore the post-Gaddafi repercussions in the Sahel. I was asked to speak about the possible impact of the Libyan events on Northern Mali. Here, the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA--Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l'Azawad) had been joined by former Libyan soldiers or militia of Tuareg origin after Gaddafi's defeat and the leader's death in August 2011. Other Tuareg returnees, who had likewise served in the Libyan Army, demanded (and received) integration into the Malian Armed Forces. On 17 January 2012, the MNLA started attacks in the northern regions of Mali and succeeded in two and a half months of fierce fighting to conquer all towns and villages in the north, and to defeat the Malian army. In April, the movement declared the independence of Northern Mali, announcing the formation of a new state 'Azawad'. (3)

Although the link between the Libyan revolution and the Malian events seems to be all too obvious, I will argue differently. It is more than problematic to establish causal links between the Libyan events and what recently has happened, and still is happening, in Northern Mali. There are two principal reasons for that: Firstly, phenomena of collective violence are indeed very dynamic and, in the course of violent events, the motive to take up arms or to conclude alliances can change rapidly. This is all the more evident the longer a violent conflict lasts; in long lasting wars, the original causes or motives that led conflicting parties to start a war tend to be almost forgotten (Van Creveld 1998: 217). This is to say that any kind of aetiology of collective violence is difficult to establish. Attempts to reconstruct phenomena of collective violence from presumed causes (or even root causes) are likely to fail (Klute 2001). As a consequence, we have to be rather prudent in drawing causal links between the Libyan and the Malian events. The same is true for any prognostics of future events. Today, about one year after the murder of Gaddafi, the situation in Northern Mali is still as dynamic and evolving so fast that we can only speculate about possible outcomes.

The second reason for my hesitance to reduce the situation in Northern Mali to what has happened in North Africa is the all important local processes of power-building and power-struggles in Northern Mali. Given present conditions in the post-colonial West African state, and the decreasing attraction of the occidental state (Van Creveld 1999; Von Trotha 1999), processes of power-building at the local level become central (Klute and Von Trotha 2004). In order to reconstruct the current events in Northern Mali, we therefore have to refer to local debates and to local history. Of course, this is not to say that we can neglect global or regional contexts. The point is that what happens and has happened locally, and the way this is interpreted and spoken about at the local level, will give us the key to understanding the events in Northern Mali.

Before stating my main hypothesis, some context to the empirical basis of my argument is necessary. From 1990 to 2000, I conducted research on the so-called Tuareg rebellion in Mali and Niger, which included prolonged stays in the borderlands between Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. In this context, I collected numerous biographies of Tuareg migrants who had moved from Niger and Mali to Algeria or Libya. Tens of thousands of Tuareg migrants were enrolled into various units of the Libyan armed forces. I thus got some insights of the Libyan situation at the time from the migrants' point of view (Klute 2001; Klute 2006). Secondly, my arguments are based on the results of a research project in the Egyptian-Libyan and the Algerian-Malian borderlands that I conducted with Thomas Husken. Before we began our collaboration in 2006, Thomas had been working for more than 10 years in the region, and was therefore in a position to give me a clear idea about the political culture of Libya in general, and of the Cyrenaica region in particular. Our main research interest was in the emergence of new forms of political power (see Husken and Klute 2010). Furthermore, since the beginning of the events in Mali, I am in almost daily telephone contact with some of the actors in Northern Mali, and consult various internet blogs on a daily basis. (4)

Throughout this paper, I will argue that it is, of course, necessary to take into account the impact the Libyan events have had on the Sahelian countries in general, and on Northern Mali in particular. It also goes without saying that the current situation cannot be grasped without having an idea of the attempts by Islamic groups to spread Islamic rule and their version of an Islamic mode of life to African countries. However, in order to understand the situation in Northern Mali, and to define the great number of groups, their different motives and positions, and how they relate to one other, as well as to the national state and the international community, we need to look first and foremost at the debates at local levels, and we need constantly to consider our analysis within a historical perspective. The current situation in Northern Mali is indeed, above all, the result of local debates and struggles for power at a local level. It is not just the echo of what has happened or conceived elsewhere, like some commentators try to make us believe. The Libyan revolution accelerated the outbreak of the war, and Islamic rule and the Islamic mode of life have been an enduring part of the local debate.

2. The dialectics of Islam and freedom

In Northern Mali, two types of claims can be differentiated: The first is the claim to promote Islam, more precisely, to install an Islamic mode of societal organisation. The second claim I have called 'freedom', a claim that can take different forms, depending on the persons demanding freedom, and the historical context. It is either a claim for greater autonomy from the central government, or a claim for fully-fledged independence of Northern Mali from the rest of the country. Both claims, the Islamic claim and the claim for freedom, became visible at the time of Mali's independence in 1960.

In July 1960, the commandant de cercle de Gao (district officer of Gao) toured the district in order to prepare the population for the coming independence of the country. In Kidal, which then was part of the Gao district, he met Tuareg notables, among them the head-chief of the region's Tuareg tribes, Zayd agg Attaher. The newly elected head-chief advocated, as had done his father and predecessor, for the political autonomy of the region. As we can read in the commandant's report (quoted in Boilley 1999), he particularly asked for the following:

--Priority of teaching in Arabic as opposed to teaching in French.

--Positions in the administration for people trained in Arabic.

--Regional autonomy for Northern Mali, meaning that there would be a representative of the central state in the region, who would not be allowed to act without the consent of the regional autonomous institutions.

--The autonomous region guarantees order and security and should be equipped for this purpose with its own police force.

The Malian government, however, categorically refused all such claims. In order to put a halt to any hope for autonomy, or, in the eyes of the Tuareg, for 'freedom', the government reinforced its military presence in the region. In this context, it is remarkable that the same claim for regional autonomy did not die out, but was reformulated 30 years later during the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s, as I will show below.

Shortly afterwards, in 1963, Tuareg in Northern Mali revolted against the central government. The upheaval, regionally known as alfellaga, was led by the same head-chief Zayd agg Attaher who had asked for the autonomy of the region. Although the rebels adopted hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, they were rather easily defeated in about a year of fighting, for they were poorly armed, and the Malian army received support from the Algerian government. Already in October 1963 the main political leaders of the rebellion, who were trying to arrange support in Algeria and Morocco, were arrested by the armed forces of the respective countries and extradited to Mali. Zayd was captured in Algeria and transferred to Mali's capital Bamako where he was put in prison for 15 years. In February 1964, the Malian army obtained the right to pursue the rebel forces into Algeria, which meant that the rebels and the fleeing civilians lost their safe haven. In August 1964, the rebellion was over (Lecocq 2010).

When I had the opportunity to talk to Zayd about alfellaga in November 1996, he argued that the main reason for the upheaval had been the refusal of the new Malian government to adopt an Islamic constitution, or at least to install a ministry of Islamic affairs (Klute 2001). Zayd's statement captures the second claim of the Tuareg in Northern Mali, that is the desire for an Islamic mode of societal organisation.

The rebels of the 1960s asked themselves why they should give allegiance to an independent state of Mali. At the beginning of the 20th century, Tuareg political leadership had surrendered to the colonial power of France by treaty. These treaties had been concluded with colonial France and not with France's successor-state Mali (Klute and Lecocq 2013). There should be a new treaty now, and the new state should not be a secular one, as was proclaimed by Mali's first president Modibo KeTta, a strong proponent of African socialism.

A second reason probably was racial distinction. It seems that many Tuareg did not want to be part of sub-Saharan or 'black' Africa, with southern Malians also regarding the Tuareg as racially 'white'. Tuareg post-independence identity thus became linked to racial perceptions, shared on all sides, of African populations supposedly divided over 'white' Arabs and Berbers and 'black' sub-Saharans. The racial distinction now came partly to define the otherness of the Tuareg in their own eyes, and in those of the West African political elite (Hall 2011).

A further far reaching consequence of alfellaga has been the isolation of the Kidal region. For the greater part of 24 years, from 1963 to the end of 1986, the government actually declared the Kidal region a restricted area and cut it off from all normal relations, not only from Mali but also from the rest of the world. (5) The French anthropologist Andre Bourgeot argues that the isolation of the Kidal region from the economic, social and political development in Mali caused the local society to fragment (Bourgeot 1986); for the Kidal Tuareg were neither integrated into the Malian society, nor into neighbouring Algeria or Libya where many Kidal Tuareg migrated to after alfellaga. Having 'lost their country to Mali', they were neither Malian nor Algerian nor Libyan. One of their songs describes the resulting situation as life "between countries". The gap between Mali and the Kidal region has actually never closed; during the upheavals from 1990 to 1996, and again from 2006 to 2009, Kidal was again declared a restricted area and was completely cut off from the south of the country during the ephemeral existence of the Azawad state in 2012.

Jumping 30 years ahead in time, the Tuareg of the Kidal region again revolted against the Malian state as in the 1990s. In the course of this upheaval, both claims were present. In the first peace agreement of the conflict, concluded in January 1991 in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, the conflicting parties, the Malian government and the rebels, agreed to grant a particular status to Northern Mali that included the following points:

--Sovereignty in cultural affairs.

--A regional police force.

--Sovereignty in regional economic and social affairs.

--The possibility to negotiate directly with foreign investors, donors or development agencies, without the intervention of the central government.

As with all peace accords that followed the "Tamanrasset Agreement", this agreement was never fully put into practice. But its contents clearly shows the continuity of the claim and demand for 'freedom'. Although the Islamic claim was less visible to the outside world, it became visible to the attentive observer during an intra-Tuareg group war in 1994. Two rebel movements of Northern Mali, ARLA (Armee Revolutionaire pour la Liberation de l'Azawad) and MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l'Azawad) stood in opposition to each another. They disagreed on the question of whether or not to continue fighting the Malian government after a second peace agreement had been concluded in April 1992. The political dissent turned into a violent conflict. In nearly one year of fighting, and with the logistical support of the Malian army, MPA defeated ARLA by the end of 1994 and won this fratricidal war (Klute and Von Trotha 2004).

The decision to take up arms and to wage a war needs justification. This is all the more true when the war is directed against adversaries with whom one has had long lasting relationships, and the war between MPA and ARLA was indeed a war amongst brothers. All combatants were of the same ethnic group; most of them of the same region, Kidal, and many had been former comrades in arms, either in the wars they had fought for the Libyan leader Gaddafi, or in the war against 'Mali'. Although all fighters were of the same regional and ethnic origin, they differed socially. While ARLA recruited mainly from a group of former vassals, members of MPA were mainly Tuareg of a 'noble' group. The vassals' identity stems essentially from their Berber origin; they justify the fight against Mali as the resistance of Berbers against foreign invaders, referring thereby to the heroic Berber king (or queen) Koseila (Koseilata) of the 7th century who fought the Islamic invaders of North Africa. The members of MPA, on the other hand, claim a double descent: as Tuareg of noble birth, and as Muslims, many of whom pretend direct descent from the members of the Islamic army who fought the Berber resistance in the 7th century. As in 1400 years before, the Muslim fighters defeated the Berber resistance again in 1994 (Klute 2003).

Until the turn of the new millennium, Northern Mali had indeed been a remote place, geographically at the periphery of Mali, socially and politically at its margins. Now that the region became 'globalised'; a number of global actors appeared in the region. There were:

--The United States (US) Army Special Forces, who came within the framework of first the PSI (Pan-Sahel-Initiative), and then the TSCTI (Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative), later named TSCP (Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership). (6)

--Agents of Algeria.

--Agents of (Gaddafi's) Libya.

--Agents of France.

--Al Qaeda of the Maghreb.

--Tablighi al-jama'at (Dawa), a missionary movement to spread Islam.

--Drug-trafficking networks and migrant-traders, locally known as syndicats.

All these global players brought their ideas or ideologies of what ought to be 'the good and right order': There is the idea of an US-led 'global war on terror' with its epistemic base of a dichotomised world, divided into the good and the evil. Then there is the 'umma islamiya' the Islamic community, meaning that all Muslims should unite in an integrated polity. Also persisting is the colonial heritage of a republican state according to the French model, where federal structures are proposed as a solution to the multi-ethnicity of the country, with regional autonomy as already proposed in 1960. Finally what has been advocated is a national state encompassing all Tuareg, until today divided between five countries, through the revitalisation of traditional rule of the tribal confederacy of Kal-Adagh, as in pre-colonial times.

These various models of societal order do not determine the regional debate; they rather serve as references in the regional competition for power. At the same time, we can observe a highly dynamic political sphere where all participating groups, even if they seem to be clearly delineated by competing ideologies, are always ready to break old alliances and swiftly forge new ones, which mostly fall apart shortly thereafter.

Many of the rebels of the 1990s I came to know during my research play a prominent role in today's events. Iyad ag Ghali, the first leader of the Tuareg upheaval in the 1990s and leader of MPA, for example, is the founder and head of the Islamic movement Ansar ud Din, and some of his former officers belong either to Ansar ud Din, or to the secular movement MNLA, or fought on the side of the Malian army. Al-Hajji Gammu, today a high ranking officer in Mali's army, was actually Iyad's comrade in arms and friend since they were together in Gaddafi's 'Islamic Legion', moving from Libya to Lebanon in order to help the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) fight the Israeli invasion in Lebanon in 1982. They later went to Mali to lead the first attack against Mali in June 1990. During the 1994 fratricidal war opposing MPA and ARLA, both men became adversaries, one leading MPA, the other being the military commander of ARLA. Al-Hajji Gammu was later integrated into the Malian army, and fought as an army commander for the MNLA in its fight for independence as Ansar ud Din, and its Islamic claim.

Coming to today's situation in Northern Mali, the situation appears to be quite confusing. Besides the international actors mentioned above, there are several politico-military groups fighting for different purposes. As stated above, there is the MNLA, which despite its regional claim, is in fact an ethno-nationalist movement dominated by Tuareg and fighting for secession and an independent state. (7) The MNLA assumed the major burden of the struggle against Mali from midJanuary to the end of March 2012. Although it recruited its members from among all Malian Tuareg groups, the tribal groups of Chaman Amass, Idnan and Kel Antessar seem to be dominant. A second important group is AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic West). (8) AQIM emanated from the Algerian GSPC, Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), which constituted itself from remnants of the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s. Around 2000, the GSPC had established itself in the Algerian Sahara from where it spread to Northern Mali and Niger. In 2007, the GSPC re-named itself AQIM. The GSPC/AQIM retained good contacts with the Malian government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was driven from power by a military putsch in late March 2012. AQIM have considered, in case of need, the Malian territory a sanctuary in which the group was safe from persecution. A splinter group of AQIM, apparently dominated by Islamists of Mauritanian origin, is MUJAO, Mouvement pour l'Uncite et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (Movement for Union and for Jihad in West-Africa).

The movement with the clearest political project, possessing the only 'concrete utopia' (Ernst Bloch), is without any doubt Ansar ud Din. The founding of Ansar ud Din demonstrates clearly the swift changes of alliances and the varying global, regional and local visionaries to which the various groups refer. Ansar ud Din was founded in late 2011 by a number of former MNLA leaders, led by Iyad ag Ghali, as mentioned earlier. Informants told me that Iyad was in vain proposed for the position of the general secretary of MNLA in October 2011. After the refusal of his candidature, he and his friends founded Ansar ud Din. There is, however, more than just greed for power. There is a religious conviction too. Ansar ud Din fights for the spread of Islam, which includes the application of shari'a, the Islamic law, either within the limits of an independent Azawad, or in the rest of Mali, therewith somehow combining Tuareg secessionist nationalism with an Islamic ideology. But Ansar ud Din is attractive locally mainly because it seems to fulfil the Islamic claim.

It is remarkable that its local appeal is sharpened by the contrast to its Tuareg counterpart MNLA. Whereas Ansar ud Din explicitly promotes Islam as an important vessel of values and a model for organising social life, the MNLA declared Azawad as a secular state, thereby displeasing large parts of the predominantly Muslim local population. Since independence, both claims, the one for freedom and the other for an Islamic order, existed side by side in a complementary way; they now seem to be in opposition, just as they were during the fratricidal war of 1994. The second reason for the appeal of Ansar ud Din becomes evident when looked at from the perspective of the sociology of power. Ansar ud Din offers order in a disordered world; it attempts substituting uncertainty with the widely accepted Islamic order. As Ansar ud Din is militarily strong, its adherents can feel protected from violence. In exercising such a role, the movement gains the "basic legitimacy of protection from violence" which I consider to be the crucial form of all forms of legitimacy (see Klute 2001).

While the denomination Ansar ud Din hints at a politico-religious ideology, its main social basis follows lines of tribal solidarity and kinship ties. This holds true for all groups dominated by (Malian) Tuareg or Arabs. Although there have been attempts at overcoming primordial bonds, either ethnic, tribal or kinship, these bonds continue to play a role in the formation of collective 'we-groups'. During the rebellion of the 1990s, friendship was a central means through which clandestine movements of Tuareg in exile aimed to strengthen the unity of an imagined, but still utopian Tuareg nation, and at overcoming tribal or social boundaries. Today, either religious (Ansar ud Din) or national (MNLA) discourses are used to achieve the same ends. In this context, not only nationalism but also friendship and religion are indeed political terms. In much the same way as kinship, consanguinity, or descent, they were and are used to legitimise political relation-building, alliances or hostile relationships.

During the struggles, however, bonds which cut across identities of the respective warring parties seem rather difficult to maintain. In the Malian case, they were and are substituted by what is considered to be primordial and thus more reliable, that is tribal solidarity and kinship bonds (Klute 2011).

3. Outlook

As we have learned, no Islamist movement in Northern Mali is able to protect their adherents any longer. They are facing a numerically and logistically far superior enemy who is much better armed, and they have to struggle for mere survival. Many of the Islamic fighters were killed by French air strikes; others seemed to have succeeded in fleeing the country, finding refuge and shelter in Southern Libya, from where they are believed to have organised attacks against an army garrison and an uranium mine in Niger. (9)

Following a surprise attack led by Ansar ud Din against positions of the Malian army in central Mali in mid-January 2013 and the prompt reaction of the French armed forces, the conflict in Northern Mali has become international. With the deployment of troops from various countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the logistical and financial support of the European Union (EU) and the US, there is little doubt that the primary goal of the international intervention, namely the restitution of the territorial integrity of Mali, will be achieved. Still the question needs to be answered what the future will bring to the people in Northern Mali.

After the military defeats of the MNLA at the hands of groups with an Islamist ideology in the second half of 2012, and the hunting down of Islamist and Jihadists groups by the international coalition in early 2013, there seems to be no room for any utopia of an independent Tuareg state. This, however, may be a premature judgement which does not sufficiently take into account local politics and political debates at the local level. Since Mali achieved independence in 1960, there exists in Northern Mali the claim for 'freedom' and autonomy alongside, or at times in opposition to, an 'Islamic claim', or more precisely, a claim to promote Islam and to install an Islamic mode of societal organisation as I have shown above.

Already in July 2012, the Ansar ud Din spokesperson Ahmada ag Bibi in an interview with an Algerian journal limited the claim to the application of sharia-law in the sole region of Kidal, a statement that has been repeated several times since then. The combination of a claim for regional autonomy with an 'Islamic' claim, as expressed in ag Bibi's statement, hinted at an internal division of the movement which actually took place on 24 January 2012, (10) shortly after the military intervention of the international coalition had begun. Whereas Ansar ud Din now pursues only the Islamic claim, the new movement MIA (Islamic Movement of Azawad) seems to attempt combining both claims, Islamic recognition and 'freedom', just as the head-chief of the region had done before in 1960 at the eve of Mali's independence.


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Bourgeot, A (1986), "L'herbe et le glaive. De l'itinerance a l'errance. (La notion de territoire chez les Touaregs.)", in Equipe les societes nomades dans l'Etat (ed), Nomadisme. Mobilite et flexibilite?, (Bulletin de Liaison, No 8). Paris: Orstom, pp 144-162.

Hall, B (2011), A History of Race in Muslim West Africa 1600-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Klute, G (2003), "L'islamisation du Sahara (re)mise en scene. Les ideologies legitimatrices dans la guerre fratricide des Touareg maliens", in Marfaing, L and S Wippel (eds), Les relations transsahariennes a l'epoque contemporaine. Un espace en constant mutation. Paris: Karthala, pp 361-378.

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Georg Klute

Department of Anthropology University of Bayreuth, Germany


(1.) This paper is a slightly modified version of a publication in a working papers series at Basel University (Klute 2013).

(2.) Since 2006, I direct a research project in the field of legal anthropology in Guinea-Bissau, in collaboration with the country's sole research institute INEP. For details on the main assumptions of the project, see Klute, Embalo and Embalo 2006; for the main results, see Klute et al. 2008 and Klute and Embalo 2011.

(3.) Available at:, accessed 23 July 2012. For the history of the MNLA and its predecessor organisation MNA, see Klute and Lecocq 2013.

(4.) See:;; http://www.;;; http://www.

(5.) Except for soldiers and prisoners, with whom the central Malian government had made a penal colony of the region Kidal, all access to the north of Mali was strictly controlled, at least on paper. This meant, for example, that historical, cultural and sociological research into the Tuareg was as good as non-existent. Only the British ethnologist, Jeremy Swift, thanks to a special permit and under the watchful eye of the Malian army, was able to carry out research for a short time in 1971 before he was again expelled (cf Swift 1979: 15.). Until 1987 Swift remained the only (foreign) academic in the region.

(6.) The initiatives of the US Armed Forces started in 2002 encompassing Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad. In 2005, the PSI now became the TSCTI, which has a wider range than its predecessor. The aim was to set up antiterrorism units in each of these countries, as well as semi-permanent bases of operations for US troops (Klute and Lecocq 2013).

(7.) See:

(8.) The Arabic name of the movement, at-Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Maghreb al-Islamiyya is generally translated as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, abbreviated as AQIM. The correct translation would be The al-Qaeda Chapter in the Islamic Lands of the West.

(9.) Sahara Media, 27 May 2013, "Mali: Les groupes armes DJIHADISTES se seraient retranches dans le sud libyen selon des experts". (Available at:, accessed 31 May 2013.)

(10.) Former leading figures of Ansar ud Din founded the MIA movement (Mouvement Islamique de l'Azawad, Islamic Movement of Azawad). For more details of the foundation and for its justification, see: http://www.
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Author:Klute, Georg
Publication:Strategic Review for Southern Africa
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6MALI
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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