The VICE Channels

    The Rise of Wikipedian Statecraft, Part 2

    Written by

    Jonathan Liu

    What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Azawad

    The April 6 statement on the MNLA website was, in a very real sense, then, 2012’s second declaration of Azawadi independence to the outside world. It was, like all such declarations since at least 1776, aimed at establishing legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. It was also — and this is less trivial than it sounds — directed against another (according to the authors, their former) government; the Tuareg list of grievances against the Mali state differ from Jefferson’s against George III mainly in the buzzwords of iniquity.3

    But long before any of their own residents, let alone foreign rulers, accepted the sovereignty of Massachusetts, Virginia, or New York — and, eventually, their sovereign union — those places existed in the political and mental maps of contemporaries, in more or less the borders they took to war. The King should know; his family drew them. Similarly, Belgium before 1828, the Baltic States before 1991, East Timor before 2002, Kosovo before 2006, even Texas before 1836 all existed before they became “official.”

    Of course, independence on the basis of preexisting jurisdictional units, set up by old regimes of varying sobriety and sensitivity to local conditions, is a dicey proposition — with Mali a prime example.4 The logical alternative, though hardly mutually exclusive in practice, is securing new political borders to fit imagined ethnic, linguistic, or cultural ones. (And if those disappoint, to create “facts on the ground”.) People knew there were Bulgarians before the nineteenth century; they know there are Kurds today. Where independent Bulgaria or Kurdistan might lie tends to be a question answered bloodily.

    As far as we can tell, the MNLA is not a national liberation movement of Africa’s Tuaregs. Even before “full adherence to the UN charter,” the April 6 declaration promises “recognition of existing borders with neighboring states, and their inviolability,” which would leave around 1.8 million Tuareg co-ethnics in Niger alone.

    This MLNA-watermarked photo shows Azawad really is a nation of rebels.

    Likewise, its website even trumpets the presence in MNLA ranks of Songhais, Peuls, and Moors.5 So the rebels merely wish to separate the Azawad region from Mali — but does anyone know where Malian Azawad (as opposed to Saharan Azawagh) is? The word “Azawad” corresponds to none of the internal jurisdictions of Mali (or for that matter, Niger or Algeria); in fact, the straight-shot southern border claimed by the rebels almost perfectly bisects the province of Mopti.

    Azawad has never named a subnational unit of government, nor did its geographical meaning ever seem to hold much purchase for outsiders, in the way of the Congo, the Ukraine, the Levant, or the (Scottish) Highlands." The first appearance of the word “Azawad” in the New York Times came last year (August 31, 2011), used (and undefined) in passing in an article on Tuareg pop music. “Azaouad” and “Azawagh” have never appeared, in the paper’s archive going back to 1851.

    By contrast, Kosovo made its first Times appearance on January 20, 1912, one of 120 before 1981 alone. Jubaland, (re)established in 2010 as one of the many autonomous statelets in disintegrating Somalia, first entered the Times 110 years before (“Rising in Somali-land; British Sub-Commissioner Slain by Treacherous Natives”); between 1900 and 1981, it appeared 47 times. The Chechens make an ignonomious debut in 1919 (something about massacring Armenian girls), but in 27 additional articles before 1981, they generally became sympathetic arch-victims of Stalinist terror.6

    Admittedly, mention in the New York Times (or Times of London, or Le Monde) is a measure of existence — or the right to exist — that’s crude and culturally myopic in the extreme. But then, the modern international system is set up, more less, to promote the prerogatives of diverse myopias. It almost goes without saying: Before the U.S., E.U., or U.N. can extend diplomatic recognition to a state, Americans, Europeans, and the world must, however vaguely, recognize the word.

    Thus, if April 6 was a traditional Jeffersonian (or Miskitian) declaration against the government of Mali and its old sovereignty over rebel territory, its precursor, effected on Wikipedia two months earlier, was also something of its logical prerequisite: With little fanfare, this first “declaration” decided Azawad’s irrevocable independence from “Azawagh” (now a wholly separate word), its total annexation of “Azaouad” (now not even synonym, just a secondary spelling), and its future sovereign existence as a concept corresponding to the region, in Mali and only in Mali, which the MNLA would soon claim as an independent nation.

    Diplomatic Momentum

    On the ground, attacks commenced January 16. By February 1, the Malian Army’s so-called “tactical pullout” left the rebels in control of key northern towns like Menaka. They started laying siege to Kidal, a regional capital, three days later. On Wikipedia, It was BabyFoot who, as s/he promised and after several setbacks, “provide[d] an article [that] won’t be reverted again as I’m getting sick of it.” The new “Azawad” was born 10:50, 4 February 2012:

    Azawad is a disputed area in Northen Mali.

    A 03:49, 5 February 2012 edit by User:Lihaas — a self-described anarcho-primativist Ron Paul supporter who endorses, among other things, the impeachment of Barack Obama (and Cheney and Bush), the U.S. annexation of Canada, and the independence of Silesia (despite also being a German monarchist), and who averages close to 50 daily contributions Wikipedia-wide on breaking international affairs — reverted “Azawad” as a redirect to “Azaouad”. BabyFoot and an anonymous user at a French IP ( — quite possibly the same person — returned five days later, leaving 12:21, 10 February 2012:

    Azawad is the part of Mali defined by the districts of Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal. Some saharan nationalism raised there in consequence of the Tuareg rebellion in 1963, 90s, and 2006 in one hand, and during the Azawad war in 2012.

    It should not be mistaken with Azawagh which is a tuareg word to talk about the area between south algeria, niger and mali.

    Eight hours later, this obviously amateurish effort was overturned (“sorry, that’s nonsense”) by User:Nightstallion, a long-serving administrator whose even-handedness and voracious knowledge on matters of state, E.U. politics especially, make him perhaps the Grotius of today’s Wikipedia.7 “Azawad” once again redirected to “Azaouad” (today’s “Azawagh”). But Nightstallion’s resistance would, like Machiavelli and the fading autonomy of Italy’s city-states or Metternich and the twilight of dynastic Europe, prove a last gasp of the old order.

    BabyFoot reestablished new “Azaward” for the third, and presumably last, time 11:59, 21 February 2012. This first edit was 195 bytes. User:GiantSnowman, an administrator, tagged the article as needing improvement (namely, reliable sources to establish verifiability and notability) 12:30, 21 February 2012; at this point, the article was 441 bytes. BabyFoot’s last edit of the day, 12:47, 21 February 2012, left Azawad at 1,258 bytes, with a very rough contents box but essentially no content in any of his/her imagined sections:

    Then, the great instigator of "Azawad"’s rebirth more or less drops from the scene. Yet the article continued to grow — still distinctly slap-dash but, over 500+ edits, achieving a depth of coverage, neutrality of treatment, and interconnection to related topics unimaginable had BabyFoot stayed alone at the helm. By 15:45, 18 March 2012, it stood at 3,408 bytes. The coup in the south started with the Malian Army revolting March 21; taking advantage of the chaos, rebels captured the regional capitals of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu on March 30, March 31, and April 1, respectively. The 23:45, 1 April 2012 version was 4,339 bytes.

    Edits to “Azawad”, no less than events in Azawad, now picked up pace. The last version before the MNLA’s declaration, 00:14, 6 April 2012, stood at 8,141 bytes. By 05:36, 6 April 2012, it was 10,653 bytes. At 07:55, 6 April 2012‎, it hit 19,503 bytes. At the end of self-declared Azawad’s first day — 23:51, 6 April 2012 — some 100 edits had left “Azawad” at 28,943 bytes. At the end of the second day — 20:11, 7 April 201232,748 bytes. As of 13:22, 16 April 2012, 39,447 bytes, which is close to where it stands today.

    Azawad’s 50-day path from unceremonious redirect to solid 40 kB entry free of “needs improvement” tags8 may not be proof of Wikipedia as a perfect marketplace of ideas where the most plausible and best documented always wins out. But it also refutes the old idea of the free encyclopedia as a bazaar of grudges and pet causes that lets those with greatest time to kill and obscurest axes to grind succeed in determining truth for the rest of us.

    BabyFoot is, most assuredly, either a committed Tuareg patriot or slightly deranged Azawad-lobby foreigner; the account was created February 3 and has only edited Azawad-related articles. But the community’s reaction to BabyFoot’s early activism in truth resembles, to risk slight hyperbole and great offense to both parties, a United Nations of private citizens — slightly less deliberative and immensely more decisive, but equally predicated on the diversion of impassioned, at times violent, petitioners through the institutionally conservative channels overseen by experienced mandarins and proven technocrats.9

    Or rather, that is, it resembles a hypothetical U.N. that works. One-issue users like BabyFoot may bang shoes, pitch tents, invoke Satan. Most are easily reverted — and failing that, blocked — into submission. But once consensus coalesces around a cause like independent “Azawad” (the article), the heavy lifting of its creation is supervised and to a large extent carried out by the likes of User:RJFF, User:Kudzu1, and User:Khazar2 — well-known Wikipedia stalwarts with thousands of productive edits under their belts, rafts of good-conduct medals (jpeg decals, really) awarded by other editors, and demonstrated track records as either area specialists, (amateur) experts on separatist movements, or both.

    Khazar2, in particular, may well be the digitized poltergeist of Richard Holbrooke. (Actually, s/he is the reincarnation of User:Khazar, returning recently after a mysterious diplomatic kerfuffle with other editors. “The experience almost burnt me out on WP entirely, but after a recent diagnosis of fibromyalgia forced me to retire and stay largely housebound, I thought a return was my best way to keep contributing to planetary education.”) His/her knowledge of minor human rights movements and nano-minority politics is, well, encyclopedic. A very brief excerpt of “some articles I’ve created or significantly re-written and am trying to help keep an eye on”:

    2012 insurgency in northern Mali – 2012 Malian coup d’état – 88 Generation Students Group – Abdul Samay Hamed – Abduljalil Alsingace – Aboubakr Jamaï – Acid (hip-hop) – Ahmad Taufik – Ales Bialatski – Ali Salem – Alice Nkom – Alisher Karamatov – Angkhana Neelaphaijit – Annakurban Amanklychev – Armando Valladares – Aung Pwint – Azam Farmonov – Azawad – Azawagh – Azimzhan Askarov – Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights – Bakhtiyar Hajiyev – Bambang Harymurti – Beatrice Mtetwa – Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta – Bernas – Bertrand Teyou – Bill Foley – Bobur Square – Byron Barrera – Cary Vaughan – Censorship in the Maldives

    In the days before and hours following the MNLA declaration, Khazar2 and like-minded Wikipedia grandees took the lead in transforming “Azawad” into a reasonably functioning article on a disputed region that had declared its independence. (Somaliland and Kosovo were cited as models). Like blue-helmeted peace keepers (again, in a hypothetical, ideal world), they oversaw incremental changes with an eye toward minimizing provocation and maximizing practicable consensus and third-party verifiability:

    15:41, 6 April 2012‎ Khazar2 (talk | contribs)‎ . . (22,386 bytes) (-34)‎ . . (→‎Etymology: nonnotable British scholar, as the claim seems uncontroversial, probably no need to bring him into this at all.)

    19:17, 6 April 2012‎ Khazar2 (talk | contribs)‎ . . (26,879 bytes) (-5)‎ . . (→‎External link: calling the MNLA the “official government” may be a slight overreach)

    One can’t emphasize enough that the great bulk of information imported into “Azawad” since the end of February does not resemble a discourse of legitimization as might have been familiar to scholars and civilians (not least Encyclopedia Britannica contributors!) in the age of romantic nationalism. There’s no “Since the dawn of recorded history, Azawad has been the eternal homeland of noble, nomadic Tuareg tribes.” Nor has “Azawad” become a running record of breaking news; such “recentist” (to borrow an editor’s word) developments are mostly offloaded to articles like “Tuareg Rebellion (2012)” and “2012 Malian coup d’état”.

    Instead, “Azawad” is packed with often utterly banal and uncontroversial descriptions of physical geography (“[L]ong interdunal indentations that are framed by Pleistocene longitudinal dunes characterize the present landscape”), demographics (“Northern Mali has a population density of 1.5 persons per square kilometer”) and history.

    Indeed, Khazar2’s largest single expansion, 05:37, 6 April 2012, nearly doubled the article’s size with information from existing Wikipedia articles on the history of Timbuktu and environs, under various medieval native empires (Gao, Mali, and Songhai) and, ultimately, the French after Europe’s nineteenth-century “scramble for Africa.” The facts therein, if ever controversial, were nothing new and had been hashed out over years by their respective Wikipedia communities. But placing this lineage of previous sovereignties in “Azawad” (including “Under Malian rule”) does imply a position on the present situation, and the future conditions of possibility.

    Consider “Piedmont”, an article on the modern region around Turin that, quite appropriately, highlights the old Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, which united (or conquered) all of Italy in the 1860s. By contrast, “Piedmont (United States)”, about the long chain of foothills abutting the Appalachian Mountains (and named for their supposed similarity to the Italian region), doesn’t trace the hill country’s rule by Indian chieftains, then the British, then the central government in Washington.

    For Wikipedia, the American Piedmont is simply not a region that implies political cohesion and difference in that way. And two months ago on Wikipedia, Azawad as understood today wasn’t even a region (or “physiographic province”); its sovereignty was more remote than the Piedmont seceding from the United States.

    The scramble of leading Wikipedians to catch up to events — to fill in "Azawad"’s unsexy blanks of geography, climate, history, census data — is undoubtedly a minor triumph of heroic volunteerism. For what amounts to an NGO charged with cataloging and cross-referencing the whole of mankind’s knowledge, right this instant, it also shows a remarkable institutional maturity. Self-organized (and self-financed) teams of rapid-response specialists seem capable of swooping down and instituting the accepted apparatus of articleness whenever a new asteroid is found, a long-time-bridesmaid sports team finally breaks through, or some rebels in Toyota pickups storm a desert trading post.

    The quandary in the final case, in a world where Google can deliver more schoolchildren and diplomats to “Azawad” in an hour than drop by the provinces of northern Mali in a year: Does expert Wikipedia entry-making basically amount, whatever your intentions, to backdoor real-world nation-building?

    Continue reading with part three

    3 Jefferson managed to accuse the King of “Death, Desolation and Tyranny,” not to mention “Cruelty and Perfidy” (all caps his) in a single bullet point regarding foreign mercenaries. The MNLA best him on specificity, with one item “recalling the massacres, the atrocities and abasement, the plundering and genocide of 1963, 1990, 2006, 2010 and 2012.” But perhaps they should have conserved the ammunition. Dispatching yet another challenger, the Sage of Monticello remains champion in the game he invented through sheer rope-a-dope rhetorical stamina: Ten or fifteen not-terribly-differentiated “abuses and usurpations” might have looked like overkill (and, crawling with “swarms of Officers,” “pretended legislation,” “plundered seas,” “ravaged coasts,” “burnt towns,” and “merciless Indian savages,” sounded like hysteria); 27 was an Enlightenment knockout. For their part, the Tuaregs could muster only three grievance clauses against Mali, plus two ancient gripes with France.

    4 On this point, at least, the Soviet Union did a much better job in Central Asia than Europe’s old empires did in Africa and the Middle East. Whether by actually following population patterns or — more often and more likely — proactively and dictatorially manufacturing nationality, they left Kyrgyzs who actually believe they are Kyrgyzs, or at least definitely not Kazakhs.

    5 Though this online commitment to diversity seems, like that of the average Midwestern liberal arts college, less fundamentally factual than cosmetically tactical.

    6 Apparently on a whim, Stalin decided in 1944 he wanted the Chechen language, culture, and identity — that is, the Chechen people — wiped off the map. Their rehabilitation and reemergence eleven years later was third-page news in Times.

    7 In real life, as it were, Nightstallion is a college student at the Technical University of Vienna.

    8 “Togo”, by comparison, is 40,118 bytes as of this writing; “Mali” itself is 50,822.

    9 The Wikimedia Foundation eyes a constituency of 1 billion by 2015, against the U.N.’s 7.2 billion. The difference, however, seems more than made up for by — to borrow a term from European Union discourse — the democratic deficit of the latter compared to the former.