After months of fighting in northern Mali, the Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad (MNLA) - National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad - declared an end to military operations. The rebels refer to the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali as Azawad. However, following international and regional condemnation of the movement’s declaration of independence on 6 April, several factions have emerged, exposing deep divisions between Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist groups, and Tuareg groups.
If effective measures are not taken to wrest back power in the north and reassert the position of the Malian authorities, the country could become the “Afghanistan of Africa”, the African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights has reportedly warned.
IRIN sought the views of three specialists in Tuareg matters for a greater understanding of the situation and possible next steps.
Naffet Keita (NK) is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Bamako, in the capital of Mali, specializing in the Tuareg.
Baz Lecocq (BL) is a history professor at Ghent University, Belgium, and the author of a book called Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Mali, published in 2010.
Zeidan Ag Sidalamine (ZS) is a former leader of the Front Populaire de Liberation de l’Azawad, [FPLA or Popular front for the Liberation of Azawad] who knows the current leadership of the MNLA. He has been involved in several peace talks that ended Tuareg rebellions and was a technical adviser to ousted Malian president, Amadou Toumani Touré.
IRIN: What is the current relationship between the MNLA, Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJWA (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa)?
NK: The MNLA is a collective of several heterogeneous groups which, from their inception, have had different objectives. The MNLA evolved out of an old political movement known as the Mouvement National de l’Azawad - the Azawad National Movement. It was when its fighters returned from Libya in 2011 that it became the MNLA.
Ansar Dine was formed by Iyad Ag Ghali. At the end of the 1990s he started networking in Pakistan, and in the early 2000s he became an Islamist. Ansar Dine and MUJAO are connected to the international jihadist movement.
Malians had overestimated the MNLA’s military strength in the Mali fighting. Now, we know that the real power lies with Ansar Dine or MUJAO [Mouvement Unicité et Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest - the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa]. This realization rushed the MNLA to a premature declaration of independence.
BL: What I deduce from reading MNLA communiqués is that they disagree with Ansar Dine's goals. The MNLA’s stated primary goal is the independence of Azawad. As it expects a Malian army counter-attack, possibly supported by ECOWAS troops, or even US or French troops, they cannot afford to attack Al-Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQIM) or MUJWA right now, which they have said they want to do, but are refraining from doing at the moment. This is, according to their website, based on demands from the local population.
In another way the presence of the Islamists 'helps' perhaps, but this is speculative reasoning. By stressing that no one has been able to dislodge this nuisance but them, the MNLA might be hoping to forestall outside interference in the conflict and gain international recognition for its independence bid. Therefore, destroying the Islamists before MNLA’s demands to the Malian state are met, would take away a trump card in any future negotiations.
ZS: Each group has different objectives. There are three kinds of movements operating: drug traffickers, Islamic militants and Tuareg rebels. It’s easier to negotiate with the MNLA because [they are nationals] - there is certainly no common ground to negotiate with each of them at the same time.
AFRICOM - US Africa military Command
|Ansar Dine, a Salafist group that wants to impose Sharia law in Mali and has close links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)|
AQIM - Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQMI in French has its roots in Algeria's 1992 crisis
Boko Haram - an Islamist group based in northern Nigeria with links to Al Qaeda
ECOWAS - Economic Community Of West African States
MNLA - Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad - the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad
MUJAO - Mouvement Unicité et Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest - the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa
MUJWA - Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa, led by Mauritanian Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou
AQIM and Boko Haram are internationalist entities. The concern is that Boko Haram will recruit non-armed Islamists - that’s the issue.
IRIN: What have you heard about a gathering of AQIM leaders in northern Mali? What was the purpose?
BL: It has been acknowledged on Toumastpress.com that they met. AQIM’s motives can only be guessed at: Propaganda? Showing they can be there? From blogs like The Moor Next Door I can see there are internal disputes within AQIM and MUJWA. Perhaps this was a reconciliatory meeting.
ZS: Their motives are not the same as those of MNLA. AQIM are there primarily for narco-trafficking and to further their Islamist agenda.
IRIN: What is the position of international groups in terms of intervention?
BL: It depends largely on who among ECOWAS's decision-makers support intervention.
It seems that the current situation is everything any politician or military man with interests in AFRICOM, be it in the US or Africa, would dream of. The US government is silent but I can imagine its AFRICOM generals are praying quietly that they will get a call for help.
As for France: statements by French politicians went from no intervention to support, and might go to military assistance.
The abduction of Algerian consular staff in Gao will, no doubt, make that country be taken seriously in the conflict. I am suspicious about this abduction. Before, Algeria was clearly sidetracked in this conflict. It is highly unlikely that the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité - (the Algerian secret service) has not infiltrated AQIM or MUJWA, and that it does not have some influence on their behaviour, and that this influence might account, in part, for this abduction.
ZS: ECOWAS countries need to share their expertise in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking. We will not be able to do it on our own. The MNLA is more of a Malian problem. However, Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and AQIM are all involved in several countries, and there are no solutions without the involvement of all the countries where these groups operate, so, ECOWAS has to be involved. The MNLA will return to negotiate - there is more common ground to strike a bargain with the MNLA.
NK: France has wanted to use Ibrahim Ag Bahanga [who led an uprising against Mali in 1996] to fight AQIM. France and the Westerners will, at all costs, prefer Mali to negotiate with the MNLA to fight the other emerging groups. However, most people do not believe negotiations will work - over the last 20 years there have been several [failed] agreements.
An important point is Algeria’s strategy against the GSPC [the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat], now AQIM. Algeria had confined the GSPC to the Sahel so it could fight it better. Algeria no longer wants to fight GSPC on its soil. Amadou Toumani Touré [the recently ousted Malian president] had protested against this strategy, but was ignored.
IRIN: Who is financing these armed groups?
NK: Ansar Dine and the others get their money from the jihadist movement and from AQIM, which gets money from kidnappings.
In addition, partly based on the knowledge that former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, had stayed in northern Mali - - the MNLA must have received money from him and from several funds before Gaddafi's downfall. The MNLA might have received money from Western countries and neighbours to fight AQIM.
Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been able to fund his war by taking advantage of the Malian government’s largesse for being the point man in negotiations to release several Western hostages.
BL: Probably part of the money comes from `taxes' on the drugs trade and other smuggling practices. Some of the drugs might have been flown into the Sahara, but the more likely route is that cocaine was brought in via Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, then overland through southern Mali to the Sahara. In the past, part of the resources for the rebellion came from the local population, either voluntarily or otherwise, but given the current crisis I guess this is hardly possible.