Whatever happened to Azawad?

"What we want now is self-determination. Self-determination is not the same as secession,” explained a senior representative from the Tuareg-dominated Mouvement national pour la libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) while in Ouagadougou for talks with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré.

However the MNLA chooses to frame its goals, the movement is in no position to dictate terms on what should happen in northern Mali. The rebellion it launched in January 2012 delivered a string of early victories against a demoralized Malian army and enabled the MNLA to proclaim an "independent Azawad" on 6 April, setting up a Conseil Transitoire de l'Etat de l'Azawad (Transitional Council of the State of Azawad - CTEA).

But it was the radical Islamic movements Ansar Dine, the Mouvement pour l'Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa - MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which rapidly asserted themselves in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Despite tortuous negotiations and implausible hints of an eventual "fusion" with its rival, the MNLA lost out badly to the Islamists.

According to its own version of events, the MNLA made a tactical decision to remove itself from the north in the face of repeated provocation from the Jihadists, arguing that it could have taken the fight to AQIM and its allies, but wanted to avoid civilian casualties. In an interview with the pro-MNLA Toumast Press in late July, the Movement's spokesman, Mossa Ag Attaher, denied reports of internal rifts and a loss of direction, pledging that cities like Gao and Timbuktu would be "liberated from narco-traffickers, thieves and rapists".

Northern Mali has long been a hub for drug, arms and human trafficking, with Islamist groups implicated alongside Tuareg facilitators.

Attaher said "the independence of Azawad remains the only basis of discussion with Mali," while criticizing Mali itself as being "a state in decomposition".

A two-day meeting in Ouagadougou in July - backed by the Burkinabe government, the Economic Community of West African States and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs - was supposed to outline a political programme for the Transitional Council of Azawad and a platform for negotiation, and restore some coherence after a rash of contradictory statements.

On the eve of the UN-backed meeting on the Sahel in New York on 26 September, MNLA sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, warning that "without the open and direct implication of the MNLA in everything which concerns the crisis, it is an illusion to hope for a definitive solution and a lasting peace." The letter hinted at the likelihood of the Malian army and its loyalist militias carrying out pogroms against Tuareg communities, and stressed the MNLA's readiness to rid the north of "narco-traffickers”.

But the MNLA featured little in most of the communiqués and speeches in New York. To critics, including some Tuaregs, the movement has become a victim of its own hype and naivety (or cynicism) in aligning itself with movements that did not share its agenda. Timbuktu parliamentary representative Sandy Haïdara said his early suspicions had been confirmed. "Where is the MNLA? From what we hear, they are nowhere in the north? They turn up in the media outside Mali, that's all, or on the Internet. That's all.”


Photo: Brahima Ouedraogo/IRIN
MUJAO and other Islamist groups have firm control of the north (file photo)

Ansar Dine

While MNLA has been engaged in a new round of diplomacy in Ouagadougou, representatives of Ansar Dine were allegedly in Algiers, meeting a Malian government representative. Ansar Dine's leader, Iyad ag Ghali, a key figure in the Tuareg insurgencies of the 1990s, lobbied for a leading role in the MNLA when it launched in 2011, was snubbed and then used his longstanding contacts with AQIM operatives to help found Ansar Dine.

Reportedly converted to radical Salafism (a fundamentalist form of Islam) during his time as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Ag Ghali's activities and agenda in northern Mali have been much discussed since before the crisis began. Malian envoys to the north confirm his commitment to the imposition of Sharia and his apparent loss of interest in the Azawadian cause.

But unlike the leadership of AQIM and MUJAO, Ag Ghali is a Malian national, a highly influential figure in Tuareg circles, particularly around Kidal, with longstanding connections to military, political and religious elites. "This is not somebody who wants to be tarred as a terrorist because of the company he keeps," a diplomat in Bamako who preferred anonymity, pointed out. "This is someone who values his reputation in Mali, particularly his status within the Tuareg community."

Algeria and others have hinted that talking to Ansar Dine may offer a still weakened Malian administration its best point of entry in establishing dialogue with the occupiers of the north. Sections of the Malian press have hinted that Ag Ghali could be “bought off” and has even named a fee to demobilize his fighters.

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