On April 6, a new state, Azawad, emerged in the heart of the Sahara. A movement almost unknown, called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which defines itself as a democratic and secular movement. It began to plan this new uprising in October 2011, and launched its first attack on the morning of January 17, 2012, on the town of Menaka in the northeast of Mali. Four months later, after conquering all the Azawad territory, it declared independence,
The MNLA managed to secede from Mali by taking advantage of two historic opportunities :
One came from Libya, in the east : Gaddafi, desperately fighting for his survival, offered the Touareg people weapons, hoping they would fight on his side. The Touareg are a Berber people who call themselves Imazighen, or The Free People. Berbers generally live in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Niger and Azawad. They are the indigenous people of North Africa, who lived in these lands before the Arab invasions in the 7th century. The Touareg are Muslims who practice a moderate-mystical form of Islam. They do not stick to a strict interpretation of Islam, because they wish to preserve their Berber identity and culture : they are afraid that Islamism could be used to "Arabize" their society.
There are, however, Touaregs who are not mercenaries, and who were comfortably integrated in the Libyan army in the 1960s through the 1980s. Those Touaregs, however, did not fight for Gaddafi in the uprising ; instead, they accepted the weapons and used them to take control of their own country. They would die for Azawad, but not for Gaddafi.
Another historic opportunity came from the south : On March 21, a coup took place in Mali, which created a vacuum of power in the country.
The MNLA, that unknown movement, seized this opportunity, and on April 6, declared independence. Further, this is not the first Touareg rebellion in Mali ; there were also rebellions in 1963, in the 1990s and again in 2006.
Since that day, the MNLA has been struggling to hold on to that independence. The struggle is both internal and external ; the future of the new state is very uncertain. After the declaration of independence on April 6, the MNLA found itself surrounded by many enemies, including two countries, Mali and Algeria, and four terrorist organizations : the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb ; the Monotheism Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO ; in Arabic, "Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya") ; the Ansar Dine, and the Nigerian group, Boko Haram. But the MNLA is not totally lacking in resources that might allow it to survive.
Azawad, larger than France, is a desert region which comprises about 60% of Mali ’s territory, whose neighbors are Algeria to its northeast ; Mauritania to its west, Niger to its east ; and to its south, Burkina Faso and Mali. Azawad is divided into three regions : The Gao region , which has Gao city as its capital ; the Timbuktu region, with Timbuktu city as its capital ; and the Kidal region, with Kidal city as its capital.
Despite the size of the area, however, the population is only about 1.5 million, divided into several ethnic groups, mainly : Touareg (the majority), Songhai (the Malian government claims that they are the majority), Moors/Arabs, and Fulani.
Why does the MNLA want independence from Mali ?
Mali became independent from France in 1960 ; its borders are a legacy of colonialism. The region of Azawad was annexed to Mali by France, even though its population is very different from Mali’s. Similarly to the situation in North Sudan and South Sudan, where the Christians in the South are trying to free themselves from domination by the Muslims in the North, the MNLA are also trying to seek a sanctuary from Islamist domination. Since gaining independence from France, the Malian central government has not invested in the development of Azawad — either in drought-stricken areas, for infrastructure for sanitary conditions, or for anything else.
The Malian government is corrupt, as are many African countries, but the situation in the North (in Azawad) is worse than in the South. As reported by the Touareg media, Toumast Press, the Azawad region has been totally neglected by Mali : "Besides the flag of Mali, no other insignia of the Malian government is visible there. The security of persons and property is non-existent. Populations are not protected when they are hit by natural disasters. The government’s resignation is complete. When, during the drought in Azawad in 2010, UNICEF pointed out the state of malnutrition [in Azawad], the [former] Malian President, Amadou Toumani Toure, protested against the report, stating that there was no malnutrition in the country. He said that people [in Azawad] need to change their eating habits, as some were limiting themselves to eating only three dates a day. Which ordinary people, if given the choice, will only eat with just three dates a day ? This announcement shows the misunderstanding by the [former] Malian President of the Azawadi population it is supposed to represent."
Since the beginning of the rebellion, one of the main problems of the MNLA, besides Mali, has been Ansar Dine : an Islamist movement formed mainly also of Touaregs. Its leader is Iyadh Ag Ghaly, a charismatic man who became an Islamist in the 1990s after being attracted to the teachings of Pakistani preachers from the vast worldwide Muslim proselytizing organization Tablighi Jama’at, present in Kidal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Iyadh is a complicated character, driven by a combination of Islamism and personal interests. In the 1990s and again in 2006, he was one of the leaders of the Touareg uprising, but soon discarded the demands of his own people to make a deal with Mali that was profitable for him, and serving as a member of Mali’s diplomatic staff in Saudi Arabia in 2007. In roughly the same period he hooked up with the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" (GSPC) — believed to be a manipulation of the Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). In January 2007, the GSPC changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM], and is al-Qaeda’s richest faction in Northern Mali.
What are the interests of AQIM in Azawad ? Simply put, AQIM, or al-Qaeda, wants to disband the MNLA and take control the area. AQIM has no interest in negotiating with Mali. It wants Azawad to become a no man’s land, a strategic area in Africa in which it can expand its activities.
When the MNLA was formed, before it started its rebellion, Iyadh was sent as a Malian envoy to negotiate with it. As the MNLA had no intention, even at that time, to give up the fight for independence, Iyadh tried to become one of its leaders. He even fought two battles with the MNLA against the Malian army. But, as the MNLA does not share Iyadh’s desire to impose Sharia law in Azawad and does not trust him, the MNLA rejected him. At the same time, Iyadh also tried to be elected as the successor to the leader of his tribe, the important Ifoghas tribe, but was again turned down. Frustrated, in March 2012 he decided to form another group, Ansar Dine. His goal is not to make Azawad independent, but to take revenge on the MNLA, find a role for himself, and make a profitable deal for himself with Mali.
Ansar Dine immediately became the first opponent of the MNLA in Azawad, and therefore also became the reference point for all forces seeking to prevent the partition of Mali and to disband the MNLA. The MNLA declared itself to be the enemy of jihadist groups and drug dealers. Hence, soon after Ansar Dine was formed, AQIM and MUJAO – already present in the region before the MNLA rebellion – joined forces with Iyadh and his organization.
AQIM needed Iyadh for three reasons : First, because he, like members of the MNLA, is also Touareg. AQIM hoped to use him to attain legitimacy among the Touareg local population. Second, as he is a Touareg, he knows how to fight in the dunes of Azawad. And third, because AQIM thought that, as a Touareg, Iyadh could help to negotiate with MNLA and manipulate the new movement.
In mid-May this year, the secretary general of the MNLA, Bilal Ag Cherif, who is from the same tribe as Iyadh, tried to make a deal with him. The MNLA was facing acute financial difficulties, and Bilal believed that, if the MNLA cut a deal with Ansar Dine, it could solve its financial problems as well as stop the fighting between the two groups while somehow maintaining the status quo. The MNLA and Ansar Dine signed a preliminary memorandum of understanding, but no final agreement was reached. When Iyadh insisted on applying the Shariah Law in Azawad, members of the MNLA turned against Bilal, asking him to stop the negotiations.
What Bilal failed to take into consideration was that Ansar Dine was not acting independently. When it began, Ansar Dine was believed to have been manipulated by Mali. After having been being defeated on the ground by the MNLA, Mali presumably hoped to fight this group by supporting Ansar Dine. The strategy was that once the MNLA was dismantled, Mali would be able to negotiate with Iyadh about bringing Azawad back into Mali.
In recent weeks, however, there are increasing indications that Ansar Dine is becoming a proxy of AQIM. Furthermore, in Timbuktu, AQIM has been launching attacks on the city’s cultural heritage in the name of Ansar Dine, although the fighters are members of AQIM.
On June 27, the headquarters of the MNLA-led Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (CTEA, established on June 7) was attacked in Gao by AQIM, MUJAO (a Gao-based splinter group of AQIM), and Boko Haram. After that battle, the MNLA was forced to withdraw from the main centers in Azawad and to reassess its political and military plans, even though it succeeded in delivering a painful blow to AQIM by allegedly killing its deputy commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
This was the day on which the MNLA realized that Ansar Dine was not in control of the situation, but rather that AQIM was, and that no agreement could be reached with its proxy, Iyadh. Today the MNLA understands that the fight is against AQIM, and it is reassessing its military strategy.
It seems that the MNLA cannot count on anyone’s support. Algeria is afraid to have an independent state in North Africa with a Berber majority : it fears the Berber Kabyles in its own territory might rebel and declare independence from Algeria.. The Algerian regime also fears that the new nation of Azawad might be a threat to the Algerian interests in the Sahara. It is not surprising, therefore, that Algeria’s President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, received a delegation from Ansar Dine. Niger also does not want to see a free State of Azawad : it, too, fears a Touareg rebellion in its Air Mountains.
Then there is the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), which is completely lost. It does not want an independent Azawad, it does not want AQIM, and it does not even want to support Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of the recent Malian coup d’état.
For now, thanks to the conflicting interests and weaknesses of its enemies, MNLA is managing to survive. This situation is not necessarily temporary : the problems which prevent Azawad’s enemies from wiping it off the map, seem to be quite chronic. The biggest resource of the MNLA, therefore, is the strategic disability and limitations of its enemies.
But what can the West do, and particularly America ?
It is understandable that the West is reluctant to change the colonial order in Africa, and prefers to maintain the status quo rather than face rebellions around the continent. Even though the MNLA would be natural allies – they are secular, democratic, and anti-terrorism – it would not be easy to support them against Mali, even though they have so far fought the AQIM successfully and killed its deputy commander.
What one has to consider is where things are heading in Azawad. One way or another, the MNLA will survive. Its members are a genuinely secular force with people ready to fight ; they would be a strong element on the ground, whether as a fighting movement or as an independent state. They are the only people who understand how to fight in the desert, who are willing to take on Al-Qaeda, and to die for their homeland. But without weapons and without money, it is hard to tell how long they will be able to fight. Ansar Adine is trying to recruit members of the Touareg population only because it seems to have unlimited sources of money. Once the MNLA shows it has financial support, recruits who have joined Ansar Adine for financial gain will come back to the MNLA.
If there will be no MNLA to fight AQMI what will happen ? This time, AQIM will not go back to the mountains. This time, its leaders have said they want to stay to expand their activities in neighboring countries, coordinating with the fundamentalist groups al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. This would be the worst result both for the West and any hope for Africa.