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Lines in the Malian Sand: Tuareg Fractures Widen as Talks Continue to Stall

Divisions within northern Mali's various Tuareg groups have slowed down negotiations with the government and reawakened old regional rivalries.
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An aerial view of Kidal in northern Mali. Photograph by ju-yaovi.

Niamey, Niger:

Two years ago, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was celebrating the establishment of a newly-declared independent state in northern Mali. The Tuareg secessionist group's forces had enjoyed a series of victories against government forces and had taken control of large parts of the region, including major cities, towns and military bases. After various failed rebellions in the past 50 years, it looked this one might finally be a success. This seemed to be the best-organised and best-equipped uprising so far, and the Malian government seemed utterly unable to cope.

But, it seems, it was not to be. Today, most of northern Mali is back under state control − at least as much as it ever was − and a recent defection by a prominent MNLA leader has left many wondering if the group is on brink of internal collapse. What a difference two years, an Islamist takeover, and a French-led intervention make.

Dream turns to nightmare

The MNLA rose to prominence in late-2011 and early-2012 after it secured a run of victories against the Malian army in Mali’s remote north. But its big break came in March 2012 when a coup led by mid-ranking military officials in Mali’s southern capital, Bamako, left the already shaky Malian military in shambles. The secular MNLA capitalised on the implosion of the Malian state and swept across the vast desert expanse in the north, capturing an area roughly twice the size of Germany.

However, the MNLA had not been alone in this expedition, but had allied itself with a mosaic of Islamist gunmen. Shortly after declaring the independent state of Azawad, this friendship of convenience came back to bite the secessionist group as the MNLA was outgunned and outmanoeuvred by its one time allies.

Within weeks, the movement found itself in exile, reduced to controlling only a few small pockets of northern Mali and issuing bellicose communiqués from offices in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and France. Many of its fighters joined the ascendant Islamist group Ansar Dine, led by veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly. Others retreated to Niger and Burkina Faso as Ansar Dine and its allies − al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) − began consolidating control over their new territory, imposing a harsh and destructive interpretation of Sharia law.

This was not the end though for the MNLA. In February 2013, the group received a second lease of life when the French, whose military intervention had pushed out the Islamist militants, ostensibly reinserted the group into the rebels' traditional stronghold of Kidal.

France’s decision to work with the MNLA rather than help the Malian army retake the city of Kidal enraged Mali’s then-interim government and set the stage for the current impasse between Mali’s newly-elected government and a host of armed groups over the status of the city.

Old fault lines, new fissures

Within Mali’s Tuareg community, enduring clan identities, regional loyalties, ideological persuasions, economic rivalries, and even personal animosities have long worked against the development of a single, coherent movement. Yet years of discrimination and marginalisation, both real and perceived, have provided enough impetus for several armed Tuareg uprisings since Mali gained independence from France in 1960.

From the outset of the most recent rebellion in 2011, Mali’s Tuaregs were divided, with certain clans and communities remaining loyal to the state as others joined the rebellion. The rebels were in turn split along political lines, with Alghabass Ag Intalla, the son of the traditional chief of Mali’s powerful Ifoghas clans, throwing his weight behind Ansar Dine while other influential Tuaregs backed the MNLA.

These lines in the sand became more blurry in January 2013, when Ansar Dine started being hit by French airpower and Ag Intalla quickly formed the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA). The move was widely considered an attempt to reconstitute Ansar Dine as a movement that would be more palatable to the international community. The MIA eventually merged with a similar group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), which then aligned with the MNLA. Furthermore, in November 2013, the MNLA and HCUA agreed to join another armed group, the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), in an effort to create a united front for negotiations with the Malian government.

Many hoped that this quasi-merging of rebel groups would facilitate productive talks with the government, but negotiations − if the process can even be called that − have been stuck in neutral for months. The Ouagadougou accords, signed in June by Ag Intalla for the HCUA and Bilal Ag Cherif on behalf of the MNLA, paved the way for elections in northern Mali but clarified little else.

Meanwhile as talks between the Malian government and certain rebel factions have stalled, the rebel groups themselves have been beset by internal restructuring and political disagreements. Last week, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, who until recently served as the group’s former chief of external relations, officially broke with the MNLA to form the Coalition for the People of Azawad (CPA).

Internal pressure, outside influence

Assaleh’s break from MNLA brings into public what whispers in Bamako, Ouagadougou and other regional capitals had been suggesting for some time: that he and other members of the MNLA’s political wing were growing frustrated with the leadership of MNLA secretary-general Bilal Ag Cherif. Assaleh and his allies presumably began to see Bilal’s hard-line posture toward Bamako − the MNLA, for example, boycotted scheduled talks with the Malian government earlier this month − as an impediment to their own long-term goals.

At the same time, however, the fact that Assaleh’s departure from the MNLA came after a visit to Algiers will no doubt raise suspicion among the MNLA and its supporters. Algeria has long been an influential actor in northern Malian affairs, having brokered peace deals in the past between the government and Tuareg rebels. The MNLA rejected Algeria as a mediator this time around, citing the failure of past Algerian-mediated peace agreements and a general distrust of Algerian motives in the region. For instance, Algeria has been accused by the MNLA and others of funding the Islamist groups which drove the MNLA out of northern Mali in the spring of 2013.

For his part, Ag Cherif recently visited Algeria’s bitter rival, Morocco, along with MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher. It would be premature to declare the divisions between the MNLA and CPA as merely an extension of Moroccan and Algerian competition, but it goes without saying that Rabat and Algiers would be eager to cultivate proxies for their respective interests in northern Mali.

Meanwhile, although Burkina Faso has played a prominent role in facilitating talks between the government in Bamako and northern Malian rebels, Mali's newly-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and certain individuals within his government are believed to prefer Algeria as an interlocutor. The nationalist leadership in Bamako will certainly welcome the emergence of an Algeria-friendly CPA as a possible means of weakening the negotiating position of the MNLA, for whom Burkina Faso remains the mediator of choice.

Recent divisions within the MAA seem to run along similar lines, with factions emerging between those who support talks with the government and those who oppose them at this juncture. Meanwhile, the HCUA seems positioned somewhere in the middle, counting among its ranks individuals with close ties with MNLA 'hard-liners' as well as the likes of Ahmad Ag Bibi, who once represented Ansar Dine in talks but was recently re-elected to the national legislature as a member of the president's political party.

Amid all of this muddled confusion, however, there remains one assumption on which all parties are likely to agree, however reluctantly. That is that the one group likely to be benefiting unequivocally from all these various divisions, lack of compromise and prolonged uncertainty is AQIM and its offshoots, who are eagerly trying to regain a foothold in the region.

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