Mopti — In the wake of the coup that deposed Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré, military junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has stressed a willingness to negotiate with rebel groups reportedly surrounding the northern town of Kidal and reinforcing positions around Gao, 190 km further south.
In a recent BBC interview Captain Sanogo said he was ready to talk: "I want all of them to come to the same table. My door is open. We can talk about and work through the peace process."
It will be interesting to see who comes through the door. The latest in a series of rebel movements, the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la liberation de l'Azawad), which is fighting to carve out an independent state encompassing the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali, prides itself on its military sophistication. "We don't just hit once and run off into the bush."
Senior figures in the MNLA may include Chief of Staff Mohamed Ag Najem, recruited directly from Libya. There is also a strong intellectual fringe: Moussa Ag Assari, a Paris-based writer and author of the memoir, "Il n'y a pas d'embouteillage dans le desert", ["There isn't much traffic in the desert"] is a spokesman.
Coup-makers face the flak
It was the "incompetent" handling of the crisis in Mali's northern regions by the government and military that supposedly pushed Sanogo and his fellow soldiers in the Comité national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de l'état (CNRDRE) to move against President Amadou Toumani Touré, but establishing a dialogue with Mali's Tuareg rebels is only one of many priorities facing the coup-makers.
Sternly criticized by the UN, the African Union, European Union, World Bank, and others, not to mention Mali's national assembly and an expanding bloc of civil society leaders and opinion-leaders, the CNRDRE presides over an economy in crisis while trying to rein in looters, offer some semblance of coherent leadership, and break out of its own isolation.
Sticking to their guns
The rebel movement that the soldiers in charge are looking to defeat in far-flung locations in the north is also a pariah, except for an impressive network of supportive websites and diaspora groups.
If the MNLA has backers, they are in the shadows. Its insurgency has been widely denounced as illegitimate, sectarian and against the spirit of African unity, but the movement has remained unabashed by the criticism. Its reaction to the ousting of Touré steered clear of celebrations, simply using the occasion "to reaffirm the objective of its struggle, which remains the independence of Azawad, and to pursue it with determination".
Ironically, it was not the MNLA which gained immediate impetus and political capital from the coup, but a rival movement, "Ansar Dine", nominally led by veteran Tuareg leader Iyd Ag Ghali. Fighting for Sharia [Muslim] law rather than independence, Ansar Dine claimed to have Kidal encircled. The Malian military and the MNLA, which have firmly distanced themselves from Ag Ghali, quickly signalled that this was not true.
When the MNLA began hostilities with the attack on Ménaka on January 17, it announced its main targets as Kidal, Tombouctou and Gao, the three provincial capitals of the "septentrion", or far north, all of which would be part of a "liberated Azawad".
The movement is not above exaggerating its territorial gains, with communiqués often coming from Paris or the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, rather than the frontline, and much of the information, even in the digital age, difficult to verify.
But the MNLA has given pause for thought even to sceptics, who dismissed it initially as a "flash-in-the-pan".
"What happens when they run out of ammunition, when they find they have no supply lines, no sanctuaries, Gaddafi no longer exists, and they need to treat their wounded?" asked El Hadji Baba Haidara, the parliamentary representative for Tombouctou and head of the National Assembly's Crisis Cell on the North.
Confidence that the military landscape would change once the national army regrouped and committed more resources to the north was eroding long before the CNRDRE moved against Touré.
The roots of a rebellion foretold
A common criticism of Touré, which went well beyond military dissidents, was his apparent failure to see a rebellion coming. It is still not clear how Touré's government handled the influx of returnees from Libya.
Reports from northern Mali in late 2011 said two of the returning rebel contingents were seeking accommodation with the authorities and wanted integration into military and civilian structures, while a third wanted no part of this. Critics ask why the threat was not neutralized, and how neighbouring Niger avoided a similar crisis.
It has become common to portray the arrival of Libya-hardened warriors as the main catalyst for the MNLA's revolt, emboldening hard-liners and opportunists who would otherwise have confined themselves to marches and manifestos. But there had been mounting pessimism about the prospects for a durable, all-encompassing settlement in the north.
Ten years after the "Flamme de la Paix" [peace flame] ceremony in Tombouctou, the dissolution of armed rebel movements and the symbolic destruction of hundreds of firearms, much of the optimism and momentum from that time had burned out.
Coordinated attacks on garrisons in Kidal and Ménaka on 23 May 2006 signalled the start of a new chapter of violence. The raids were claimed by the Alliance Démocratique du 23 mai pour le changement (ADC), whose ranks included senior figures from past insurgencies. Algeria again acted as mediator and the government and ADC signed an agreement in Algiers in July 2006, aimed at tackling insecurity and underdevelopment in Kidal.
Yet sporadic violence remained the norm in parts of the north, with the government fighting a bloody, draining war with the Alliance Nationale des Touareg du Mali (ANTM), led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a seasoned senior rebel commander opposed to compromise with Bamako, who fought from bases in caves and hills.
Killed in a mysterious car accident in August 2011, Bahanga is now revered by the MNLA as "a pillar of the Tuareg community", but the tributes ignore longstanding reports of a major trafficking empire. Bahanga was reportedly instrumental in consolidating ties with fighters in Libya, persuading officers and ordinary soldiers to cross the Sahara.
The quest for Azawad
Well before Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's demise was being talked about, a meeting of mainly Tuareg representatives finished in Tombouctou on 1 November 2010 with the announcement that the Mouvement National de l'Azawad (MNA) would be formed to fight against the militarization and marginalization of the north.
The communiqué argued that 'Azawad' had become a place of conflict battled over "by those who have an eye on their interests and extremist groups", a clear reference to mining companies and terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). The MNA called on "all the sons of Azawad" to come to the side of a population in danger of being reduced to "a useless spectator". It explicitly rejected all forms of violence and terrorism but warned that the government had to reverse fifty years of neglect and brutalization.
Less than a year later, the MNA formally merged with the ANTM. The communiqué posted on the internet on 16 October 2011 suggested that the last window of opportunity was closing on the government. The new MNLA defined its main objective as "freeing the people of Azawad from the illegal occupation of their territory by Mali, which has been the cause of decades of insecurity in the region".
Many of the MNLA's main grievances draw on the memories of past atrocities committed by national armies, the failure of peace agreements to deliver security and release from poverty, and the squandering or misappropriation of funds by national and local authorities. Added to this has been a very explicit resentment of the government's alleged accommodation with AQMI and its attempts to smear Tuaregs as terrorist accomplices.
What is more novel is the explicit focus on Azawad as a realizable project, a historic homeland for the "Kel Tamasheq", or Tamasheq-speaking people. While arguing that its own support base extends across all communities in the north, including Songhai, Peuls and Arabs, the MNLA has also presented itself as fighting for the survival of Tamasheq culture in the face of vicious state repression.
The theme has been taken up by website support groups in North Africa, the United States and Europe. The organizers of a demonstration 'for Azawad' in Paris in April, argue that: "fifty years of forced cohabitation with Mali are too much. This cohabitation imposed by colonial France has produced a number of damaging effects in the country...most of all the destruction of values and the Tuareg identity".
The MPs go north
Part of the government's response to the MNLA's emergence was to send a delegation of MPs representing northern regions to Tomboctou, Gao, Kidal and elsewhere to find out what was happening. Haidara, the representative from Tombouctou, was on the mission in late 2011. "We went right into the MNLA's bases and talked to them for two days, trying to work out what they were doing and what was their motivation."
Haidara said it was difficult to take the new movement seriously. "For me, this doesn't count as a proper 'rebellion'. What you had there were 200 youngsters, mainly from Kidal. They said they represented the whole of the north and wanted self-determination. I realized very quickly that this was a minority phenomenon and they represented nothing. I told them if they wanted independence they should hold a referendum". Haidara was presented with a flag of Azawad, but was not impressed. "I told them I was from the north of Mali and proud to be so."
Zeïdan Ag Sidalamine, once the Secretary-General of the rebel Front populaire pour la libération de l'Azaoud (FPLA), who became heavily involved in peace campaigning and delivered the keynote speech at the Flamme de la Paix ceremony in Tombouctou in March 1996, also believes the quest for an independent Azawad is a pipedream.
"The MNLA is a politico-military movement with its own vocabulary and its own way of looking at things," Zeïdan said. "But going for separatism or independence cannot work. A country's diplomacy is dictated by its geography. All of Mali's seven neighbours have said they will defend the country's unity and territorial integrity," he told IRIN.
"I don't believe in a state that is 'parachuted in', a state that has no integrity. I am a citizen of the Republic of Mali, democratic and indivisible."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]