Dakar — Two months after taking the northern strongholds of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, Mali's rival rebel movements have supposedly put aside ideological, religious and cultural differences to agree on the creation of a joint Council of the Islamic State of Azawad, independent of the rest of Mali.
The agreement signed in the northeastern city of Gao on 26 May, came after three weeks of talks between the Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which launched its insurgency against the government of Mali in mid-January, and Ansar Dine, which has championed the promotion of Sharia Law in the north of Mali.
Breakaway rejected by Bamako
Reaction from Bamako to the "self-dissolution" of the two rebel entities was swift and hostile. Government spokesman Hamadoun Touré said the government "categorically rejects any idea of the creation of a state of Azawad, even more so the creation of an Islamic state".
Speaking to IRIN, the parliamentary representative for Timbuktu, El Hadji Baba Haidara, said the new protocol proved the MNLA had used a "double identity", concealing its real intentions and alliances. "The MNLA tried to woo Western governments by preaching moderation and distancing itself from radical Islam," Haidara argued. "The agreement shows that the MNLA and Ansar Dine are one and the same. For how many centuries has Mali been a Muslim country? People in the north have never asked to be 'liberated' in this way."
Different movements, different goals?
The rebels' string of easy victories in the north in late March and early April came against a background of political breakdown and confusion in the south. The coup staged in Bamako by mutinous soldiers on 22 March removed outgoing President Amadou Toumani Touré weeks before elections were to have been held. But the junta which replaced Touré, headed by Capt Amadou Sanogo, quickly faced regional islolation and international condemnation. With the Malian military distracted, the rebels moved quickly to occupy poorly-defended towns and their surroundings.
It was the MNLA which confidently declared a ceasefire on 5 April, confirming that its military objectives had been attained. The following day, the MNLA formally declared the founding of the Republic of Azawad. But Ansar Dine combatants were much in evidence, particularly in Timbuktu. The MNLA had dismissed the rival movements as an irritant more than an ally, entering the conflict weeks after the MNLA had initiated hostilities and espousing a Salafist version of Islam that had little popular support in Mali.
Senior MNLA figures, including senior commander Mohamed Ag Najim, were openly disparaging of Ansar Dine. There was concern that Ansar Dine's leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, while a prominent figure in past struggles, was now a distraction, more concerned with Sharia Law than forming a new state. Ghali also had reported links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and its long-established smuggling and kidnapping networks. The MNLA's platform included a commitment to purging the new Azawad of these elements, with senior figures accusing the government in Bamako of having actively connived with AQIM.
Islamists take the upper hand
But as the state crumbled in the north, Ansar Dine's profile increased. Its fighters rapdily outmanoeuvred their MNLA counterparts in Timbuktu, and their leaders took a stronger lead in imposing their authority while also carrying out recruitment drives targeting the youth. The allegations of strong ties between Ansar Dine and AQIM grew stronger with reports of meetings between senior figures from the two movements. Adding extra fuel were unconfirmed reports of Nigerian militants from Boko Haram in northern Mali and even fighters from Pakistan.
In a recent interview, AQIM's Emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, looked to be addressing Ansar Dine directly when he talked of a gradual approach in the imposition of Sharia law, arguing that "it would be a mistake to impose all the rules of Islam in one fell swoop".
The desecration by Ansar Dine supporters of the tomb of one of Timbuktu's most revered spiritual leaders, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, on 4 May generated fierce reaction both locally and internationally, with UNESCO warning of the need to protect Mali's cultural heritage. Ansar Dine's critics say the movement continues to disrespect local sensitivities. They say the Salafist agenda goes well beyond tackling crime and banning alcohol, arguing that Ansar Dine's supporters have also transformed schools into 'madrassas', devoted to Koranic study, compelled women to wear the veil, and tried to ban both playing football and listening to the radio. Demonstrations in Gao on 14 May are reported to have been triggered in part by hostility to such moves.
MNLA ready to unite?
An MNLA-organized meeting of tribal elders and community leaders in Gao in late April restated many of the movement's main objectives and included a strong defence of the role of women in the creation of a new Azawad, but made no reference to Ansar Dine or Sharia Law.
But speaking to IRIN from Paris after the signing of the entente in Gao, MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatomane said reported differences between the two movements had been exaggerated: "Ansar Dine is a Tuareg movement, from our own soil, not foreigners ... We have always shared the same objectives, even if our methods were different. We are a revolutionary movement, but we never said we were without religion."
Ag Acharatomane strongly denied any links between Ansar Dine and AQIM, saying the new authorities in Azawad would ensure the prompt expulsion of foreign elements engaged in violence. He also rejected reports of the rapid implementation of Sharia. "I have just returned from Gao and I can confirm these stories about radios and football being outlawed are without foundation. A moderate, tolerant form of Islam is being practiced."
Both Ansar Dine and the MNLA have faced strong criticism in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). In its 30 April report entitled Mali: War Crimes by Northern Rebels, HRW noted persistent complaints from civilians of looting, rape, wrecking of medical facilities and even summary executions, with the MNLA implicated in many of the accusations.
The movement hit back strongly, arguing that MNLA combatants had been "confused with other groups", but promised its own investigations into human rights violations throughout Azawad.
Despite the show of unity between Ansar Dine and the MNLA, there are hints of fresh tensions ahead. In its 14 May edition, Algerian daily newspaper El Watan reported the existence of a newly formed Mouvement républicain pour la restauration de l'Azawad (MRRA) - Republican Movement for the Restoration of Azawad, intent on mobilizing Tuaregs to expel AQIM from the north and push for a reintegration of Azawad into Malian national territory. The MNLA has frequently accused El Watan of idle speculation and fabrication.
Whatever happens in the north, the authorities in the south look ill-equipped to resolve the crisis. The departure of Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traoré to Paris to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained in an assault by demonstrators in Bamako has left Sanogo and an uneasy coalition of soldiers and civilians steering national policy. Hopes that a Traoré-led interim administration could pacify the country and leave the way clear for elections in 2013 look increasingly fragile.
Meanwhile, the USA and France have signalled fresh concern about the direction Mali appears to be heading in; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has confirmed its readiness to deploy troops; and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso remains the mediator-in-chief.
Sources: Radio France Internationale (RFI), El Watan, Jeune Afrique, Tamurt.info
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]