Djibo, Burkina Faso — On April 6, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declared independence from Mali. Announced from France24's Paris studio, this was the peak of the rebellion's media campaign which came a few short months after the start of the uprising in January.
At the time, the MNLA seemed to be the credible voice of the rebels and the Tuaregs, and its demands for an independent state seemed for some the only way to end the marginalisation of northern Mali's nomad populations.
Then, fault lines began to appear, and two groups - Ansar Dine and the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - emerged. Their goal: to make Mali an Islamic and Sharia law-abiding state. These Islamist groups soon turned out to be the real masters of the north, chasing the secular MNLA out of its last stronghold in Douentza on September 1.
Looking back, the MNLA may appear to be largely an efficient communication strategy created by a group of idealist intellectuals based in Paris. This band still sends communiqués claiming the "autonomy of Azawad", delicately reframing its message to the latest field developments. But despite its declining relevance in northern Mali, the MNLA is more than that.
While the MNLA's military victories have been short-lived, members of the movement still maintain contact with Mali's mediator, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré, international actors such as the UN and the regional West African grouping ECOWAS, as well as Ansar Dine.
Even if the upcoming international military mission does not include their input, they are likely to have a say in the reconstruction of northern Mali. In order to ensure this, the MNLA recently launched an initiative to meet with northern community leaders and increase its presence. Several international actors still believe the MNLA to be credible enough, and a somewhat lesser evil to other groups in the region.
The rise of Ansar Dine
The story of the MNLA's military defeats remains obscure, as admitting causes of defeat appears as painful for the MNLA as it is for the Malian army. Some reports suggest the Islamists had infiltrated the MNLA from the beginning; others claim MNLA fighters were co-opted by Islamists later.
Nevertheless, the MNLA remains the sole movement in the Malian conflict strictly defending Tuaregs. The group was created in late 2011 through the fusion of several smaller movements, and obtained the support of several Tuareg tribal leaders.
This is not to say, however, that the MNLA speaks for all Tuaregs. Ansar Dine might have recruited several foreign fighters, but its leader, for example, is a well-known Tuareg nationalist: Iyad ag Ghaly.
Ag Ghaly led several uprisings in the 1990s and the 2000s before joining the Malian High Council of Territorial Collectivities and later became a nominated consul in Saudi Arabia from 2007 to 2010. Since 2003, he has also acted as a mediator to help free hostages held by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
During this time, the man described as "playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize personal gain" during the 2008 rebellion on leaked US diplomatic cables became a strong Muslim believer, turning his back on his previous reputation for heavy drinking. Ag Ghaly took part in talks with the MNLA before the assault in January, but launched his own Islamist group, Ansar Dine.
The support Ansar Dine's chief has garnered can perhaps be explained to an extent by the Tuareg motto: "Me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousins, and all the family against the others". In a complex interplay of social forces in northern Mali, allegiances and alliances do not necessarily last. And fluid tribal connections have played an important role in the current dynamic.
In 2007, the Ifoghas' tribal chief Intallah ag Attaher was in a car accident that left him paralysed. "He did not give up his position, which opened possibilities for protracted internal strife between clans internal to the Ifoghas", Baz Lecocq, a history professor at Ghent University in Belgium, tells Think Africa Press. Two possible successors opposed: His own son Alghabbas, and Iyad ag Ghaly.
Now that the MNLA has been militarily defeated, several Ifoghas have joined Ansar Dine out of loyalty, but several also lured by the leader's war chest. These include Alghabbas ag Intallah, whose father is said to officially support the MNLA. And others could also join Colonel El Hadj Ag Gamou, a Tuareg commander in the Malian Army, and Ag Ghaly's enemy. Alliances can swiftly change as they have in the past.
The Tuareg diaspora
According to UNHCR, more than 200,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries, with 300,000 internally displaced. Many of those refugees are Tuaregs who left early in the rebellion, in January and February. Several simply went back to the camps where they fled persecutions during the 1990s and 2000s rebellions.
Among Mali's half a million Tuaregs or so - in Mali and the diaspora - it remains unclear how popular the MNLA is.
"I have cousins that are rebels in the MNLA. I was scared for the life of my family. In 1991 and 1994, during the rebellion, fellow soldiers have slaughtered Tuaregs", says Aoud Ag Maiga, who fled to the Djibo refugee camp in Burkina Faso when fighting began.
Now, his wife and children are in a refugee camp in Mauritania. Even if he feels Tuaregs are marginalised, he is confused now about the independence project and his support of the MNLA. "We are not racists. We believe in equality. We could all live in a secular state of law and order", he says.
Further away, Binetou Wallet Mohamed Ali, 18, left the University of Bamako in February, where she was supposed to join the Department of English Studies. "People started to look at me strangely. I did not want to be the first victim", she says.
"Mali is my country. This is where I am born. I want to go back and study. I don't care much about politics", she adds.
Around the refugee camps, there is little talk about independence and many are traumatised by the stories of hands being cut off and presumed adulterers being whipped in the name of the Sharia back home.
An independent Azawad does not seem to be a priority among the Tuareg diaspora: "We want our cattle. We want our land. We want to stop having problems. And we don't want to be ruled by foreigners", concludes Radwane Ag Ayouba, an old Tuareg of the camp, angrily. He confesses that he is afraid he will be in the camps for a long time and is certain that the repression against Tuaregs will be terrible once the Malian army recovers northern Mali.
Elsewhere in the camp, an MNLA emissary gives a political speech talking of "us, the people of Azawad". But later, we see him leaving the refugee camps in his Mercedes while the rest of the people of Azawad line up to get humanitarian aid.
This is of course a very limited snapshot. It is difficult to truly gauge how popular the MNLA is among the Tuaregs. The conflict has had harsh consequences on the people, who are now divided, scattered, and even more marginalised.
The humanitarian agenda is now focused on freeing northern Mali from the Islamists, but soon enough Tuareg grievances will need to return to the agenda. So far, in spite of its failures, the MNLA remains the only organisation able to speak for them.
Marc-André Boisvert is a freelance journalist and researcher who lives in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire and specialises in civilian-military relations in western Africa.