Bamako — Despite international efforts to restore peace in Mali, the northern region of Kidal remains an MNLA stronghold. While the rest of Mali slowly recovers from the rebel takeover and Islamist occupation, officials worry the distrust and enmity lingering in Kidal could destabilize the country.
"Sandy" El Hadj Baba Haïdara, who has just lost his seat as the National Assembly representative for Timbuktu, says Mali's destiny is tied up with Kidal, a former garrison town in the remote Adrar des Ifoghas region.
"You find people saying that Kidal is just a stone in the shoe, or a thorn in the foot, but a thorn in the foot can damage the whole body," Haïdara argued. "Kidal has to be resolved. It will allow everyone to breathe again, and then we can move on to the other things."
Insecurity persists in the northeast. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) this week announced it captured four International Committee of the Red Cross staff and a veterinarian on the road between Gao and Kidal.
The MNLA, whose members are from the Tuareg ethnic group, has denounced such incidents in the past, arguing that part of its purpose was to push Islamist militants out of the north.
Haïdara endorses a Malian military solution. Malian troops are present in Kidal, along with troops from the UN's Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French army. But there are not enough of them to secure the vast area, say observers.
Increased presence in Kidal by the Malian army, promised before the elections by interim President Dioncounda Traoré, never happened.
Despite the return of the governor to Kidal Region in July 2013 and the MNLA's grudging handover of key buildings, the government's writ does not run in Kidal.
MNLA warned a reporter in 2013, that "to plant a Malian flag in Kidal is an act of war".
Haïdara says the UN and French should step aside and let a strengthened Malian army step in. These views are echoed by many politicians and commentators in Bamako, the capital.
Turning against Paris
Although France's military intervention, staged in early 2013, helped remove the country's Islamist occupiers, Malians' gratitude has diminished in recent months.
It is increasingly argued in Bamako that, although the French forces dislodged the Islamists from their strongholds in Timbuktu, Gao and elsewhere, they adopted a "hands-off" approach when it came to Kidal. The French troops worked with Chadian soldiers there, pointedly excluding the Malian army.
France left the MNLA in place, hoping the group's knowledge of the desert terrain would make it an ally in hostage negotiations and military operations against the residual threat posed by jihadists.
Malians critics believe France was duped on both counts. They say the French government sees as MNLA as an indigenous movement with legitimate grievances while viewing the Islamists as opportunists mainly from outside Mali - a distinction they say is wrong-headed.
"This is not the MNLA we had at the beginning," argued Haïdara. "Under this flag you will find all the jihadists who lost their own battles."
Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of the National Assembly and current head of COMODE, the Malian coalition of democratic organisations, a broad-based alliance and parties and pressures groups that have called for the liberation of Kidal, told IRIN:
"Up until now, I don't understand what France is really about when it comes to the north," Diallo told IRIN. "If you are serious about the protection of territorial integrity, you cannot let another flag fly in Ardrar. To us, that is just incoherent."
Dealing with the MNLA
Diallo says he has watched with concern as the MNLA has kept the flag of Azawad raised around Kidal, organized demonstrations against government delegations and avoided talk of handover.
Previous rebellions and peace settlements have left many people sceptical, says Diallo. He says separatist commanders have signed deals, assuming senior civilian and military posts, only to later back further insurgencies. Diallo says that to be taken seriously, the MNLA has to disarm.
The MNLA has told intermediaries and reporters a very different story, highlighting civilians killed by Malian security forces while demonstrating, accusing France of leaving the movement exposed and isolated in Kidal, and registering disappointment that current President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, [IBK] has brought nothing new to the table.
IBK is adamant that the north must be Mali's main priority. Since taking office, he appointed Cheikh Oumar Diarra, former ambassador to the US, as minister of national reconciliation and development of the northern regions.
He also convened a national court for northern Mali in Bamako and established a revamped truth, justice and reconciliation commission whose work is expected to focus on the origins of the crisis and the abuses that came in its wake.
But many fear the peace process has lost momentum.
The Ouagadougou Agreement of 18 June 2013 stipulated that an "inclusive dialogue" should begin 60 days after the naming of a new government. That has not happened.
Meanwhile, the MNLA and the government have accused each other of reneging on agreements on security arrangements in Kidal.
Observers point out the Ouagadougou Agreement is one of several, including the 1992 National Pact and the 1996 Algiers Accords, to attempt to bring peace to Kidal.
Mohamed Ag Ossade, director of the Tumast Tuareg Cultural Centre in Bamako, says both sides have a responsibility to develop a settlement that will not simply crumble after a couple of years. If the Ouagadougou Agreement were to fail, he said, "that would be pointless".
Ag Ossade has been sceptical about the MNLA, arguing that its campaign for an autonomous Azawad is backed by idealists and opportunists. But he is equally wary of those calling for a military solution.
"Send the Malian army in and you would kill 90-year-old people or two-year-old children. What is more, the army would be crushed. Everyone there is MNLA," he said.
He is adamant that Mali can be a tolerant melting pot - if there is proper leadership.
Proving this point, he says, is the concert hosted by Tumast, featuring a Tuareg band whose members mostly hail from Kidal. Tuareg audience members share the dance floor with dignitaries, diplomats and music enthusiasts of all races.
"We can get through all this," Ag Ossade tells IRIN. "But only if the Malian government loves all its children and treats them equally."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]