Senior members of Malian Taureg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have abandoned a week-old agreement with Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, to turn the country into an Islamic state, according to a June 1 statement from a senior MNLA member.
According to the Taureg official the pact did not align with the MNLA's secular principles, and Ansar Dine's inflexibility led the MNLA to denounce the agreement and declare all dispositions with the group null and void, according to the statement, which claimed to speak for entire organization. The deal was denounced separately by another senior MNLA member.
Once touted as shining evidence of democratic progress in Africa, Mali is suffering both a military junta and an uprising in its north centred around the major towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The MNLA declared the northern region of the country independent April 6 and it appeared that the MNLA and Ansar Dine had then come to an agreement by creating the joint Council of the Islamic State of Azawad, an independent state.
The stated purpose of the agreement was to set up the independent state to be governed by a strict form of Sharia law. The agreement was strongly condemned by Bamako. But the capital has struggled to contain the rebels in the north, and it appears only because the short term MNLA goals are realised that the rebels have stopped advancing south.
Until second thoughts began to convince the MNLA rebels that a coalition with al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine was undesirable, the joining of the two groups was a significant escalation in the current unrest. Ansar Dine is almost indistinguishable from their sister group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and a spread of jihadist influence in central Africa is a dangerous threat made more threatening by the group’s control of the territory of Azawad.
AQIM have therefore never been closer to forming an pseudo-government in their own territory. Ansar Dine initially sought only autonomy in the newly created region, rather than independence, but put aside these objections in favour of a coalition with the secular MNLA. From the MNLA's perspective, including the Islamists in the pact meant they had to temper their own suspicions of religious government for greater defence. Both sides needed to agree on these compromises because neither could gain outright preponderance in the captured region.
The Islamic AQIM fighters joined in the unrest to take advantage of the situation bringing weapons and funding with them. Whereas the MNLA's core principles are to establish a separate autonomous state in Mali where they can enjoy freedom from religious influence, AQIM fought with different plans in mind.
The Sharia law code is not a universal protocol which can be inserted seamlessly into different cultures and many idiosyncrasies of the law are moulded depending on the culture it is in. AQIM is looking for a very austere version of Sharia, which is proving to be unpopular idea with supporters of the MNLA and residents of Mali’s northern cities.
Dropping out of the agreement with AQIM indicates internal disagreements inside the MNLA. The MNLA independence movement base their ideals on the Egyptian and Mauritanian governments. Those countries are held in high esteem by the Taureg senior members.
The cessation in economic activity in northern Mali is also bleeding funds from MNLA coffers. Getting the region’s mines back online and producing is a priority for the rebels and something foreign investors would appreciate. Officials in Bamako are too busy working on the interim government to take meaningful action in the north, so at the moment the newly independent state is largely taking care of itself.
The rebellion has an interesting genesis. Taureg mercenaries hired by the Libyan regime returned to their homes from last year’s fighting in Libya with weapons and equipment. Assuming reports are accurate, thery are well stocked to protect their recent military gains in northern Mali.
These weapons include heavy machine guns, anti-tank guns, and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), although it is unclear just how many SAMs are in circulation. What is worrying Western intelligence is the potential for these deadly weapons to be controlled by AQIM fighters and moved out of the country.
AQIM and other militant groups have indicated a desire to acquire man-portable air defence weapons (MANPADS) in the past; but actually getting hold of them has been a struggle. The weak security situation in Mali offers the Islamists an opportunity to secure these weapons.
But the introduced ideology of AQIM is being fiercely opposed by residents of the Gao and Timbuktu. The reaction to the attempts by Ansar Dine to apparently ban football and turn schools into “madrassas” has exacerbated fears that the MNLA might lose its popular influence.
The United States and France have also voiced concern over the developments in Mali; any further spread of AQIM is a regional threat to the interests of both countries. According to reports, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is preparing troops for possible deployment in Mali.
Down south, the situation is equally poor. The transitional government in Bamako is in no state to activate national forces to quell the uprising and regain control of the northern state. It was unlikely to do so even with a stable government in power. Interim president Dioncounda Traore was flown to Paris to receive medical treatment after civilian demonstrations 22 May turned violent in Bamako. He is leaving behind an uneasy truce between the military and civilian leadership as they plan to repair Mali.
The trouble in the north will not disappear with reconciliation amongst squabbling groups in the south. Mali is so large and geographically isolated that the hourglass shaped country has been effectively a two-state nation for much of its existence. Part of the reason the MNLA made such quick military gains was due to the government’s difficulty of moving troops from the south into the north. The weather conditions on the ground held up vehicles and washed out critical roads and bridges forcing the government to use slower routes.
The Malian government was unable to stamp out the unrest the first time, so there is little confidence they can accomplish it now in a much weakened and distracted frame of mind. The continued rise of AQIM in the region is grabbing the attention of larger countries such as France and the United States, but neither has indicated they wish to commit forces to deal with the threat at this time.
AQIM gaining control of a large swathe of Malian territory through a coalition with the MNLA was a dangerous step for Mali. Now that the power share between the secular Taureg MNLA and the Islamists is no longer valid, the threat has subsided somewhat. But the political situation is still unresolved in Bamako and the MNLA continue to haemorrhage funds on their down-slide to losing control of their new Azawad state. The political future of both the north and the south is uncertain.
The potential for AQIM to fill that void if the MNLA collapses should be taken seriously in the long term. More important for the short term is securing the Libyan SAMs from spreading further afield into other African militant’s possession.