By: Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
On April 6, 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) unilaterally seceded from Mali and declared an independent State of Azawad. The MNLA is a secular Tuareg movement whose goal is the establishment of a secular state in which the rights of all ethnic groups in the Azawad region (Tuareg, Arabs, Songhoi, Peul, Bozo, Moors, Mandinka) will be respected. Furthermore, the movement has declared itself a partner of the West in the war on terrorism.
However, despite its secular and pro-Western character, immediately after the secession the MNLA became the target of a smear campaign by international media, which tried to paint it as an Islamist movement. The campaign served the interest of the Malian government and of neighboring countries, which want to delegitimize the MNLA’s struggle in order to avoid a recognition of the State of Azawad, whose territory is larger than France’s and comprises some 60% of Mali’s territory.
The lack of financial and political support by the international community led MNLA leaders to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Islamist group Ansar Al-Din. However, the agreement was not finalized, due to disagreement over the status of shari’a law in the state of Azawad. Referring to the lack of Western support, an MNLA member said: “[The international community] is more inclined to promote fundamentalists… than to support the democratic and secular forces of MNLA – and [thus] risks condemning an entire people to an Islamist hell.”
The MNLA-Ansar Al-Din Memorandum of Understanding
On May 26, 2012, following three weeks of negotiations, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), also referred to as “protocol agreement,” was signed in Gao, the provisional capital of Azawad, between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist movement Ansar Al-Din. The MOU was signed by MNLA secretary-general Bilal Ag Cherif and by Ansar Al-Din deputy leader Alghabass Ag Intallah, who is also secretary-general of the Ifoghas, the dominant tribe in Azawad. However, the full text of the MOU has not been published in the media or on the MNLA’s official website, leaving room for speculation regarding its content.
Azawad is mainly desert; the main cities, such as Gao and Timbuktu, are situated along the Niger River, which is the country’s main source of water.
According to international media, the MOU was aimed at a military merger between the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din, and stated that shari’a would be the law of the land in Azawad. Indeed, on the French news channel France 24, MNLA spokesperson Moussa Ag Acharatoumane announced that the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din had joined their military forces to form the National Army of the State of Azawad.
On May 27, the head of the MNLA’s European Department, Mossa Ag Assarid, told Radio France International: “The people of Azawad will be an independent people, and they will decide, via their [state] institutions, what is good for them, [whether] in an Islamic state or in a secular one.”
As for the MOU’s position on the status of the shari’a, MNLA sources gave conflicting reports. Ag Assarid told journalists that the MOU had three main points: recognizing Azawad’s independence, stopping armed conflict between Ansar Al-Din and the MNLA, and implementing the Koran and the Sunna as “a” source of legislation. However, MNLA communications officer Mossa Ag Attaher, who opposes any agreement with Ansar Al-Din, said he was against the MOU because it defined Azawad as “an Islamic state” that would implement “Islamic legislation in all domains of life, based on the Koran and the Sunna”. He added: “I completely reject the [protocol] agreement signed May 26 between certain members of the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din. I believe that the implementation of the shari’a, and the ‘Arabization’ of our people, constitute a grave violation of our culture and our identity, and a shameful loss of the gains of the revolution.”
Despite MOU, No Agreement Reached
The MUO was to be finalized into an agreement on May 28, 2012, but the disagreements on the shari’a issue prevented the two movements from taking this step. Talataye town mayor and MNLA member Ibrahim Assaley told the media: “We refused to approve the final communiqué, because it is different from the protocol agreement that we signed [on May 26]. We have negotiated all day, but cannot reach an agreement.” MNLA political bureau member Hamma Ag Mahmoud added that the final agreement could not be signed because the two sides’ views on the future of Azawad were too different: “Today we put an end to this agreement. Ansar Al-Din wants to fully implement the shari’a, and we are a secular movement… This schism may cost the MNLA dearly, but only we can fight the Islamists in this region. We know how to do it.”
The agreement can therefore be considered null and void, especially since the MOU itself states, in Article 9, that “any disagreement with one of the fundamental principles of the [Islamic] religion nullifies this agreement.”
Disagreements Within MNLA
The signing of the MOU sparked a controversy within the MNLA between those who oppose any agreement with Ansar Al-Din and those who favor it. The latter feel that it is of the utmost importance to avoid a war between the two Tuareg movements. Another reason to favor an agreement is practical: in the absence of international political and financial support, the MNLA is in dire straights. The movement has reportedly exhausted its financial and military resources to such an extent that it cannot support its troops or buy fuel for its vehicles. Ansar Al-Din, on the other hand, is reported to have a surplus of funds. The Kabyle Berber media outlet SIWEL reports that Ag Ghaly’s men are prowling the city of Timbuktu “with briefcases containing thousands and thousands of Euros,” and offering teenagers €5,000 to enlist, thus creating child-warriors who are easily controlled. According to SIWEL, Ansar Al-Din also provides the recruits with brand new Russian AK47s that come from Libya, thanks to their connections with the Islamists there, and which reach Azawad via Algeria.
Opponents Of The Agreement:
The MNLA Must Not Betray Its Secular Values
MNLA members and other Azawad dignitaries who oppose the MOU wrote open letters expressing their objection to any negotiation with Ansar Al-Din and accusing some MNLA members of trying to transform the movement into a “into a political apparatus in which career plans and promotions are based on [illegitimate] allegiances.” The accusations seem to be directed primarily at MNLA Secretary General Ag Cherif, who, despite the agreement’s failure, is reported to have restarted talks with Ansar Al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly of the ruling Ifoghas tribe.
Other opponents of the agreement stressed that the MNLA must not betray its secular values, and accused Ansar Al-Din of promoting an Islamist agenda and of serving the interests of foreign countries such as Algeria and Mali. In fact, they claim that these two countries are using Ansar Al-Din as a tool for sabotaging Azawad’s bid for independence. Mali naturally objects to the secession of this large and oil-rich region. As for Algeria, it fears that the new state could inspire a “Berber Spring” in Algeria itself and throughout North Africa, with other Berbers demanding equal rights and/or independence. Algeria has already seen such a revolt 2001, when its Berber citizens demanded democracy and improved social conditions. This and other uprisings were systematically and violently suppressed by the Algerian police. SIWEL alleges that Algeria is financing Ansar Al-Din, along with Qatar. The Malian press has indeed reported that Ansar Al-Din deputy leader Ag Intallah has good relations with the princes of Qatar, and has helped arrange their hunting trips in the Sahara, one of the favorite recreations of the Gulf princes.
On May 31, 2012, SIWEL published an open letter by MNLA political bureau member Magdi Ag Bohada, stating: “Disconcerted by the outrageous agreement that certain members of MNLA dared to sign with the Salafist organization ‘Ansar Al-Din,’ I solemnly launch an appeal to the clear-sighted members of MNLA, to the youth, to the women and to the scholars of Azawad in order to elude the trap set by Ansar Al-Din for the valorous people of Azawad”. Warning that ” fundamentalist hordes are planning to enslave [the Azawadi people] after so many years of struggle and sacrifices,” he demanded “the cancellation of this alliance, which goes against nature and against the values and the legitimate aspirations of the people of Azawad” (for the full text, see Appendix III.)
MNLA Needs International Support ‘More Than Ever’
In an article published by Toumast Press, titled “Now More Than Ever, MNLA Needs The Support Of The International Community,” Nina Walet Intalou, a member of the MNLA political bureau in charge of humanitarian activities, asserted that The only [goal of the MNLA’s] struggle is to allow the survival of lifestyles and cultures that are threatened by the present geopolitical outlook of the world,” but that “the young republic of Azawad cannot stand alone against the monster of terrorism…” She added: “The international community can no longer afford to be a [mere] spectator. It is now or never; it must take action… The present situation, which is due to total neglect, will disappear the moment Azawad and the MNLA have at their side an international community willing to fight a common enemy together” (for the article, see Appendix II).
MNLA communications officer Ag Attaher stated that Azawad dignitaries and a majority of the MNLA political bureau are now at work reconstructing the movement, with the aim of removing those elements that brought the MNLA towards a very dangerous situation for the Azawadi people.
However, on June 4, MNLA secretary-general Ag Cherif published a communiqué on the official MNLA website defending the MOU with Ansar Al-Din. Point 6 of the communiqué states: “The memorandum of understanding signed between the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din is being studied by the two parties, and a commission will be formed for follow-up, in order to deal with the disagreements over the pending points.”
Azawadi Women Demonstrate Against Ansar Al-Din: “No ToShari’a, Yes To democracy”
On June 5, 2012, Azawadi women demonstrated in Kidal against Ansar Al-Din; members of the Islamist movement responded by beating them. This was the first time in Tuareg history that women were beaten in public. In the Tuareg culture, women have a central role in society and if a woman is beaten by her husband, this is immediate grounds for divorce.
The violence against the women sparked uproar in the Azawadi and Tuareg media and was condemned by public figures. It also triggered a series of demonstrations against Ansar Al-Din. On June 6, more than 200 Azawadi women held another demonstration against Ansar Al-Din in Kidal, declaring that they would never wear a burqa or allow the Tuareg culture to be replaced by Islamism. On June 7, an even larger demonstration took place in Kidal, and protests were also held in other Azawad towns, attended by both men and women. In the town of In-Khalil, no less than 1,800 people took to the streets, carrying signs saying “We condemn the violence against women in Kidal” and “No to shari’a, Yes to democracy”. In a communiqué posted on the MNLA website, the movement leadership praised the demonstrations, while underlining no violence has erupted between the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din.
Division Within Ansar Al-Din
According to reports, some Ansar Al-Din fighters have left the movement, because they believe Ag Ghaly is not really interested in Azawadi independence but is only biding his time until he can hand the region back to Mali as part of an agreement profitable for him and his close supporters.
Toumast Press also reports a rift within the movement’s leadership between Ag Ghaly and his deputy, Alghabass Ag Intallah, who signed the MOU on Ansar Al-Din’s behalf, and is said to be more flexible than Ag Ghaly.  Ag Intallah’s father, Ifoghas tribe leader Intallah Ag Attaher, has for months been urging his son to leave Ansar Al-Din.
MLNA Forms Transitional Council Of The State Of Azawad
Flag of Azawad
On June 7, three months after Azawad’s declaration of independence, the MNLA established the 28-member Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (see Appendix IV). The council includes no Ansar Al-Din members, and was formed amid threats by the African Union (AU) to intervene militarily in Azawad in order to bring the region back under Malian control.
Appendix I: Open Letter By MNLA Communications Officer Ag Attaher, May 31, 2012, Toumast Press
Some MNLA Members Aim To Maintain The Status Quo
“I address myself primarily to the Azawadi young people, who believe in the MNLA’s legitimate struggle for the liberation of Azawad and the creation of an independent and democratic state that respects its [various] components, [whether] ethnic or religious.
“Fellow fighters, first of all, I would like to express to you the honor and the pleasure that I had in giving the best of myself for our struggle, our hope, our dignity and the independence of Azawad… I believed, and I still believe, that a new and better world is possible thanks to the young people, who are aware of their role and responsibilities in a world that gives us no alternative except resistance and flawless commitment.
“Some [of you] know me well enough to know that I gave everything for the MNLA, through militancy and totally disinterested engagement, [especially] in the most difficult moments for [our] movement, when only a few openly declared [their allegiance to the MNLA]. Almost alone, I carried out a diplomatic campaign on the international level, and was the target of threats and intimidation by partisans of a ‘single and indivisible Mali’… There was also a tendency to turncoat, to evade, to renounce, to betray, etc…
“My self-sacrifice and my commitment… are not the topic [of this open letter]; [therefore] I will not [continue on this topic] any longer, in order to avoid [being accused] of having intentions unrelated to reality or bizarre ulterior motives that are part of a certain predatory political subculture. [This political subculture] tolerates no disagreement or conflicting debates, and immediately spreads anathema, falsehood and manipulation, demonizing all opposing voices, all free spirits, and all criticism. Its ultimate aim is to maintain the status quo – which unfortunately will transform an authentic political movement that bears the hopes of a people and of a project with defined ideals and strong convictions – into a political apparatus in which career plans and promotions are based on [illegitimate] allegiances. [Such activity is] unworthy of a democratic and modern movement which, unfortunately, is in the process of being dangerously dissolved, due to the game conceived by Arab-Islamist and obscurantist regimes!
“If we do not act quickly, our movement’s founding values and ideas will give way to unworthy and indefensible disavowals. One example of this is the identity issue – which received multiple insults during the recent discussions in Gao – and the principle of secularism, which was trampled by an unprecedented religious offensive, against the backdrop of an escalation of mass proselytizing that evoked no memorable action.”
Ansar Al-Din Wants An Islamic State
“Have you any idea how difficult it was for me to explain to our partners and to the Azawadi public the reasons for the delay in announcing [the formation] of the Azawadi government? First, I decided that there was a need for consultation that would be open to all elements of Azawad. I [also] rightly answered that we must try to avoid hasty mistakes. But how can we explain to Azawadi people, to the friends of Azawad, and to the tireless militants of the MNLA that forming the government of Azawad is taking as long as liberating it?
“Are we really responsible for our decisions? Or are we – without [fully] understanding the extent and the gravity [of what is happening] – having our military and fighting forces replaced by external forces, which are allergic to any form of independence of our country, so that we may follow obscure plans not our own? We did not rid ourselves of [the old] colonialism just to create a new one!
“In the protocol of accord [the MOU] – if it can be called that – there is no concern for the freedom of Azawadi people. This accord extols the virtues of ‘an Islamic state meant to implement Islamic legislation in all domains of life, based on the Koran and on the Sunna’ – in a word, the shari’a!
“On the other hand, the merger dictated by Ansar Al-Din and its mentors was ‘in the superior interest of Islam and of Muslims in Azawad,’ not in the interest of all Azawadi people regardless of religious denomination. Though we are a people with a Muslim majority, it is [nevertheless] important to recall that there are Christian Azawadis in Gao and in Timbuktu, and that [we must show] them tolerance and respect, in line with our thousand-year-old cultural values.
“The content of this accord is indefensible, and ends at Point 9 with the following stipulation: ‘Any disagreement with one of the fundamental principles of the [Islamic] religion nullifies this agreement. This will be developed in the constitution at a later stage.’”
“I Completely Reject The Protocol Agreement… Between Certain Members Of MNLA And Ansar Al-Din”
“We have made enormous sacrifices, and we have heroically liberated our territory. We lost brave men in this combat, and we saw, once again, our parents take the road to exile.
“Exploiting the blood of our martyrs for religious purposes is, pure and simple, a betrayal of [our] ideals, which have always led us and in the name of which our brave martyrs died. Our sisters, our mothers, our scholars, and also our friends expect great things of us, and we cannot deceive them, or, worse, betray them.
“In the name of these hopes, out of respect for the oath of allegiance that I took when I joined the MNLA, in the name of the honor that my parents handed down to me, and in the name of the esteem that many of you have shown me, I completely reject the [protocol] agreement signed May 26 between certain members of the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din. I believe that the implementation of the shari’a, and the ‘Arabization’ of our people, constitute a grave violation of our culture and our identity, and a shameful loss of the gains of the revolution.
“I will remain within the MNLA, but I will redouble vigilance, and will, together with credible and sincere members of the MNLA, resist. And we will not lower our weapons until the day the worthy daughters and sons of Azawad will again find their dignity – which was trampled for 50 years by Mali and is now being trampled by radical Islamists, who are on the payroll of invisible hands…
“Finally, I call on the youth of my native Azawad, on the young executives of my country, and on the freedom fighters, men and women, to join the resistors within the MNLA and to fight the corrupt and all those who are ready to sell their soul to the devil.
“Azawadis, ‘let us swim and swim until our day comes, and if we perish in the ocean of the liberation of our nation, then our resistance will be a lesson to future worlds,’ as the late Mohamed Ali Ag Attaher would say.
“Azawad or death! We shall triumph.
Appendix II: “Now More Than Ever, The MNLA Needs The Support Of The International Community” – Nina Walet Intalou, Toumast Press, May 30, 2012
The International Community Should Assist The MNLA
“…While the free and democratic world was heatedly discussing the MNLA, the Islamist organization Ansar Al-Din was secretly receiving full support from its obscurantist mentors. While the free and democratic world was paying little attention to the MNLA, at least two countries were supporting Ansar Al-Din financially, technically and in the media. While the free and democratic world was distancing itself from the MNLA and Azawad, numerous countries and obscurantist organizations were drawing closer to Ansar Al-Din in order to strengthen it and [help it] to accomplish its objectives.
“Nations that love peace, stability and understanding among people have failed to do their duty. This duty is nothing but assistance – assistance for a popular organization with noble and legitimate ideals whose righteousness will, in the long term, be healthy for the stability of the North and West African regions, and assistance also to the MNLA, [an organization that] loves peace, justice, and equality and that will soon put an end to a long-standing injustice… [The MNLA’s] struggle is to allow the survival of lifestyles and cultures that are threatened by the present geopolitical outlook of the world.”
The MNLA Is Running Out Of Financial Means – While Ansar Al-Din Has A Surplus Of Funds
“Despite what international media are saying, the MNLA did not deviate from the line of thinking that it always professed. Isolated from the free and democratic world, politically misunderstood, attacked militarily and in the media, threatened with military intervention, the MNLA ended up running out of means [of support], while the Islamist organization Ansar Al-Din has a surplus of funds, thanks to support [it receives] from countries and organizations which share its obscurantist objectives.
“It was under these circumstances that the MNLA signed an agreement with Ansar Al-Din in exchange for [its pledge] to officially renounce terrorism and its abolition of liberties, and in exchange for its demanding that the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) free the hostages that it is holding and leave Azawad for good.
“This agreement has no real purpose, and it will not stand. A great number of convinced democrats are increasingly distancing themselves [from it]. Like many others in the MNLA, I categorically reject this agreement, because attempting to avoid a tribal and fratricidal war in Azawad should not imply acceptance of the dictates imposed by obscurantist groups. The striving for Azawadi unity should not pitch us into the abyss.
“The flame of liberty which always burned in Azawad is now brighter than ever. Hundreds of thousands of women and men are now, more than ever, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to achieve their goal: Azawad. This goal, supported by the civil populations against ogres, should leave no humanist without a flash of pride.
“This objective will be pursued until Azawad is recognized. But the young republic of Azawad cannot stand alone against the monster of terrorism, when you consider that Northern and Western African states have for decades been incapable of fighting it. The international community, which shares the objective of fighting terrorism and religious obscurantism, must have only one partner in the Sahel-Sahara belt: the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.”
Azawad’s Survival Depends On A Successful Fight Against Terrorism
“Mali has received financial aid and [assistance in] militarily training for about a decade, in the name of this struggle [against terrorism]. To date, Mali has not fired a single shot against AQIM. Other states in the region have also been weak in this struggle. But Azawad will not be [like that], because its survival depends on a successful [fight against terrorism].
“Today, the dangers that led the international community to the side of the countries of the region are still present. The international community can no longer afford to be a [mere] spectator. It is now or never; it must take action…
“Once Azawad receives the necessary support, it will fight any obscurantist and terrorist presence in Azawad. The precariousness of the situation demands a quick decision by countries that love peace, tolerance and justice. The present situation, which is due to total neglect, will disappear the moment Azawad and the MNLA have at their side an international community willing to fight a common enemy together.”
APPENDIX III: Open Letter By Magdi Ag Bohada, SIWEL, May 31, 2012
“Magdi Ag Bohada,
“Officer of the General Staff of the MNLA
“Member of the political bureau of the MNLA
“In charge of special relations of the MNLA with North Africa
“Appeal to the people of Azawad:
“Disconcerted by the outrageous agreement that certain members of the MNLA dared to sign with the Salafist organization ‘Ansar Al-Din,’ I solemnly launch an appeal to the clear-sighted members of the MNLA, to the youth, to the women and to the scholars of Azawad in order to elude the trap set by Ansar Al-Din for the valorous people of Azawad with the aim of stealing its freedom forever.
“As a fighter and as a political and military leader of Azawad, I have been struggling for decades for Azawad and nothing but Azawad. It is a mission that I will never renounce, particularly today, when fundamentalist hordes are planning to enslave [the people] after so many years of struggle and sacrifices.
“I ask the MNLA to quickly return to its senses, and I demand, pure and simple, the cancellation of this alliance, which goes against nature and against the values and the legitimate aspirations of the people of Azawad.
“Meantime, I suspend all [my] political activities within the MNLA and call all the militants, fighters, executives, women and the young people of Azawad to join my call and to continue fighting for the freedom of Azawad in the framework of its ancestral values, which are the opposite of the obscurantist ideologies professed by Ansar Al-Din and its allies.
“It does not matter how difficult the struggle, for it will not stop until Azawad is a free, independent and democratic state, in the hands of its true children.