Who’s Who in Northern Mali

After intense negotiations, an agreement has been signed in Ouagadougou between Malian transitional authorities and Tuareg rebel groups under the aegis of the mediator of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso. Undertaken since 8 June 2013, these direct talks were aimed at creating the conditions necessary for holding presidential elections, scheduled for July 2013.

The central authority in Bamako has found itself caught between the pressure of domestic public opinion, which is largely hostile to Tuareg rebel groups, and the weight of the international community, which is heavily invested in solving the problem of rebel-occupied Kidal. As a result of this predicament, Bamako has asked for three amendements to the original agreement. These relate to the redepoyment of the Malian army in Kidal, the suspension of the prosecution against Tuareg rebels sought by the Malian justice system and the inclusion of the word ‘Azawad’ – the name of the territory claimed by the separatist rebel movements – in the language of the agreement.

As a prelude to negotiations, the Tuareg rebels have formed a joint delegation comprising the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In addition, the Arab Movement Azawad (MAA) and the Movement of Patriotic Forces of Resistance (RSFF), were received in Ouagadougou by the ECOWAS mediator at the request of the Malian authorities. These events illustrate two major developments. Firstly, the HCUA symbolizes the attempt by armed Tuareg movements to speak with one voice. Secondly, the presence of the MAA and RSFF in Ouagadougou demonstrates that the Malian government will not limit the scope of negotiations to Tuareg rebels alone, even if such negotiations are to be conducted only after the presidential election. These developments underscore the importance of accounting for the diversity of northern Mali in the ongoing peace process. Thus it is necessary to distinguish and define the various groups, armed and unarmed, in this area.

According to the National Statistics Directorate of Mali, nomadic and sedentary groups in Mali’s three northern regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal) form about 10% of the country’s population. The nomads fall into three subgroups: Tuaregs (1.7% of the population), Arabs (1.2% of the population) and Fulani pastoralists. The sedentary groups (forming about 7% of the total population) are the Sonrhai and black Tamasheq, with the Sonrhai forming the majority community in the northern regions.

The Tuaregs are a hierarchical society and consist of several tribes. This community is currently dominated by the Ifoghas, whose patriarch, Attaher Ag Intallah, has authority over the rest of the tribal factions. At the bottom of the social scale are the black Tamasheq people, who are considered slaves. The Sonrhai people are also a hierarchical society consisting of three subgroups: the nobles, the caste men and the serfs. The noble class includes those who hold religious power. Caste men include the Sorko and Gabibi people. The serfs are mainly involved in activities such as manufacturing, small business and domestic work. The Arabs are subdivided into the Barbich, who are traders, and the Islamic Kountas, who traditionally hold power. The Fulani pastoralists (farmers and cattle traders) are in contact with all the other Malian communities and are found everywhere in the north of the country.

The relationships between these various communities are historically often conflictual, even before Mali’s independence. For example, Arab traders and the Sonrhai hold the Tuaregs responsible for the raids that prevailed in the north. Clashes among the various nomadic groups, and between the nomadic and sedentary peoples, are recurrent, with each community claiming ownership of the territory.

It is within this complex multicultural social context that the armed Tuareg group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), triggered a deep security crisis when it launched its rebellion against the authorities in Bamako in January 2012. The MNLA was subsequently expelled from its strongholds in the north by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Ad-Din (created by the Tuareg Iyad ag Ghali) before it reformed in Kidal following the French military intervention.

Officially declaring its name in October 2012 and directed by Bilal Ag Acharif, the NMLA is a fusion of several rebel movements, including the National Movement of Azawad, the Tuareg Movement in Northern Mali and the Popular Movement of Azawad. Several former Tuareg rebel groups from the deposed regime of Muammar Gaddafi have reinforced the NMLA.

Alongside the MNLA, dissident members of Ansar Ad-Din and the MNLA formed another group of rebel fighters in January 2013. The new organization, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), was led by Alghabass Ag Intallah and claimed the self-determination of the area commonly called Azawad.

And in May, a defector from the NMLA, Mohamed Ag Intallah, formed yet another group, the High Council of Azawad, which later became the HCUA, in an attempt to unify the various Tuareg rebel groups. On 18 May, Amenokal Attaher Ag Intallah publicly declared alliance with the HCUA, making it difficult for other community members to challenge the legitimacy of that organisation. On 19 May, Alghabass Ag Intallah announced the dissolution of the IMA and joined his brother, Mohamed Ag Intallah, in the HCUA. The same day, they were joined by the NMLA.

In addition to these Tuareg rebel movements there are also two main Arab and Sonrhai groups, the MAQ and the Ganda Izo, respectively. Ganda Izo, meaning Son of the Earth, emanated from the Sonrhai militia group during the rebellions of the 1990s, the Ganda Koy, and has established several militia groups in Sévaré and Gao under the leadership of Ibrahim Abba Kantao since the 2012 rebellion.

Formed in April 2012, the National Liberation Front of Azawad became the MAA in December 2012 under the leadership of Ahmed Ould Sidi Mohamed. Since the beginning of the Malian crisis, this Arab movement has deployed armed militia groups in the north composed of deserting officers from the Malian Army.

Besides these armed groups, there are also unarmed organisations whose political lobbying is of a peaceful nature. The Tuaregs, for example, have created sociopolitical groups like the Organization of Civil Societies of Azawad and the Platform of Kel Tamasheq. Other civil movements include the Association of Malians from the north, the Association of Black Tamasheq and the Patriotic Resistance Forces, which is the political wing of the Ganda Koy.

Given this sociologically diverse environment, it is important for the Malian authorities and international partners to take into account the legitimate claims of all communities for the establishment of a lasting peace in the country. The various Tuareg armed groups, under the umbrella of the HCUA, who were invited to the negotiating table in Ouagadougou earlier this month, are mainly composed of people from the Ifoghas tribe. However, these represent only a small portion of the Tuareg community, and the Tuaregs are a minority group in northern Mali. Most Tuaregs do not belong to any armed group and are based in Bamako or live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

In settling recent rebellions, agreements have been made with armed groups that the government and many Malians consider unfair. Underdevelopment, governance, social cohesion and security are issues that concern all Malian communities in both the north and south. These issues, although not included in the Ouagadougou Agreement, are essential to a sustainable resolution of the crisis and should be at the centre of negotiations conducted by the elected government.

As reported by Baba Dakono, a Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar