By Jemal Oumar
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamist Touareg rebels Ansar al-Din reportedly reached a deal Sunday (May 20th) to form a joint interim government for the self-proclaimed state of Azawad.
“Ansar al-Din and the MNLA have agreed to choose Belal Ag Sharif, head of the MNLA political bureau, to lead the interim government, and Mohamed Ag Nejim, a former officer in Mali’s army, has been selected as general co-ordinator of army,” Nina Welet Ntalo, a member of the MNLA political bureau told Magharebia.
She added that “the two groups have formed a 40-member committee, with half of members representing Ansar al-Din and the other half representing MNLA, to declare the government Sunday or Monday (May 20th-21st).”
The agreement removes an important obstacle for the secessionists seeking an independent state in northern Mali but leaves open the question of the continued presence of fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other terrorist groups.
Abu Bakr al-Ansari, an analyst hailing from the Touareg tribe of Kalnassar who specialises in the on-going conflict in northern Mali, said the agreement came at a time of a “decline of the secular MNLA’s authority; something that undermined its argument about its ability to convince the world to support its secular state”.
“Given this situation, we can understand the tireless efforts that MNLA leaders have been making for weeks to convince Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly to join them and abandon his alliance with al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb,” al-Ansari added. “However, this hasn’t been possible so far, although progress has been made in negotiations.”
A key part of the agreement was the inclusion of multiple ethnic groups from across northern Mali, according to Gao-based journalist Mohamed Ag Ahmedu.
In addition to the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, Ag Ahmedu said the pact included “the Arab Front for the Defence of Identity and groups close to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), AQIM and leaders of Arab tribes, such as Barabiche, Kentah and Amhar and other tribes in northern Mali, to establish the Republic of Azawad which would consist of Touaregs and Arabs and some other ethnic minorities that have shared land, religion, history and aspirations”.
He added that “there are some other issues that are still under discussion between Ansar al-Din and MNLA, such as abandoning the alliance with AQIM elements, who Iyad Ag Ghaly considers as immigrants who can never be abandoned.”
Meanwhile, a senior military commander from the MNLA who requested not to be identified told Magharebia that his group “agreed with Iyad Ag Ghaly Sunday evening on the principle of Azawad state independence”.
“As to work under Islamic Sharia, we agreed that the choice will be for the Azawad people through a popular referendum about accepting the Islamic Sharia or secular system,” the MNLA commander said. “We also agreed that he would remove the black flag and that he would install MNLA flags instead.”
“The other issue that is still outstanding is the position from AQIM,” he added. “Iyad Ag Ghaly didn’t agree to abandon them and their alliance, and he still considers them to be friends who rendered him military services during his war against the Malian army.”
In his turn, Adoum Ag El-Wali, an activist in the MNLA and a Gao resident, told Magharebia that “a committee consisting of Azawad clerics is still talking to Iyad Ag Ghaly to religiously convince him of abandoning his alliance with AQIM elements. We’re optimistic about the results of these negotiations in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, analyst al-Mokhtar al-Salem said that the decision by Arab populations to join forces with Azawad rebels was an important step that could “help partially isolate and neutralise AQIM”.