By Jemal Oumar
Touareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamist group Ansar al-Din signed an agreement Saturday (May 26th) in Gao, establishing a breakaway Islamic state in northern Mali.
The agreement, which unites two of the largest factions in the country’s north, was immediately denounced by authorities in Bamako.
“The government of Mali categorically rejects the idea of the creation of an Azawad state, even more so of an Islamic state,” Hamadoun Toure, information minister in the transitional administration, told AFP. “Mali is secular and will remain secular,” he added.
The pact was signed by Belal Ag Sharif, head of the MNLA political bureau, and al-Abbes Ag Antala, chief of the Ifogas tribe and first deputy of Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly. The settlement was met with celebratory gunfire, according to Gao resident Adoum Ag El-Wali.
The signing ceremony was attended by various dignitaries from across the Azawad region and a representative of the Nigerien government, according to Mubarak Ag Mohamed, a member of the MNLA media office.
Ag Mohamed told Magharebia that the agreement included the backing of independence for Azawad with Islam as the state religion and the Qur’an and Sunnah as the source of all legislation. An interim Shura council will also be set up to govern the Islamic state, with two-thirds of council members from Salafist groups and a third coming from the more secular MNLA.
Significantly, the accord calls for the rejection of any armed presence beyond that of the Azawad state. Ag Mohamed added that the two parties agreed to adopt the former MNLA flag and establish a unified army from all Azawad factions, including Ansar al-Din.
Meanwhile, ANI reported that the Touareg rebels agreed not to discuss accession to the United Nations or co-ordination with the world body because the jihadist movements reject that in principle.
They also agreed not to discuss the issue of those who MNLA calls “foreign gunmen”, but who jihadists in Azawad call “immigrants”, a reference to the elements of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other jihadist movements from other countries.
Ansar al-Din and Islamic groups have succeeded to a large extent in imposing their own agenda on the other party, and have left a clear mark on the future of the nascent state, analyst Cheikh Ould Mohamed Harma said.
However, Ag Mohamed, the MNLA media officer, said that the issue of al-Qaeda would be resolved over time, especially as the meeting between Iyad Ag Ghaly and al-Qaeda leaders yesterday in Timbuktu might have been held to discuss a mechanism for their departure from Azawad.
“This agreement between the two Touareg factions will make AQIM in the region live in stifling isolation,” according to Nina Welet Ntalo, a member of the MNLA political bureau. “This is because Ansar al-Din, which has been providing protection for them during their presence in the region, is a main party to the agreement which bans in one of its articles any arms beyond the new state.”
“Therefore, I believe that al-Qaeda doesn’t have a future in the Azawad region and they now have to leave to where they came from,” she said, adding that negotiations between Ansar al-Din and the MNLA were still ongoing regarding al-Qaeda in particular.
Jeune Afrique correspondent Baba Ahmed said he didn’t believe the Islamists came out the winners from the agreement because they adopted a key MNLA demand – independence from Mali.
In his turn, Iselmou Ould Elmoustafa, director of Tahalil and an expert in terrorism, said that the pact was “a victory for the MNLA because it managed to isolate Ansar al-Din from al-Qaeda, given that the most important point in the document states that no one outside the regular army shall carry arms. This primarily targets al-Qaeda.”