By Jemal Oumar
Secular Touareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) share a common goal with the world community: to see armed Islamists and terrorists expelled from northern Mali.
The separatist movement, however, complains of being excluded from a role in resolving the Mali crisis.
The MNLA has long demanded an independent, secular state that supports democracy. But unlike another separatist Touareg group – Ansar al-Din – the MNLA rejects the imposition of Sharia and any affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Their main objective is independence from Mali. But after months of talks with Burkinabe mediator Blaise Compaore without any resolution, despair is replacing optimism.
“The Liberation Movement of Azawad must take a position with regard to the looming war before it sweeps them up, because options are narrowing,” analyst Mukhtar Salem warned.
“They have to either support the efforts of the world to fight terrorism in exchange for rational gains, or be clearly on the side of al-Qaeda, because international military efforts will not wait for them,” Salem told Magharebia.
Ibrahim Ag Assalah, one of the leaders of the MNLA and head of the negotiating delegation to Burkina Faso, said earlier this month that the goal of the mediation talks was “to reach a political settlement to the conflict that has been binding us to Mali for 52 years”.
“We demand our right to self-determination and that does not mean secession, but I mean the rights to health, life, education, political rights and expression,” Algerian daily Echorouk quoted Ag Assalah as saying on October 8th.
But according to Touareg activist Nina Walet Ntalo, a minister in the government of the unilaterally declared state of Azawad, the “statement of Ibrahim Ag renouncing independence does not bind other activists in the movement”.
“The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is still sticking to its demand for independence, but expresses at the same time its readiness to negotiate with all parties, including the government of Mali,” she told Magharebia on October 21st.
Ntalo also voiced the willingness of the MNLA to help reclaim northern Mali from Islamist-terrorist control. “We hope that the international community considers us to be part of the military solution and that they understand our demands for the right to self-determination, because we represent the will of the people of Azawad,” she said.
“We are still waiting to be included in the co-ordination efforts both regionally and internationally,” the Azawad activist added.
The MNLA is also determined to stand its ground against the armed Islamists. After Ansar al-Din leaders this month launched a call for dialogue with their fellow Touaregs, National Council of Azawad head Bilal Ag Sherif delivered a scathing response.
The Liberation Movement of Azawad said it would not negotiate with Ansar al Din unless they “abandoned terrorist groups and smuggling gangs and explicitly condemned them for their acts of terrorism and criminality, including abductions, destruction of archaeological sites, and application of Sharia law against the local population”, Ag Sherif said on October 20th.
“The Movement today finds itself in an awkward position,” Mali affairs reporter Mohamed Ag Ahmadou noted. “It is very hostile to terrorist movements that expelled them from the territory of Azawad, but also lacks understanding by the international community of its demands.”
“This ultimately constitutes a threat to the future of both Azawad refugees and residents of the North,” Ag Ahmadou said.
These populations refuse to be under the authority of the state of Mali, he explained. But they also refuse to be subjected to Islamist governance and the control of terrorists.
“The world must help solve this dilemma,” he said. “It is focused solely on a military intervention without considering its repercussions.”