Islamists rout Tuareg from their own rebellion in north Mali
Separatist Tuareg rebels led the takeover of northern Mali but Islamists who fought alongside them have now dislodged the desert nomads from all key positions, scuppering their dream of independence.
It was the Tuareg’s rebellion, one which they have waged several times in past decades in their bid to split northern Mali, which they call Azawad, from the south where the government in Bamako has long marginalised their community.
But this vast northern desert had also become the base of Al-Qaeda allies and Islamists, whose fighters appeared alongside the Tuareg as they seized the main cities and then planted their own black flag, laying down their strict Islamic laws.
“Today, you need a magnifying glass to find a trace of the MNLA fighters,” said Malian journalist Tiegoum Boubeye Maiga, referring to the Tuareg rebel movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
The MNLA was formed in late 2011, including members of rebel groups who were active in the nineties.
Boosted by the return of heavily armed Tuareg who had gone to fight for Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, the rebels launched their rebellion in January and quickly overwhelmed a demoralised and poorly equipped Malian army.
Angry and frustrated, a group of low-ranking soldiers carried out a coup on March 22 against a government they said was incompetent in dealing with the rebellion.
But the coup only worsened the situation as the unmanned north became easy prey and fell to the rebel groups in a matter of days.
Alongside the main Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) backed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) an offshoot of the also-present Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Tuareg were swiftly pushed aside.
While they still maintained a presence, unilaterally declaring independence for Azawad, tensions grew between the two groups, erupting in bloody combat in the town of Gao on Wednesday where the Tuareg were chased from their headquarters.
MUJAO spokesman Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui said it had “seized the governor’s palace and the residence of MNLA secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif who fled with his soldiers.”
Some 20 people were reported killed by witnesses, and Ag Acherif was said to have fled, wounded, to a neighbouring country.
While in former colonial power France the MNLA garnered certain sympathy, seen as a group which could counter the Islamist groups, and regularly given airtime to explain their struggle, the reality on the ground was different.
“While the Islamists were doing work on the ground, the Tuareg were talking to the media,” said Maiga.
The Islamists slowly moved their chessmen into place, first blocking the Tuareg from accessing the heavy weapons they had brought back from Libya and hidden in the AQIM-controlled mountains in north-eastern Mali, experts said.
Then they won sympathy on the ground among the different tribes in the north, where Tuareg are a minority, by distributing basic goods and insisting they wanted to maintain the territorial integrity of Mali.
“When the mujahideen took Gao, they walked through the town brandishing the Malian flag, we liked that,” said Saly Toure who works for the Sahel Museum in Gao which has been closed since the beginning of the crisis.
But to win “the Islamists also played the corruption card wholeheartedly,” said an African diplomat based in Bamako, on condition of anonymity.
“A very influent leader of a citizens’ association in Gao was ‘bought’. Since then he turned his back on the Tuareg to support the Islamists.”
He said the defeat of the MNLA would change the framework of negotiations with transition authorities who took over from the junta.
Lacking money, abandoned by their supporters and riven by internal divisions, the Tuareg rebels have been sorely weakened, and only hold small towns such as Gossi, Menaka and Anderamboukane.
However the Islamists have not been welcomed with open arms and protests have broken out as many in the northern main cities — home to a hodgepodge of black African and Arab tribes — have no interest in the strict Islamic state sought by their occupiers.