April 6, 2022 marks the tenth anniversary of an insurgency in northern Mali that has resulted in a reshuffling of the cards among armed groups.
On April 6, 2012, the “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad” declared its independence from Mali. This is a “new Tuareg uprising” that follows older ones in a still unstable area. Although this political demonstration is mainly expressed in Mali, it has caused numerous reactions among the Tuareg populations in the surrounding area, like a shock wave, provoking the mistrust of neighboring states.
North Mali shaken by Tuareg rebellions
The term Azawad comes from the Tuareg language of Berber origin. Several meanings are given to it, but its main meaning is attached to a geographical area. Among the Kel Antessar Tuareg nomads and Berabich Arabs of the Timbuktu region, it refers to the area of pastureland north of the city. A region with imperfect boundaries, “Azawad is the natural name for the Malian area north of the Niger River, between Mauritania and Algeria,” explains Jidou Ag Almoustapha, a representative of Malian refugees in Mentao, Burkina Faso.
The demand for independence in northern Mali, which is highly ideologically marked, has been in decline since the beginning of the 1990 rebellion. The movements evoke autonomy and then a federal-type system to have Azawad recognized as “a political entity in itself” … for a population of approximately 1.3 million inhabitants. This relationship between the North and the South was formalized on April 11, 1992 with the signing of the “National Pact formalizing the special status of the North of Mali. The “special status” of the North also had a more global impact on the national territory by “accelerating” decentralization as a mode of governance from 1999.
From 2011, the National Movement for Azawad (NMA), which claims an administration closer to the realities in the North, becomes the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). Subsequently, the year 2012 marked the beginning of the conflict against the presence of Malian authorities in the region. In the context of the fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, the MNLA is strengthened by an armed wing, which includes in part the Tuareg soldiers who previously served in the Libyan army, but also the undemobilized fighters of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. The NMLA thus declared the independence of Azawad on April 6, 2012, in an unprecedented manner. The new “state” covers 827,000km2, the equivalent of 66% of the territory. Self-proclaimed, the Movement set out to give it the classic characteristics of a state: territory, population and political power.
From political conflict to tribal conflict?
The desire to create a new governance framework is found in Ansar Ed-dine, a terrorist group formed in 2012 by Iyad ag Ghali, which differs from the NMLA in its rhetoric calling for temporary territorial separation, rather than independence, and the application of Sharia law. The NMLA, which is the heir to the independence guerrillas of the 1990s, advocates a secular doctrine and promotes Tuareg culture. Its ally the HCUA (High Council for the Unity of Azawad), created during the Mali war in 2013, is the Islamist equivalent. Alghabass Ag Intalla is the secretary general. Note that there has always been porosity between the HCUA and the jihadists of Ansar ed-Dine. Since 2017, this group has merged with others to create the JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin).
On the other side, the loyalist GATIA advocates the unity of Malian territory. The Algiers Agreement, officially called the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, aimed at ending the war in Mali was signed on May 15 and June 20, 2015 in Bamako after talks in Algiers between the Republic of Mali and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CAM). After bitter negotiations in which each party to the conflict wanted to make a point, an agreement was signed that satisfied no one. For the first time since then, a meeting of the Follow-up Committee of the 2015 Algiers Agreement was held in Kidal, a town in northern Mali held by former independence fighters, in 2021. A symbol that testifies to the difficulty of implementing this peace agreement, in a country where the majority of the population rejects it.
The GATIA created in 2014 is a consequence of the defeat of the Malian army during the battle of Kidal in May 2014. It advocates the maintenance of Azawad within Mali and is thus a loyalist movement. Composed mostly of Imghads, this movement seeks to emancipate itself from the tutelage of the Ifoghas, a lineage considered noble, within a very hierarchical Tuareg society. This opposition led to violent clashes between these two minorities in the Kidal region in 2016.
Seven years after the Algiers Agreements, in addition to the fact that the population is largely unaware of their content, their implementation has been hampered by a lack of will on both sides. The sharing of responsibilities between the Malian state and the armed groups is not unanimous. Circumstantial alliances are sometimes formed, but to no avail.
In 2012, the NMLA launched a war in Mali in the name of the independence of Azawad. In 2022, although a peace agreement was signed in 2015 and many international armed forces are present on the ground, there are still more than 81 armed groups active on the territory. The armed conflict is said to have reached a stalemate due to the volatile behavior of the belligerents. Like other countries or regions in the world, Azawad and Mali are torn between a federal system, which could mean, in the long term, a fragmentation that is dangerous for unity, or a refocusing on a central state, which is itself failing in its traditional regalian missions. Political and economic interests are thus intertwined in a coveted territory, and Azawad continues to experience violence and instability.