This post is more a roundup of overlapping events than an attempt to produce a coherent narrative about the political situation in northern Mali, but the events do share one broad trait: they all instantiate political change, underscoring how fluid the situation remains.
The rebellion in northern Mali was launched in January by the Tuareg-led group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the three northern regions of Mali). The MNLA’s stated goal has long been independence for that territory. Starting in April and especially since June, the MNLA has lost political and military ground to Ansar al Din (Arabic: Defenders of the Faith), a group that seeks to implement shari’a law across all of Mali. Ansar al Din’s coalition of Islamists includes fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an AQIM offshoot called the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
One recent political shift has been in the MNLA’s stated goals. On Sunday, the MNLA announced that they were (my term) downgrading their quest: instead of seeking full secession, a spokesman said, they now seek “cultural, political, and economic independence.” Their spokesman referenced Quebec as a model. The MNLA further declared its resolve to fight Ansar al Din. The implications of this change in rhetoric regarding secession may be quite serious. Big questions arise: Would the MNLA help the Malian army or outside forces reclaim the north from the Islamist coalition in exchange for guarantees of future autonomy? Does this change of rhetoric signal the MNLA’s desperation (and decreasing political and military relevance)?
Another apparent political shift could benefit Ansar al Din. In June, a trio of northern Malian militias announced the formation of a coalition to “liberate” northern Mali from the rebels. Now it appears that some fighters from one of those militias, the ethnically Songhai group Ganda Koy, have broken ranks to join Ansar al Din. The reasons for this (alleged) shift are unclear to me.
On other political fronts, Ansar al Din is not faring as well. Throughout the spring and summer, there have been reports of protests in northern cities, but it was not always clear whether the protests were targeting the MNLA or Ansar al Din. Now that Ansar al Din is more firmly in control of key northern cities, it seems clearer that recent protests are against the Islamists. I have long argued that Ansar al Din has gained some popular support from its attempts to establish law and order and to provide aid, and I stand by that, but the protests are a sign that significant elements of the local population want the Islamists gone. Ansar al Din’s harsh response to protests last weekend, moreover, could generate further backlash.
Finally, there are outside attempts to split the Islamist coalition. The African Union stated yesterday that Ansar al Din, in Reuters’ words, “can be part of a negotiated political solution to reunite the divided West African country if it breaks with al Qaeda and its allies.” This offer seems unlikely to tempt Ansar al Din so long as they have the upper hand in the north, but it is possible that continued efforts at putting wedges into the Islamist coalition could induce cracks later on if Ansar al Din finds itself on the defensive. It is also possible that the AU’s talk will fall on completely deaf ears.
[UPDATE]: Peter Tinti (in the comments) provides us with a link (French) to an interview with MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, in which he denies that the Movement has renounced its goal of independence. He claims the earlier news was misinformation spread by the Movement’s “detractors.” According to him, the MNLA is “ready to have talks with the Malian authorities” under international supervision, but they “have never renounced [their] demand for the independence of the Azawad.”
The spokesman quoted in the piece above on MNLA’s renunciation of secession demands was a different figure, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, identified by Reuters as “a senior member of the MNLA.” The contradictory rhetoric either indicates that one of the two men (likely Ag Assaleh) does not genuinely speak for the MNLA, or that the movement is divided over how to proceed.