The marriage of convenience between the two Tuareg groups – the secular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defender of the Faith) was bound to be tense. Whilst the secular and nationalist MNLA sought a Tuareg homeland in northern Mali called Azawad, Ansar Dine saw it as a means to create an Islamist theocratic state and as a launching pad for jihad in north-west Africa.
Whilst the two groups took advantage of the coup on 22nd March led by Captain Sanogo in the Malian capital Bamako to carve out a Tuareg homeland in northern Mali, their alliance quickly unravelled as their vision for Azawad differed so drastically. Whilst senior MNLA figures likes its senior commander, Mohamed Ag Najim, were concerned with establishing a functioning state and securing international recognition for the nascent “Republic of Azwad”, Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, was more concerned about the implementation of a strict Salafist vision of shar’iah law. It should be noted that this interpretation of Islamic law had little resonance amongst the local Muslim population who practiced a more moderate Sufi interpretation of Islam. One example of this took place in the northern town of Gao when hundreds of its residents marched on the streets protesting Ansar Dine’s ban on playing football and video games. The desecration of the tomb of Timbuktu’s most revered spiritual leaders, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, by Ansar Dine also angered local residents further.
Despite the lack of popular support, Ansar Dine enjoys the upper hand militarily. It has been strengthened militarily by its alliance with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and as such has consolidated its control over all three major towns in the north – Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu – in the process displacing MNLA fighters. With funds from AQIM, especially those derived from kidnapping and smuggling, Ansar Dine has also been able to recruit the youth in the area as well as MNLA fighters into its ranks.
There is a real danger that Azawad under the control of Ansar Dine could develop into West Africa’s Afghanistan and this is an eventuality which needs to be prevented. This, in turn, raises the question of who could dislodge Ansar Dine from its strongholds in northern Mali? Whilst Mali’s transitional government have rejected the formation of Azawad, they are much too weak to send in a force to challenge the Tuareg rebels in the north. The point was illustrated well when a mob assaulted interim president Dioncounda Traore in his own office.
If not the Malian government, who then could root out the dangers posed by Ansar Din? I believe that a three-pronged strategy should be pursued. First, support the position of Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, who is also the chief of the African Union. He recently suggested that it be referred to the United Nations Security Council paving the way for an African force to intervene operating under the auspices of the United Nations. Second, dialogue should be pursued with the nationalist and secular minded-MNLA. These could be an asset in the fight against Ansar Dine. Indeed, there is evidence too, that the MNLA is moderating its own position. MNLA spokesman, Mossa Ag Attaher, recently spoke of the need to practice a “moderate and tolerant Islam”, an autonomous (as opposed to independent) state of Azawad and that the MNLA was “ready to fight Islamic terrorism”. Third, President Traore and his government need to be strengthened politically, militarily and economically. A weak centre would only encourage a repeat of these tragic events.