Q&A: Northern Malians’ push for secession

Spokesman for MNLA rebel group tells Al Jazeera people in the north have been marginalised and need autonomy.

Moussa Ag Assarid, left, chats with French soldiers in Kidal in June 2014 [Kingsley Kobo/Al Jazeera]

Kidal, Mali – In January 2012, an insurgency broke out in northern Mali, with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacking the army, leading to the capture of three main cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, which form the region the group wants to control.

The MNLA subsequently declared independence from the Republic of Mali, creating the State of Azawad.

This was followed by a push down south to seize more cities, prompting the French army to intervene amid reports that Islamist groups had joined the ranks of the MNLA forces and were posing a security threat across the Sahara region.

Several peace agreements have since been brokered by the international community to restore peace in northern Mali. However, the MNLA – made up mainly of the nomadic Tuareg tribe – keep attending peace talks with Malian authorities in a bid to secure a self-determination referendum, which could eventually lead to the independence of the Azawad people.

Moussa Ag Assari, the MNLA’s spokesman, told Al Jazeera why the people of Azawad want to secede from the res of Mali

Al Jazeera: What would you say is your identity, a Malian or Azawadian?

Moussa Ag Assarid: (Laughs) I am Moussa Ag Assarid, born in 1975, in a locality situated between the towns of Gao and Timbuktu deep in the Azawad region of northern Mali.

AJ: Since 1961 there have been five Tuareg rebellions in the struggle to secede from Mali and establish the Azawad state but all have failed, why are you people still maintaining the struggle?

Assarid: In the first place, it is not just Tuareg rebellions because there are also other tribes in the Azawad struggle, such as Arabs (Moors), Songhai and Fulani and I can tell you that not all the rebellions eventually failed.

The first rebellion of 1963 was bloodily decimated by Mali’s first regime under President Modibo Keita, but the second in 1990 and the third in 2006 ended with several peace agreements that were not respected by successive Malian governments.

In fact since 2012, we are experiencing a popular revolution led by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), whose objective is the independence of Azawad. The struggle continues and there are no signs it is waning because it is led by thousands of men and women, young and old, who are armed with a strong determination. The multi-ethnic people of Azawad want to live in peace, in freedom and in dignity in their own territory. They will continue to fight until there is satisfaction.

AJ: In the first place, why are people from the Azawad region do not want to be Malians?

Assarid: The main reason why Azawadians do not feel they are Malians is because of injustice, neglect and oppression against them since 1960. We do not have any particular problem with Malians from the south, but with the central government. I mean the Malian government.

Hundreds of women, young and old men were massacred by the Malian army without anyone brought to trial. The village of Kel Essouk (7km from Gao) with about 500 inhabitants was razed to the ground in February 1994. The perpetrators are known and currently occupy important positions in the country and have never been questioned.

A similar tragedy occurred in several nomadic hamlets in the Azawad region between 1963 and 2014. Do not even mention the diversion of funds allocated by the international community to the people of Azawad. There are no schools, hospitals or wells to fetch drinking water from in this arid region of ours.

People from our region hardly get appointments in the country’s administration, but we are more concerned about the regular massacre of civilians. 

AJ: Tuareg fighters from the Libyan civil war came with huge quantity of arms and ammunitions to launch the MNLA’s armed campaign in January 2012. How was this coordinated by your members on the ground in northern Mali?

Assarid: The Libyan war was an accelerator of the Azawad revolution which had already been in the making for a long time. Indeed some soldiers with dual nationality – Malian and Libyan – who refused to fight against part of the Libyan population during the civil war, returned to northern Mali (Azawad region) with weapons and personal belongings to support the struggle in their original homeland.

They met with many soldiers from the Azawad region who had been serving in the Malian army following previous agreements. But these loyalist soldiers were very unhappy with the management of the territory’s security by Malian authorities. For more than six months these groups merged and were subsequently joined by civilian volunteers of all professions and tribes from the Azawad. And following the refusal of then Malian president (Amadou Toumani Touré) and his government to negotiate a peaceful solution to the situation in the north of the country, the MNLA, founded on October 15, 2011, launched the offensive on January 17, 2012 which successfully chased the Malian army and government administration from the Azawad territory by April 1 of the same year.

Much of the arms used in the battle by the MNLA forces were seized from loyalists while those who came from Libya furnished the heavy weapons. It was Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim who has been coordinating the MNLA forces so far. 

AJ: Despite your efforts to establish a free state some people in the region say they are happy to be Malians and that the Azawad state is just an illusion.

Assarid: I have a great respect for all the citizens of Azawad however [sic] their political views. The MNLA is simply calling for the people of Azawad, composed of Songhai, Arabic, Fulani and Tuareg, to be granted the right to self-determination. It is after this vote for independence we can see who wants to stay with Mali or Azawad. And like in every election, there would neither be a 100% vote for Azawad nor for Mali, so why Mali and the international community keep refusing a self-determination referendum for the people of Azawad?

AJ: The Malian government and the international community have many times linked your movement to terrorist groups operating in northern Mali such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamist Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). What kind of collaboration exists between the MNLA and them?

Assarid: There has been no collaboration between the MNLA and the groups you mentioned above and the Malian government as well as the international community have realised this for a long time. On the ground, we know who is who. Negotiations are under way in Algeria between the MNLA and Malian authorities under the mediation of the international community for a legal and political status of Azawad. And so, that proves once again that we do not work with the groups you mentioned above.

AJ: In January 2013, the French army launched an assault to stop the progress of the Islamist forces towards the south of Mali, which eventually crushed the rebellion your movement began a year earlier. The French intervention eventually brought peace to the entire country. Would you say France hampered your struggle or saved Mali?

Assarid: Let me correct you, the MNLA’s revolution was never crushed by anybody, whether the Islamists, the Malian army, the French army or the UN peacekeepers. Instead, we now control about 80% of the Azawad territory. The French army came and met us in our region and did not open hostilities against us. I would not say France saved Mali or that her intervention brought peace. It only weakened the Islamist forces and allowed French troops to permanently settle in our territory after carrying out good communication. Well, I can confirm to you that this has not hindered our struggle.

AJ: Those who suffered as a result of the Sharia law imposed by the Islamist forces in northern Mali – with arms and fingers cut off – are blaming the MNLA for ever launching the armed campaign that opened doors for the Islamists. Does the MNLA feel responsible in some ways?

Assarid: Those groups you mentioned always enjoy a chaotic situation like the one we experienced in northern Mali. It was the case in Libya, in Syria or in Iraq. But it is the primary responsibility of the Malian government to prevent AQIM from settling in the national territory. The MNLA, like all other parties in this conflict, has its share of responsibility and assumes it. In this conflict, we (MNLA) have respected the international law of war notably the Geneva Conventions and international forces on the ground are witnesses.

Source: Al Jazeera