News / Africa

Mali's MNLA Rebels Look to Talks, Greater Autonomy in North

A fighter with the Tuareg separatist group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) brandishes a separatist flag for the region they call Azawad outside the local regional assembly, where MNLA members met with the Malian army, the U.N. missio
A fighter with the Tuareg separatist group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) brandishes a separatist flag for the region they call Azawad outside the local regional assembly, where MNLA members met with the Malian army, the U.N. missio
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Anne Look
— Mali's president-elect, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, takes the oath of office on September 4. According to a temporary ceasefire deal signed by Mali's interim government, he will then have 60 days to open talks with Tuareg rebels in the north to try find a solution to decades of periodic rebellion and instability that last year contributed to an unprecedented nationwide collapse.  

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known more commonly by its French acronym the MNLA, launched their rebellion in January 2012.

It was Mali's fourth major Tuareg rebellion since independence in 1960. Malians say it is up to president-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to make it the last.

The MNLA has backed away from declarations of independence made by some of its members. In the temporary ceasefire agreement signed on June 18, the group recognized Mali's territorial integrity and borders.

Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the president of the negotiating committee for the MNLA and its ally, the High Council of Azawad (MNLA-HCA), told VOA that they continue to demand greater autonomy.

Maiga said, "We want this to be the last rebellion but to make that happen, we have to speak plainly. What we want is a political and legal status for the territory that we call Azawad. We want to be able to provide our own security and participate actively in its development, in a Mali where we have a say in our own future."

He said president-elect Keita is a man of his word and is "up to the task of bringing definitive peace."

Some in the MNLA talk about obtaining a "special status" for the far northeastern region of Kidal, others talk of installing a sort of federalism in Mali.

This is not new. Mali began decentralization in 1992 as a result of the National Pact between Tuareg rebels and the government. However the process was undermined by corruption and mismanagement and has had limited impact.

The MNLA's external affairs director, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, told VOA that they do not want to "cut Mali in two" but ways of governing must be adapted to the unique cultural, historical, and even environmental characters of the three harsh, desert regions in the north.

He said "We want institutions that emerge from our people. We want development programs that come from our people and funding that parachutes directly to our districts, regions and local leaders so they can manage it for the good of the population."
 
However, analysts say for a peace deal to work this time around, it must include input from all northern communities, not just the MNLA, and it must apply everywhere, not just to the north.

Political analyst Issa Ndiaye said, "it will be hard to get Malians to accept a special status for Kidal. The problems are not just in Kidal. We need to find a nationwide solution to implement an enhanced form of decentralization that allows local populations to make decisions about their lives, and in particular about the exploitation of natural resources."

Many Malians blame the MNLA for setting off the chain of events last year that saw the elected government toppled by unruly soldiers in March and the north being taken over by Islamist militant groups just weeks later.

The nomadic Tuareg are a minority ethnic group in Mali's sparsely populated north.  Perceived privileges bestowed on ex-rebels under previous peace accords have bred resentment and perceptions of a kind of "positive discrimination" in favor of the Tuareg.

Keita has pledged to be the "president of reconciliation."  However, he has not said what kind of a deal he would cut with the MNLA.

As president, he has pledged to restore Mali's dignity and military strength. He often punctuates his statements with versions of the following:

"People know me in this country: What I say, I do.  What I say, I do," insisted.

Keita won this month's presidential run-off with 77 percent of the vote.  Analysts say that if anyone has the political capital to push through a compromise with the MNLA, it is him.

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