Timbuktu Who’s Who

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First Published: 12 July 2012. Updated: 8 February 2013

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MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad)

MNLA Leadership

The MNLA is a very recent organisation with a very old cause: the Tuareg have been fighting an insurgency against the central power in Mali since the late 1950s and openly fighting since 1963. This incarnation was created in September 2011 with the arrival of ex-soldiers from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. They would like a separate state from Mali for the Tuareg people, who have lived in the region for centuries. They offer no explanation for their desire to settle down despite being a nomadic race, or for their decision to select part of only one country from the half a dozen where Tuareg originate.

Leaders

Bilal ag Cherif, is primary leader as General Secretary of the MNLA. He studied in Libya.

Mohamed ag Najim, emigrated to Libya after the big drought of 1973 He had a successful military career and ranked as Colonel and Guide to the Libyan army. Today he is the military leader and a driving force of MNLA.

Nina Wallet Intalou

Nina Wallet Intalou (Photo: El Pais / J. Naranjo)

Nina Wallet Intalou described as the « passionaria » of Malian Tuaregs. She is the only woman in the MNLA leadership. Intalou was elected mayor of Kidal in Northern Mali in 1997, but could never carry out her duties because the Islamists refused to recognise a woman as Mayor. She is close to Mohamed ag Najim and is opposed to Ansar Dine and Iyad ag Ghali because of his links to Al Qaeda (AQIM), insisting he can never be pardoned because of the harm he has done to their cause.

Mossa Ag Attaher

Mossa Ag Attaher

Other members include Magdi Ag Bohada, MNLA political bureau member in charge of North Africa relations; Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff; and MNLA Communications Officer Mossa Ag Attaher , and the official representative for ex-pats, Human Rights and Humanitarianism, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh.

Worth a mention is Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat [video], who is said to have fled Ansongo along with MNLA VP Mahamadou Djeri Maiga and a few others, after threats from MUJAO and was later reported to be in Niger’s capital, Niamey.  Via our friend Tommy Miles, some info on Moussa Ag Acharatoumane: the original MNA guy from October 2010, who was arrested in Timbuktu (along with Ag Fadil). He was evicted from MNLAmov.net around March 2012. Also, Hassan Ag Mehdi – generally known by his nickname “Jimmy-le-rebele”, who’s joined and left almost every group.

There are occasional press mentions of various MNLA spokesmen and other associates aligned with the movement, such as Acheick Ag Mohamed and Acherif Ag Intakwa on the Toumast Press website. The MNLA has denied claims that it owns heavy armaments from Libya  and is estimated to have 2-3,000 fighters – about the same as the Islamist groups combined.

Abdallah Al-Taouss, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat, Deputy Chief of Staff, MNLA

I originally used this image from a June 2012 youtube video, identifying the man on camera as Abdallah Al-Taouss. But then 27 November 2012, someone sent me a screengrab from an exclusive AlJazeera item which identifies the man, correctly, as Colonel Habi Ag al Sallat. I guess that is one way to boost the numbers.

Members Of The State of Azawad Transitional Council (TCSA)
(as of 15 January 2013)
President Mr. Bilal Ag Cherif
Vice-President Mr. Mahamadou Djeri Maiga
Defence and Military Relations Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim
Interior Security Mr. Sidi Mohamed Ag Saghid
Justice Mr. Ben Bella Assayid
Foreign Affairs Mr. Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh
Territorial Administration Mr. Alla Ag Elmehdi
Culture, Arts and Tourism Mr. Mahmoud Ag Aghaly
Communication Mr. Mossa Ag Attaher
Health Mr. Abdul karim Ag Matafa
Human Rights Mr. Moussa Ag Acharatoumane
Preaching and Islamic Orientation Mr. Mohamed Ag Moussa
Veterans and Martyrs’ Families Mr. Youssouf Ag Acheickh
Energy and Mines Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Ag Aguidy
Legal Affairs Mr. Mohamed Ag Habaye
Financial Mr. Altanata Ag Ebalagh
Women, Children and Family Mrs. Lalla Wallet Mohamed
Transport and Roads Mr. Ould Sidaghmar Ahwaïssine
Livestock and Farming Mr. Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Ghabdy
Environment Mr. Ag Baye Diknane
Youth and Sports Mr. Salah Mohamed Ahmed Abba
Telecommunications Colonel Assalat Ag Haby
Agriculture and Resources Fish Farms Mr. Seydou Abdoulaye Dicko
National Dress and Costumes Mr. Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune
Domains and Public Benefits Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga
Planning and Statistics Mr. Ambeïry Ag Rhissa
Water Mr. Mohamed Maiga Zeyni Aguissa
Trade Mr. Souleymane Akli Iknane Ag
Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation Mr. Mohamed Ag Intalla
Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees Ms. Nina Wallet Intalou
Economy Mr. Zeid Ag Kiri
Employment and Vocational Training Colonel Mohamed Ag Mohamed Assaleh Rhissa
CTEA Presidency Spokesperson Mr. Hamma Ag Sidahmad

Republican Movement for the Reconstruction of Azawad (MRRA)

Colonel El-Hadj Ag Gamou, who claimed to have deserted the Malian army to join the MNLA but retained his uniform, to “differentiate himself from the likes of ag Ghali”, announced the birth of this militant breakaway movement with 1,000 Songhai, Fula, Arab and Touareg members and 250 military vehicles on 13 May 2012. The goals were to combat Islamic armed groups in northern Mali and to demand political autonomy for Azawad, according to spokesperson Ishaq Ag Housseyni. Colonel Ag Gamou later sought refuge with his men in  Niger.

National Congress of Azawad

A separatist movement which claims to be aligned with the MNLA and led by Abu Bakr al-Ansari, a Touareg from the Kalnassar tribe. Abu Bakr al-Ansari is described in media reports as an analyst and journalist at Le Quotidien who specialises in the ongoing conflict in Mali. He tends to run interference, popping up in the media giving interviews that contradict statements from the MNLA.

Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)

Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Mali

AQIM was created in September 2006 after the dissolution of the Salafist Group for preaching and Combat (GSPC) which itself evolved out of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, (GIA). They are thought to be very well armed and trained in the use of sophisticated weaponry.

Leaders

Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) born April 20, 1970. Wadoud earned a university degree in mathematics before joining the insurgency in 1996, and was a regional leader of the GSPC for several years before becoming the group’s commander in 2004.

Abou Zeid

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid

Jamal Akasha, aka Yahya Abu al-Hamam/ Yahia Djouadi/ Abu Ammar/Abu Al Hammam, an Algerian born 1978 in Reghaia, near Algiers, is current senior emir of AQIM, replacing the late Nabil Abu Alqama, another Algerian, senior leader and negotiator for hostage deals (real name Nabil Makhloufi). Leader of the Tarek Ibn Ziyad brigade Abdelhamid Abou Zeid reports to Yahya Abu al-Hamam.  Abou Zeid “The Russian”, real name Mohamed Ghedir, is an Algerian born 12 December 1965 in Touggourt who fought in the ranks of the GSPC, and the main emir in northern Mali.

al-Furqan katiba leader Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti

The al-Furqan batallion, a group of mostly Mauritanian and Malian fighters which operates in the region north of Timbuktu along the Mauritanian border, is led by a Mauritanian – Mohamed Lamine Ould Hacen aka Abdel al Chinguetti. Born in Nouakchott in 1981, Ould Hacen graduated in 2006 from ISERI, despite being jailed for over a year for his membership of a jihadist group. He resurfaced as an AQIM spokesman after being released from prison. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Thierry Dol and Daniel Larribe.

Sahel Emirs Ould Hacen and ​​Abou Zeid have additional senior-level associates, such as Mauritanian Abu Anis Chinguetti, whose real name is Abderrahmane Tandaghi.

Abou Abdelkarim aka Le Targui (real name Hamada ag-Hama) leads the al-Ansar katiba based near Ain Khalil in the far north-east of Mali. Le Targui is responsible for the 2010 kidnapping and later killing of the elderly French aid worker Michel Germaneau, and for drug trafficking via Colombian cartels in Guinea-Bissau. This group is thought to be holding two of the French hostages abducted from Niger, Pierre Legrand and Marc Ferrer.

Oumar Hamaha, now Islamist group MUJAO  military chief

Oumar Amarha aka Omar Hamaha/Hamha or “Omar Redbeard”, a seasoned AQIM operative, previously involved in the 2008 kidnappings of Western envoys in Niger, and went on to become military commander of MUJAO  (or Ansar Dine, depending which stories you read)..

AQIM’s judicial commission head Abderrahmane Abou Ishak Essoufi (real name Necib Tayeb) is currently detained in Algeria.

Freelancers – Opportunists – Rent-a-Rebel, Inc.

Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar

Mokhtar “Marlboro Man” Belmokhtar

News in December of his decision to split from AQIM – or being kicked out, depending on source – means a new section needed here just for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abou al-Abass, “Bellawar” or “Marlboro Man”, an Algerian born c1972  in picturesque Ghardaia, in the region of m’Zab. He is involved with trafficking of Nigerien migrants and drugs to Europe and, as a member of the GSPC, led the 2005 attack on an outpost in which Mauritanian soldiers suffered heavy losses. He is sometimes credited with pioneering the Sahel franchise of hostage-taking for profit. His on-off relationship with AQIM could be attributed a genuine conflict of interests, a lack of adherence to the Islamic faith or jihad on his part, or simply a ploy to keep people guessing.

December 2012 saw the announcement that Belmokhtar had created a new battalion “Signed in Blood” to complement his existing “Masked” battalion.  Enticing claims emerged in January 2013 that the new katiba includes sympathisers from Western nations, and a few news items have indeed hinted at the presence of Europeans and Russians, while the unit that raided In Amenas gas plant in Algeria included 2 Canadians.

Ansar Dine ‘Defenders of Faith’

Also transliterated Ançar DineAnçar Deen or Ansar al-Din

Ivorian Ahmed El Guedir (L), one of the Ansar Dine “Islamic police”, patrolling the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012 — Photo by AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO

In the rebel-held areas, this group is the one being reported – and sometimes, misreported – as terrorising Malian people. They have destroyed Islamic sites in Timbuktu, and are rigorously enforcing Sharia law. The group’s members are mainly from Mali, Algeria and Nigeria, with reports of members from further afield arriving to join them, as well as a recruitment campaign said to be targeting local youth and children.

Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghaly

Iyad ag Ghaly aka Abu al-Fadl, a Malian of the Ifoghas tribe born in 1958 ,and  a “born-again Muslim” who went to Libya at the age of 20 to learn Arabic, and spent years in Ghaddafi’s army before returning to lead a failed rebellion in Mali. In 1991 he signed an agreement with the Malian army which sparked controversy within the MPLA and caused it to split. Ag Ghaly remained the leader of one of the four splinter groups, though he was rumoured to have ties with the Malian government and the Algerian military intelligence. In 2006, he was involved in the Tuareg uprising against the Malian Army. Despite this, in 2007 he was “rehabilitated” as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, until unsavoury exploits got him kicked out.

In late 2011, ag Ghaly attempted to assume the leadership of the Tuareg Ifoghas tribal group Kel Adagh, but failed. Unable to take a leadership role with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), ag Ghaly announced the formation of the Islamist Ansar Dine.

Senda Ould Bouamama of Ansar Dine

Sanda Ould Bouamama (see also below: Ansar al Sharia)

Few other names or details of Ansar Dine members are being published, but mediators Cheick ag Wissa (ag Ghali’y right-hand man) and Kidal-based Algabass ag Intalla (now leading the break-away MIA) were interviewed during their trip to Bur­kina Faso for negotiations at the end of June, and AFP produced the photo below. Ag Intallah is said to be friendly with Qatar’s royal family, helping arrange hunting trips in the Sahara for them. There is often mention in news reports of a spokesman: Timbuktu-based Sanda  (Senda / Sindh) Ould Bouamama, once jailed as a threat to security in Mauritania, who talks to media agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters by telephone. Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria is named was Mohamed Ag Aharib, reported here as having joined the MIA in the January 2013 split.

The man being credited with overseeing Ansar Dine’s controversial and often brutal adherence to strict Sharia principles in Timbuktu, Mohamed Ag Mossa, was only identified after being named in the new MNLA council line-up (see above) and was almost immediately reported kidnapped, and shortly after claimed to have been arrested by the MNLA. (see 1 and 4 Feb 2013 update below) .

Chief Ansar Dine negotiator Cheick ag Wissa, right, and (former member) Alghabass ag Intalla. Photo: AFP

Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA)

A break-way group from Ansar Dine which announced on 25 January 2013 it had split from the religious extremist group, pledging to negotiate “a peaceful solution” and an inclusive political settlement to the crisis in Mali. The group indicated it might be willing to fight against its former comrades in arms, and claimed no links to the other two main groups, AQIM and MUJAO. According to the statement, the MIA is entirely made up of Malians, and headed by Alghabass Ag Intalla, an Ansar Dine leader with a lot of local influence in Kidal, who toyed with joining the MNLA at the start of their campaign. Ansar Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly’s representative in Algeria, Mohamed Ag Aharib, is also reported to have joined the new group.

Movement for United Jihad in West Africa (Mujao)

MUJAO leader Hamada Ould Khaïrou

This group is frequently cited as having taken control of the entire north of Mali from the Tuareg separatists, but in fact the region is dotted with factions. MUJAO members originate from an African division of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which includes Algerians, Mauritanians, Nigerians, Senegalese and Malians.

They are believed to have gathered 45m Euros from ransoms for kidnapped Westerners, and have returned only 3 of  the 7 Algerian diplomats taken hostage in Gao in April, later claiming to have killed vice-consul, Tahar Touati in September. Algeria refuted their claim for lack of evidence. A later video showed only three of the diplomatic hostages.

Hamada Ould Khairou is recognised as the creator and inspirational leader of the group. Mauritanian authorities claimed to have issued an international arrest warrant for him on 28 December 2011, but there is no record to match on the Interpol Red Notice Wanted List as yet.

Second in command is Mauritanian Abu Qumqum, born 1970 in Nouakchott.

Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui

Other key members are Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, who is defined by Malian authorities as a drug trafficker. A spokesman named Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui responded in May 2012 to a question from AFP about the European aid workers taken hostage from Tindouf Saharawi camp in Algeria in October 2011, for whom ransom of 30 million Euro was demanded (and 15 million claimed to have been received after their 17 July 2012 release), and the remaining 4 of the 7 Algerian diplomats taken in Gao in April 2012, with a ransom demand of 15 million. Someone identified in the media as Abdoul Hicham was quoted when MUJAO claimed the abduction of Gilberto Rodriguez Leal in November 2012.

In December 2012, MUJAO formed a new batallion “Ansar al-Sunnah” composed mainly of local youth. Meanwhile the “Salah Eddin” group was founded by Sultan Ould Badi. This clique is the ethnic complement to Ansar al-Sunnah, with mainly Arab youth from Tilemsi tribal villages further north of the Gao stronghold. Members of these new groups could very well be the youth that we’ve heard about being recruited and trained over the past several months, and that raises the spectre of child soldiers in active combat.

Ansar al-Sharia

Formed December 2012 by radical followers of Islam in Gao, thought to be controlled by MUJAO’s military chief, Oumar Hamaha. Most leaders are said to belong to the Timbuktu region’s Berabiche tribe, with ties to Ansar Dine’s official spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamama. Ansar al-Sharia is believed to have spread to several countries in the wider region – Tunisia, Morocco, Libya – since it’s original founding in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in April 2011. Its creed has been publicised to radical groups by a Mauritanian Salafi preacher, Abu Mondhar al-Chinguetti.

APF (Azawad Popular Front)

Colonel Hassane Ag Fagaga- APF, former MNLA

Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi – APF, former MNLA

The brainchild of a former army officer and later MNLA security official in Gao, Colonel Hassane Ag Mehdi aka Jimmy le Rebel, the new APF was launched [fr] in early September 2012 from Burkina Faso. This is where several MNLA leaders sought refuge after being driven out of Mali by their former jihadist rebel partners and those MNLA members who left to swell the ranks of the Islamist factions that seized control of the north. The announcement first appeared on Facebook, and from there was picked up by the media. Ag Mehdi claims to have broad grass roots support in the region. He describes the APF as a non-separatist political and military organisation which respects human rights and is open to dialogue with all existing factions through mediation with the UN, ECOWAS and the African Union. The announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting between established groups that took place over two days in the North East of Mali, hosted by local tribal leaders.

FNLA (National Front for the liberation of Azawad)

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Azawad Arabs in Mauritania for a conference 3 June 2012

Created on 8 April 2012 during the crisis in the north. Comprising Moors and Arabs, they claimed to be pacifist when they formed, and differentiated themselves from the MNLA because they wanted to retain Mali’s territorial integrity. The claim of non-violence was discredited by the presence of armed FNLA fighters in Timbuktu later that month. At the June 2012 Azawadi Arab Conference in N’Beiket Lahouach, Mauritania, their leader surprised delegates by announcing the FNLA’s intention to take up arms again and fight for an independent Azawad, at which point they left. We hear little from them, but  they are assumed to be enmeshed in the complex infrastructure of the illegal trafficking that represents Mali’s massive grey economy.

Leaders

  • Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, an elected leader from the Timbuktu region, is General Secretary.
  • Housseine Khoulam, a lieutenant-colonel of the Malian army who defected, is military chief.

Arab Movement for the Liberation of Azawad

This group represents Arabs in northern Mali and is non-combatant, secular and separatist. Spokespersons include Mohamed Mouloud Ramadhan, Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed.

Updates:

NB: The lack of clarity and consistency in reporting from this region makes it difficult to verify news or track the allegiances of the various players and groups with any degree of accuracy.

8 February 2013: A suicide bomber, described as a Tuareg, died after detonating an explosive body belt while approaching a Malian military post in Gao on a motorcycle. One Malian soldier was lightly injured in the explosion. MUJAO is said to have claimed responsibility.

7 February 2013: MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahroui reportedly sent a message to AFP claiming responsibility for 2 landmine explosion incidents (31 Jan and 6 Feb) that killed 6 people in Malian military vehicles on the road between Douentza and Gao, MUJAO’s former stronghold.

5 February 2013: The French Defense Minister claimed that there had been clashes between troops and “residual jihadists” in the vicinity of Gao the day before. Two teenagers armed with a pistol and two grenades were reportedly arrested in Gao market by Malian soldiers on the same day.

4 February 2013: In a phone call with RFI, MNLA External Affairs officer Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, claims responsibility for arresting MUJAO member Oumeini Ould Baba Ahmed and Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, identifying him as Ansar Dine, and not acknowledging his role on the MNLA National Transitional Council. Assaleh indicated that MNLA would relay information extracted from the captives to France, which is keen to speak to Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, who we can assume is wanted by the ICC in relation to war crimes committed by Ansar Dine – he is being touted as the “number 3” in that group, with oversight of the strict Sharia that resulted in flogging, amputation, and lapidation punishments. Both were allegedly captured during clashes. This does not tie in well with Assaleh’s claim in the same interview that the MNLA have been non-combatant since April 2012.

There are several alternative possibilities in this situation: there may be two religious experts in Mali both called (Mohamed) Ag Moussa Mohamed; MNLA’s official website might have been hacked or infiltrated and a false list of members posted, including Moussa Ag Mohamed as officer for Preaching and Islamic Orientation;  MNLA might not have been responsible for one or both “arrests”; etc.

Also noteworthy: Ansar Dine claims to have arrested two people who were spying for “foreign interests” last week, and the source said that the search continues for a third suspect.

3 February 2013: Aerial bombardment of Kidal and Tessalit areas by French forces reported overnight. This follows reports of kidnappings and near-misses with French special forces near the Algeria border. It is possible that at least some of the foreign hostages are being held in this remote area, as the mountainous Ifoghas region is a known location for hideouts.

Unconfirmed report of executions of Arab citizens in Timbuktu by Malian army, including conflicting reports about the fate of Mohamed Lemine Ould Hamadi.

Voice of Russia published a “dialogue” with National Congress of Azawad President Abu Bakr al-Ansari, in which he avoided answering both questions, further cementing my opinion that he is a timewasting bit-player.

1 February 2013: Mety ag-Mohamed Rissa, former MPA spokesman in Bamako, member of the Commission for monitoring the National Pact,  gave a candid and interesting interview [fr] about his long time comrade and friend, Ansar Dine leader Iyad ag-Ghaly, to Rue89.

Newly-appointed MNLA head of Preaching and Islamic Orientation, Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, reported kidnapped by armed men in In Khalil village near Mali’s border with Algeria.

31 January 2013: Transcript of a phone interview Andy Morgan was invited to hold with MIA leader Alghabass ag Intgalla, who clearly did not get the 30 Jan MNLA memo.

30 January 2013:  MNLA issued a statement (in French – they have not posted any news in Arabic since December) clarifying that only their men and French troops are in Kidal, and denying any association with MIA.

29 January 2013: More than 10 Salafi Muslims have been arrested in Mauritania over the past few days, on charges of seeking to join or support terrorist groups operating in Mali. One Mauritanian has been arrested in Senegal on similar charges. Several arrests in Mali reported previously.

Djimbé Senegal

26 January 2013: Unconfirmed reports via L’Observateur that around 50 armed militants were seen in the vicinity of Djimbé, Senegal near the border with Mali.

25 January 2013: Reports of large displacements of locals north towards Algeria in fear of Ganda Koy militia intimidating villagers in several locations, including Agachar & Zarho, Mali along the Niger river north west of Timbuktu. In Leré, a group of fighters with weapons and about 20 vehicles led by a former Malian army colonel reportedly announced they were quitting Ansar Dine to join MNLA.

24 January 2013: Unconfirmed report [ar] that someone in a vehicle carrying AQIM emir Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was injured by an airstrike by French military 50km north of Leré, Mali.

23 January 2013: Ahmadou Ag Abdalla, described as a leader of Ansar Dine who was active in the Goundam area of Mali was reportedly arrested in Bassiknou, Mauritania

21 January 2013: 7 students from the Islamic University in al-Ayoun, Mauritania were detained. 6 were later released and the remaining detainee, a former classmate newly-arrived from Mali, was sent to Nouakchott for interrogation on suspicion of promoting militant jihadism.

A fighter from Ansar Dine, Akili Ag Mami, surrendered to gendarmes in Fassala, Mauritania after being bombarded by French military jets.

A large contingent of fighters fleeing Mali, thought to include Hamada Ould Khairu, the leader of MUJAO, rumoured to have arrived at Tindouf refugee camp Algeria, in 10 4×4’s.

A new terrorist group, JAMA’ATU ANSARUL MUSLIMINA FI BILADIS-SUDAN (a.k.a JAMBS), thought  to be a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, reported as claiming responsibility for attack on Nigerian troops in Kogi State in order to warn Nigeria against joining Western powers in their “aim to demolish the Islamic empire of Mali.”

Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh20 January 2013: 2 MNLA colonels and their Human Rights liaison, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh arrived unexpectedly in Niamey, Niger, from Burkina Faso where they were subjected to a barrage of questions from the media about their reaction to the arrival of French forces in Mali.

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

Abu al-Baraa Al-Jazairi

19 January 2013: After trekking north-east into Libya, and joining forces with armed militants from Egypt and Libya, the “Signed in Blood” battalion of Mokhtar Belmokhtar group took part in a raid on a BP-Statoil processing plant at In Amenas, Algeria taking many hostages, including foreign workers from Norway, France, USA, Great Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Japan and Germany. There were significant casualties, including 23 hostages  before the Algerian military regained control three days later. The armed attackers included fighters from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. One of the escaped hostages remarked on the “perfect” English accents of some of his captors. Four leaders were said to be among the 32 militants who died in this operation, identified by Algerian news site el-Watan as Abu Al-Baraa Al-Jazairi (Algerian leader of the hostage-taking operation and former member of the GSPC) Abul Rahman al-Nigeri (Nigerien), Lamine Moucheneb alias Taher (Algerian), and Abdallahi Ould Hmeida (Mauritanian youth of 18 who joined AQIM in 2009).

18 January 2013: French fighter jets pursued armed rebels from Mali across the border into Mauritania where they destroyed all 5 vehicles in the convoy near Fassala. 5 rebels are said to have survived but left the scene in search of medical assistance for the injured.

16 January 2013: New video from Mokhtar Belmokhtar reported but  not released removed shortly after release (but still visible here), in which it is said he is clearly identifying with AQIM for the first time.

15 January 2012: New video of Ansar Dine in Konna, scene of the initial fighting with Malian army.

New statement and leadership changes to MNLA Council

12 January 2013: Following the United Nations Security Council December 2012 resolution stating that elections must take place before a possible military intervention in September 2013, and the 1 January 2013 response from Malian political and military leaders that they were not prepared to wait that long, fighting between Malian military and rebel forces in broke out central Mali a few days later. The situation rapidly escalated and France sent troops with air support to Mali on 11 January. There is no reliable information about the level of casualties for any of the parties. The conflict has already created thousands of Malian refugees and internally displaced, and continues to gather external support.

25 December 2012: New video released of 4 French hostages, all reported unharmed.

11 December 2012: Lead guitarist and vocalist Intidaw aka Abdallah Ag Lamida of the Tinariwen band of Tuareg-Berber musicians was briefly detained by Ansar Dine while on a visit to his home village in Mali. Ag Lamida stepped into the lead role after Ibrahim Ag Alhabib left to join the Azawad rebellion.

9 December 2012: Radical followers of Islam in Gao announced they had created their own Ansar al-Sharia group.

6 December 2012: MNLA Deputy Secretary General Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed resigns over prospect of bargaining away rights by announcing willingness to deal with interim government in Bamako.

5 December 2012: AQIM/Freelance terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar alias Khaled Abu Abbas announced the formation of a new battalion “Signed in Blood”.

4 December 2012: “Black Tuesday” MNLA met with Mali government in Burkina Faso and agreed to cease hostilities.

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

Hostage Alberto Rodriguez-Léal

20 November 2012: the abduction of a Portuguese-born man with French nationality who lives in Chirac, Lozère region of the Languedoc in France, took place in Mali. 61 year-old Alberto Rodriguez-Léal was driving himself through the South of Mali near the borders with Mauritania and Senegal when he was abducted near Diéma. This kidnapping brought the total number of hostages in the region at the time to 13, of which 7 were French. A video of Mr Rodriquez-Léal and images taken from it were later circulated. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded the removal of French forces in Mali stationed near the Mauritania border. No updates or information have been published since the video was released at the end of November 2012.

16 November 2012: Ansar Dine reportedly ready to sever ties with MUJAO

Fulani fighters

Fulani fighters

13 November 2012: Ethnic Fulani members of MUJAO in Gao were reported to have left the group. Among these are probably some members of the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Land), a Fulani ethnic militia that was formed in 2008 – not to be confused with the longer-established Songhai ethnic group Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land). Ganda Izo was said to have agreed to a partnership deal for control of Douentza, but were later deemed by MUJAO to be “acting independently” and the deal was called off in September 2012.

22 October 2012: MNLA sources reported 9 Tuareg travellers were taken captive by the Malian army near Diabaly, scene of the September massacre of 16 Islamic preachers, most of them from Mauritania. 4 of the Tuareg were reported executed and the remaining 5 were unaccounted for. The next day, a report [ar] was posted of a Mauritanian trader arrested by the Malian army on suspicion of links to AQIM.
14 October 2012: a liaison between Al-Qaeda and AQIM,  45 year-old veteran militant Boualem Bekai aka Khaled El Migconfirmed killed in an ambush by Algerian forces at Azrou, 50km east of Tizi Ouzou in Algeria.

4 October 2012: Sahara Medias reported [ar]  Yahya Abu al-Hamam was appointed the new emir of AQIM. He replaced the former emir Nabil Abu Alqama, reported killed [ar] in a road accident near Douentza, Mali, on 9 September 2012*. The October news report says Abdelhamid Abou Zeid will report to al-Hamam.  Additional reports say Abou Zeid is now the main Sahel emir in northern Mali.

24 August 2012: Omar Hamaha (MUJAO chief) in a phone interview on Senegal radio denies reports of his death, explaining that he was away briefly visiting family and had not been anywhere near Niger.

17 August 2012: False report of MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha being killed in a skirmish near the border with Niger.

14 August 2012: Abou Ishak, head of the Legal Committee of AQIM, arrested  in Algeria.

Early August 2012: MUJAO leader Omar Hamaha appeared in a video uploaded April 2012, declaring willingness to expand “jihad” far beyond northern Mali under the right circumstances.

2 July 2012: Ansar Dine announced that it had planted land mines around the city of Gao. The already sporadic transport to and from Gao continued as before.

30 June 2012: Ansar Dine staged the destruction of some Sufi shrines in Timbuktu which had been freshly anointed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The destruction of the tombs got more media coverage than most other events in Mali, and the International Criminal Court declared it a war crime.

29 June 2012: After intense fighting and many casualties, Ansar Dine declared control of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu after expelling MNLA. In return, MNLA claimed they still controlled the largely desert area representing the rest of of northern Mali.

28 June 2012: False report of Mokhtar Belmokhtar being killed.

22 June 2012: 100 Malian religious leaders announced their rejection of the Touareg Islamist group’s strategy at a June 18th-20th conference attended by Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.

15 June 2012: Ansar Dine and MNLA representatives began peace talks with ECOWAS in Burkina Faso.

12 June 2012: More MNLA and Ansar Dine fighting near Timbuktu.

11 June 2012: African Union asked for UN approval to intervene in northern Mali.

8 June 2012:  Skirmishes in Kidal between MNLA and Ansar Dine over imposition of Islamic law.

26 May 2012: MNLA and Ansar Dine agreed to an alliance which quickly disintegrated from lack of popular support.

20 May 2012: Military coup rebels officially returned power to the civilian government without surrendering themselves or their weapons.

Notes:

*Najib Ben Cherif posted – apparently in error – on Twitter that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid also died in the same crash:

The alleged car crash (all too common in Mali) coincided with another incident, north of Bamako.

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Will #Mali’s new government herald arms or armies?

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In less time than it takes for an apartment pineapple to ripen, a new government of national unity has been formed in Mali in the latest effort to restore stability after the military coup in March. It follows 5 long months of political tug-of-war between the ready-meal interim government and the frozen-dinner coup leadership headed by Captain Sanogo. The Captain was persuaded to release his grip a little, after his palms were oiled with a palatial home and “former head of state” status – including a generous allowance. The cabinet has 31 ministers, including five from Sanogo’s camp. The head of the interim government, Cheick Modibo Diarra, stays on as prime minister. For now.

Early-stage pre-coup pineapple during US training

During this incubation period, interim President Dioncounda Traore was attacked, and spent several weeks recovering in Paris. No doubt he spent more of that time in the briefing room of  Boulevard Mortier  than in recovery. Shortly after Dioncounda returned to Mali, one of the former President’s elite Red Beret guards, Staff Sergeant Amadou Traore, was murdered in his barracks. That signal seems to have been received loud and clear; no further attacks on the interim president have been reported yet.

Last month, the regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to expel Mali unless a unity government was installed, according to the BBC. Yesterday, there were news reports of ECOWAS and Algeria [ar] barring military shipments to Mali. Meanwhile, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, Libya’s former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chairman of the Republican Guard in Benghazi, reveals that, when there was a weapons amnesty and surrendering of arms in Libya last year, his unit alone boycotted the deal and instead their weapons passed to mercenaries from Egypt, for onward transfer to AQIM in Algeria and Mali. Doubly painful, as it was the ousted former president Touré, aka “ATT”, who said in February that they needed more military hardware to respond to the MNLA’s attacks, widely reported to be using massive fire-power brought back from Libya.

Weapons in 30 Days or Your Next Government Half Price

We need to wait to see if the formation of a new unity government defrosts the supply of arms, and whether they’ll be delivered by shipment or in person. Just last weekend, Al Jazeera Arabic reported a training exercise in Libya (irony alert) of 2,000 troops including 800 special forces from Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy, in preparation for an incursion into Malian territory. The training programme lasted from February to June. Here’s the video:

There are many competing theories about what is going on in Mali. One school of thought insists that the plan is, and always has been, to get the boots of foreign troops on the ground. However, just as with the reports of armed rebels severing someone’s hand as a punishment for stealing (and the victim later dying), and of their threat-or-promise to repeat the exercise with hundreds more after the Eid holiday, or even of the beheading* that UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming claimed to have happened, there’s no way of knowing if the scenario portrayed in this video sheds light on the actual situation.

How can we figure Mali out? To butcher the old standard, “follow the ransom money” and we find food for thought. For example, fresh claims of Swiss support for the rebels appeared last week. This was denied by the MNLA as a rumour created by a Swiss journalist and promoted to a fact by a website in Mauritania, where the media has carved a niche for exclusive revelations about Mali.

I was anticipating more mention of Switzerland, after a Swiss woman was apparently taken hostage in Timbuctu by a private militia who planned to trade her to AQIM. The lady was reportedly “rescued” by Ansar Dine and released for an alleged 1 million Euro, in a deal where they demanded to liaise directly with the Swiss officials, rejecting the offer of a human rights NGO to mediate.  That event was soon followed by a spectacular betrayal of MNLA by Ansar Dine, who hijacked the uprising and forced the secular separatists into a retreat from which they have yet to emerge. Speculation about how the more radical supporters of religion achieved this feat includes the investment of ransom capital to buy supporters. There have been other kidnappings: three Westerners abducted nearly nine months ago by AQIM in Mali, seen today urging their governments to help free them in an Al-Jazeera television exclusive video, and the seven Algerian diplomatic staff taken from the embassy in Gao, three of whom were returned last month, shortly after the release of one Italian and two Spanish hostages. This last exchange was said to be accompanied by a few more million Euro and the release of two more prisoners – one assumed by some to be connected to the POLISARIO – who were being held in Mauritania for their part in the kidnapping of the three Europeans.

Within days Mauritania benefited from a capitulation by the EU (Note: the EU Africa team is led by a Spaniard) finally agreeing to their exorbitant new terms for renewing the fishing agreement, and an agreement from Spain to salvage the small aircraft “donated” to Mauritania in June last year to help in the fight against illegal immigrants, and which had remained, unairworthy and stranded on the tarmac, more or less the whole time.

This brings me to another stranded plane – the famous “Air Cocaine” Boeing jet from South America which landed/crashed just north of Gao in a village called Tarkint at the end of October 2009, and was reportedly torched by the smugglers after their cargo of drugs had been retrieved. The local mayor was known as an intermediary with AQIM for the release of kidnap victims.

The char grilled remains of “Air Cocaine” /JON SISTIAGA

“Air Cocaine” was registered in Saudi Arabia,  rented in Venezuela, and had made previous trips from Colombia  under a licence issued by Guinea Bissau, but which had expired at some point. The drug trafficking was said to be linked to AQIM, and this flight’s cargo could have been worth anything between 150 and 300 million Euro. Some of these details only became apparent much later, after WikiLeaks’ cables release, as the original investigation was handled by the intelligence services and shrouded in secrecy.  There were dozens of arrests, but few detentions or convictions in connection with this scandal. Then last week, we learned that the last two suspects, one French, one Spanish, had been released in Mali. The drug smuggling case against the Spaniard was thrown out.  This chap is a real charmer: a former Madrid policeman, until he was busted for trafficking, drugs, explosives, weapons, and counterfeit identity documents. He also had a suspended sentence in Mali connected to the gruesome murder [es] of a Colombian with a forged Ukrainian passport. He apparently plans to stay in Mali. One would hope he is short of alternatives but why leave Mali, when half the world is ready to come to you?

Additionally, a wealthy businessman from Tilemsi in the Gao region – Mohamed Ould Awaynat – who had been sentenced to one year in prison for his part in the trafficking scandal, was reportedly released in January this year, in an alleged deal with the Malian government. In exchange for his freedom, he is said to have paid to recruit and train northern fighters to boost the ranks of the army against the MNLA. They do say money makes the world go around. If you add massive cash flows from drug trafficking it begins to spin put of control. That is certainly what appears the be the case in Mali.

All these rebel groups in Mali seem like just so many finger puppets. But to which “invisible hand” do the fingers belong?

If you enjoy bizarre details – and you’ve got this far, so I should take that as given – then you might be further entertained by the fact that the article in the previous link, by Andy Morgan in Think Africa Press, was posted on FaceBook in a now lifeless MNLA group, requiring 14 comments to post in its entirety. The comment poster uses the name Ghazi Agizul and, although his bio says he’s a proud Amazigh from Tunisia, I found it odd that “Ghazi” used a translation tool to render the English original into French, which should be a natural language for him. That he didn’t post a link to Google Translate or use a Note instead of 14+ comments is not mysterious, only irritating. If it transpired that Andy Morgan and Ghazi Agizul were one and the same person, that would be interesting. It would also raise many general questions about the clandestine online and offline activities of certain people who present themselves publicly as working in the media, but that is a whole other story. Going back to the article itself, it’s too lengthy to analyse in depth but there are some factual errors, which always has the effect of eroding credibility. For example,  Mr Morgan claims to have spent years in northern Mali, yet placed Kati near Timbuktu. I wouldn’t blame him if the article was simply too long for him to cope with when it got to proof-reading.

Also in the WikiLeaked cable, we learn of another incident involving a plane:  US military making a “hard landing” 65 miles from Bamako, and receiving assistance. ATT was happy to help because “he knew the United States was coming to help Mali”. Sadly, nothing could be done to help the three US military and their three civilian companions who died in a vehicle accident in April this year. Will the US be coming to help again; will they feel they no longer need an invite?

Short of the IAEA declaring that there are nuclear weapons hidden in the barren wastelands of northern Mali, I wonder how many more UN agencies or NGOs can enter the fray, wringing their collective hands over the many unverified domestic dramas that they claim are engulfing this most coveted of would-be war zones, declaring every incident a war crime, and clamouring at the gates to be allowed in to rescue Mali from itself and the horrors of Sharia law’s unjust desserts.

As ATT noted in February, with a prescience we have yet to fully to appreciate: “There are many rumors. If we are not careful, we’ll fall into the hands of those who are attacking Mali and who want to oppose the government.”

*I assume Ms Fleming meant to say “stoning” – but there is no solid evidence of that having happened, either. If she did witness a beheading, I’d have liked her to verify in reply to my question, especially since her bio includes the phrase “Tweets highlight the stories of human suffering and resilience I witness every day.” [my emphasis].

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Gallery: Azawad Interim Council President Inauguration

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Supporters of an independent Azawad gathered in Mali on Friday, 15 June 2012 for the official inauguration of an interim president, MNLA Secretary-General, Bilal Ag Acherif.

Ag Cherif reiterated [fr] the aims of the council as listed in the Azawadi Declaration of Independence and announced initiatives to establish state institutions, and to develop a charter that defines the fundamental principles of a new constitution for Azawad. He again called on the international community to recognise the 28-member Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (Conseil de Transition de l’Etat de l’Azawad, CTEA).

A concerted lobbying effort for military intervention by members of ECOWAS and the African Union is still in progress, notably with the United Nations Security Council. Old enmities between key north African countries impact discussions, and force interested parties to perform an elaborate diplomatic dance of meetings followed by visits to share developments with estranged ones. A little like friends and family trying to maintain relationships with both sides of an acrimonious divorce, it all slows and complicates the process, while creating a breeding ground for intrigue. Countries that under normal circumstances might be expected to have a say – Libya, Egypt, Yemen – are to be excused, as they have enough on their respective domestic plates. Beyond Africa, France (its Foreign Minister more specifically) is still bullish, while the US is relying on “media diplomacy” for now. I’ve not noticed any official statements from Gulf states. Perhaps Iran will weigh in with an opinion on Azawad, and then the rhetoric can really begin to fly.

One thing all sides agree on is the worrying humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people as the “lean period” approaches. There is ample space at the borders with Algeria and Mauritania to create humanitarian corridors under an agreement not to resume hostilities. I am interested to see if anyone raises this idea, and whether this possibility also exists at the borders with Niger, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. I assume this would conflict with the agenda of the rebel groups, as they now enjoy relatively unrestricted access to and from neighbouring countries, and the pro-invasion crowd aren’t canvassing for suggestions. Therefore I don’t hold out much hope for a logical solution.

#Mauritania: On The Edge

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Update of an article which originally appeared in Zenith Online in April 2012, when it seemed that all Mauritania’s sources of discontent were erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades.

Operating in a Constitutional Vacuum

General Aziz

The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is no longer teetering on the brink of legitimacy: it fell off that precipice back in November 2011 when the mandate of the government expired. The only legally elected official in Mauritania is now the president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.

Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year gradually increased since February 2012 to become a daily occurrence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and other towns further afield. Incidents of strikes have also increased, with actions by fishermen, mining workers, teachers, college professors and students. Even a group of administrators for the national registration programme threatened a strike over pay and conditions. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.

Neighbourhood Watch

Mauritania map

Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania’s north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania’s fickle nature. Western Sahara lost it’s southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. This land that only time remembers, and which the world tries to ignore, now presses in awkward silence against the north-western border, a permanent reminder of Mauritania’s humiliating defeat, tribal hegemony and political naivety.

During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal, tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April2012 crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only in March 2012, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the unrest in Mali are now being sheltered in Mauritania. In Mali’s case, there is an almost total lack of respect for its sovereignty: Mauritania maintains close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) and conducts frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) – even if those targets turn out to be civilians. With the introduction in May 2012 of a new residency tax for all foreign nationals of 30,000 MRO per person, including children, Mauritania now appears to be in breach of two clauses of its 1963 accord with Mali, which prohibits both taxation on citizens and uninvited military presence.

As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although we are encouraged by unreliable media sources to consider some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as being closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi’s patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union’s special committee on Libya during the 2011 uprising. It was also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year’s conflict.  This year finds Mauritania playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, after an improbable arrest (which France claimed to have a hand with) and showing no signs of releasing him from “detention” any time soon.

Islamic in Moderation

One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York, then seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s mandate. But by early April, Iran had “repatriated” former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company, they have one of Osama bin Laden’s former wives and her children, while Mali is fast becoming the Al Qaeda time-share capital of Africa.

Mauritania is reportedly keeping al Walid in detention and there are unconfirmed reports that he has refused visits and food in protest at being pressured to meet with delegations from “foreign powers”. Such reports have all the hallmarks of a smokescreen intended to dampen observers’ inclinations to link his presence in Mauritania with reports of increasing AQIM activity in the Sahel, or indeed with the recent spate of allegedly successful US drone attacks on Al Qaeda leadership figures. By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might get a boost due to the level of hysteria about Mali. For development funding, the EU remains an important source of funds and is joined by Japan, Spain, China and others. All of these donors surely know that their funds are being sieved through a mesh of corruption but they seem unperturbed.

Not Just Desert

Harsh Desert Conditions

Despite it’s massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania’s population – which is roughly the same as that of Berlin – is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania’s vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union recently ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile, China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner in a deal that was denounced as unfavourable and suspect.

The vast desert, though inhospitable, is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper, gold and gypsum. One of the major criticisms levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada’s Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Mining workers appear to be trapped in a cycle of industrial action and broken or half-kept promises, although an unprecedented and costly 5-day strike by 1500 Kinross workers in early June appears to have improved their situation.

Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It’s a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare – a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of “white” and “black” Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants. Racial division is a “hot button” and the regime is highly skilled at applying pressure whenever it suits.

Sowing Division, Reaping Chaos

In April 2011, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against citizens of black African heredity.  This year, it was the turn of slavery to grab headlines.  Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves, who he said  were readily-available in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric Cheikh Dedew, who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul. Dedew made a statement along the lines of “slavery does not exist in Mauritania”. In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group “IRA” to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery through Islam.

Aziz goes Trad

The response was immediate and significant, some might even say orchestrated. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and 9 of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests against Biram’s act continued for a time, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does include some precepts of Islamic “Sharia” law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid’s attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.

As the indignation began to wane, regular Saturday protests by supporters of Biram and his fellow-prisoners began, and were immediately and repeatedly repressed by police with customary violence. Biram’s wife Leyla was attacked several times, and on one occasion shot in the face with a tear gas grenade. On 9 June 2012, a young man – who was not part of the protest, but a shopkeeper on one of the roads where police were clashing with the unarmed protesters – died from tear gas suffocation. As has been the case with previous incidents, officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed the youth died from a pre-existing medical complaint. Biram has in fact published an apology but he and six others, including a journalist, remain in custody.

Now Mauritania appears to be entering a new phase in its ever-evolving struggle. Last week there was a visit from the UN representative for West Africa, fresh from talks with ECOWAS* about the situation in Mali. He met with leaders of the the political opposition coalition for about half an hour before meeting with Aziz. Former transitional leader Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, a cousin of Aziz, provided some distraction by allowing himself to be quoted making outlandish and insulting comments about the 1989 atrocities. This got the abolitionists and anti-racists nicely worked up, while Massoud Ould Belkhair, leader of the more compliant opposition, worked on COD leaders by making overtures about dialogue. For the hat-trick, the failed group which was created last year to call for a national unity government was brought out of cold storage.

Former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani

In the background, the illegal Aziz government pressed on with its agenda. Unqualified diplomats have been dispatched to various international locations. Unqualified candidates have been assigned to a new Electoral Commission, and the former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani was removed from his post and replaced by a very junior and inexperienced jurist. Legislative elections are still not scheduled, but the country’s jurists are forming a union of sorts, just to keep themselves occupied. Next for the arbitrary chop could be the Chief of the Bar Association, Ould Boubehna, who is talking far too much sense these days, echoing constitutional law expert Lo Gormo’s 3 March pronouncement on the government’s  lack of legitimacy.

Eventually, all these issues must be resolved. It is not possible to continue like this indefinitely. The lack of comment or concern over this constitutional imbroglio from international partners, and their willingness to enter into legal agreements, provide aid, and accept and extend invitations to a government which has remained in power through a “coup by default” is at best puzzling and at worst hypocritical.

*Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS.

#Mali’s Military Losing Patience, Keeping Azawad

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Mali’s military is showing signs of stress over the antics in the north of the country and the relentless propaganda campaign that provides the bulk of all news on the situation. On Monday, as the new alliance between MNLA and Ansar Dine was reportedly collapsing, they lashed out, but have not yet had the courage to name those they suspect of supporting (or masterminding) this fiasco. This lack of definite accusations is regrettable, as it only leads people to draw their own, predictable conclusions.

 

The Malian army on Monday has distanced itself from the “so-called” arms and ammunition depot reportedly found in the northern town of Gao, pointing out that such an allegation is intended to cover up the military and logistical support received by the National Liberation Movement (MNLA, northern rebel group) from its mentors.

Several media reports, on Sunday gave information about the unearthing by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of an “important underground arms and ammunition cache” in Mali’s northern town of Gao.

“The Malian army has absolutely nothing to do” with this “so-called arms depot announced by the MNLA rebels and its accomplices,” Mali’s Defense and War Veteran minister has indicated in a statement.

According to the same statement, MNLA elements who have for some time been confronted with “lack of legitimacy,” have invented a “so-called arms depot,” in order to mislead the opinion about the “support they received from various sources.”

The minister also deplored the fact that “some media outlets” agreed to publish “such trumped-up stories”, reiterating his willingness to spare no efforts to restore Mali’s national unity and territorial integrity.
MNLA and AQIM are separate groups, which along with other groups have for the past two months been occupying the northern desert region of Mali. The former is fighting for the independence of the province, while the latter is more inclined to spread terrorism.

Source African Press Agency

Other news of interest, possibly related to the claim of a huge arsenal being discovered, include Mauritanian military activity near Bassiknou [ar], which created alarm for residents there, especially because of the many Malian refugees in the vicinity, who were unsure whether it was an exercise or not. Normally, major military exercises are planned and announced in advance. Tens of thousands of traumatized refugees supposedly fleeing fighting in Mali have been corralled in the area, so a little heads-up would be considerate. The persistent, and very loud sounds of shelling would have masked any number of other events in the area at that time.

Finally, there is a series of 4 videos [ar] including footage of claimed Taliban rebels, along with Algerians, Mauritanians and sundry others, in Northern Mali.

I find myself wondering once again, why it is that neither the Malian government (or junta etc) nor those of it’s neighbours, make much mention of the refugees. Official news from those quarters is extremely sparse where efforts to help with the costs of housing and feeding them are concerned. The aid agencies however, are on constant megaphone mode, showering us with heart-rending photos and hyperbole-laden tweets offering “a glimpse inside.. race against time.. oasis of hope.” Such fund-raising campaigns are generally followed by an announcement of a government donation of $x million dollars or significant tonnage of food.