As the war to rid Mali of Islamic rebels winds down, frustrations are building over a French military now widely seen as siding with a controversial ethnic faction that had previously cooperated with Al Qaeda.
In the cities of Gao and Timbuktu where the French in January chased out one set of extremists, anger is building over French acquiescence with another group of separatists, known as the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA.
In recent days, the MNLA separatists, mostly of ethnic Tuareg heritage, and who a year ago aggressively set themselves up in the north and more recently collaborated with Islamic radicals, have begun to exercise authority and make claims on power and money.
Formal paperwork issued, for example, that requires vehicles and drivers moving in and out of the northern region of Kidal, to pay tax, are just some examples. The papers are stamped with a “State of Azawad” seal, the logo of the MNLA.
New revelations that the MNLA is setting up a parallel government under French auspices has sparked outrage not only here, but throughout Mali.
“The MNLA has benefitted from the intervention more than any other group” says Gao resident Abba Maiga. “So now I have to ask, did France intervene to save Mali, or did they intervene to save the MNLA?”
Many Malians wonder if France is actually committed to restoring the territorial integrity of Mali. And while France and its African allies have made considerable progress in driving the Islamist rebels from their strongholds, the fact remains that the question of Tuareg separatism remains one of the key political disagreements that plunged Mali into chaos in the first place.
Mr. Maiga, a Gao resident who lived here both when it was occupied by the MNLA and then by the mosaic of Islamist rebel groups recently driven out by the French-led forces, says he was ecstatic when the French first intervened.
But now he questions the motivations behind the intervention. “I don’t trust them [the French] anymore. They’ve betrayed us,” he says.
Collaboration, not confrontation
The MNLA swooped into Kidal last month after rebels linked to Al Qaeda abandoned the city in the wake of French airstrikes. Since then, the MNLA has been manning checkpoints, and warning France and its African allies that the Malian army is not welcome and would be treated as enemies.
For now, it appears that France prefers to collaborate with the MNLA and focus on rooting the Islamist rebels out of their mountain strongholds, rather than help the Malian army retake the territory that initially fell to the MNLA last year.
And while France is supporting the Malian army in its bid to consolidate control over the regions of Gao and Timbuktu, there is mounting evidence that it is doing the same with the MNLA in Kidal.
Drivers who recently travelled to the region said that the MNLA is charging between $60 and $80 dollars to enter, and $80 to $100 more to enter Kidal city. The same fees apply when exiting Kidal.
The MNLA paper for drivers shows an exercise of authority: The document, written in both French and Arabic and is replete with a header that reads, “State of Azawad: Unity, Liberty, Security,” requires details on the driver, the type of vehicle, the owner of the vehicle, and various registration numbers.
Toward the bottom, a stamp depicts a map of the aspirational borders of an independeant Azawad, includes the regions of Gao and Timbuktu.
“They said their goal was to fight the Islamists and to restore the territorial integrity of Mali, but now they are helping separatists,” says an elected official in Gao who asked not to be named, speaking of the French. “They are working with the terrorists!” he shouts, pointing at the document in question.
Residents in Gao fear that the money earned by transit taxes will be used to fund another separatist rebellion; the MNLA contends that in the wake of several suicide bombings in and around the city, the documentation and taxation are necessary in order to maintain security.
"All vehicles within the territory controlled by the MNLA must have this document," Moussa Ag Assarid, the European MNLA representative, told Reuters in Paris. "In this way we can differentiate between potential terrorists, drug traffickers, and ordinary drivers."
Past ties to Islamists
The MNLA first gained control of northern Mali when it fought alongside Islamist rebels – some of whom are linked to Al-Qaeda – to drive the Malian army from a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas.
But the separatists were quickly outmaneuvered – militarily and politically – by their allies of convenience and were driven from all of the major towns and cities in the region.
But for much of the population in Gao – northern Mali’s largest city of approximately 85,000 – the MNLA’s brief reign was associated with systemic looting, human rights abuses, and seen as enabling the Islamist takeover.
The MNLA contends that the Malian military cannot be trusted in Kidal, citing a history of past abuse as well as more recent allegations of extrajudicial killings of ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs by Malian forces.
Mali’s interim-President Dioncounda Traoré has stated he is open to negotiating with the MNLA provided it abandons calls for independence. For its part, the MNLA has stated it would be willing to accept some sort of negotiated autonomy, but has refused to disarm ahead of any talks.