• A version of this post appeared on the blog "Sahel Blog." The views expressed are the author's own.
On May 26, the two strongest rebel groups in northern Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the idea of an independent Tuareg-ethnic state in the area) and Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din: “Defenders of the Faith”), agreed to an alliance. Their merger was supposed to represent a compromise – the MNLA agreed to impose some version of shari’a law, as Ansar Dine wished, while Ansar Dine endorsed the MNLA’s vision of an independent Azawad.
The merger quickly began falling apart, though. The last two weeks have seen stories proclaiming that the pact was dead, or that the two sides were still talking in efforts to salvage the agreement. Whether and how to implement shari’a is a major sticking point. IRIN and France24 have published detailed analyses of the MNLA-Ansar Dine relationship.
Earlier this week, AFP reported that tensions increased when protests occurred in Kidal, one of the north’s three provincial capitals:
Ansar Dine members reportedly violently dispersed a demonstration by around 50 women and children in the city of Kidal as they rallied against the Islamists, a local resident said.
“Around 50 women and children marched today from the stadium to the main Kidal market against the Islamists,” said Abubacar Seydou Diarra, a teacher whose description of the events was confirmed by other residents.
“Some of them chanted in the local language … ‘We don’t want strangers here,’ ‘We don’t want Islamists here.’ Men in three pick-ups that had the Ansar Dine flag intervened and beat the demonstrators,” he said.
The city is the hometown of Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly and has become a stronghold for the group since falling under its control in late March.
Ansar Dine appears to have taken the protests as provocation by the MNLA, and the two sides clashed last night, AFP reports, in Kidal:
The clash involving automatic weapons near the remote regional capital Kidal was the first between the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine.
Both groups are made up of Tuareg tribesmen from different various clans and the fighting has raised fears of widening chaos in the vast northern swathe of the country.
An Ansar Dine fighter, Mohamed Ag Mamoud, said by satellite phone late Thursday that the clash had broken out because “all week, the MNLA was manipulating civilians in Kidal to demonstrate” against Ansar Dine, which is believed to be backed by Al Qaeda’s north African branch.
“They encouraged women and children to demonstrate against us. Now we will show them our strength,” Mamoud said.
“We have been attacked, we will respond,” said Moussa Salam of the MNLA, for his part, asserting that the Tuareg rebels “even attacked the home of Iyad Ag Ghaly,” the head of Ansar Dine and a Tuareg born in Kidal.
It is hard for me to tell whether either side scored a clear victory. AFP says, however, “Calm had returned by dawn Friday, an official said, but he noted that several MNLA flags had been removed from around the city.”
AFP and a Malian journalist it quotes partly frame the two groups’ conflict as “tribal.” One of my weaknesses as an analyst is that I tend to minimize the importance of “tribal” affiliations. On the other hand, I am wary of the supposed explanatory power of “tribes,” which sometimes turn out to be less clearly defined entities than outsiders suppose. To me, the conflict between the MNLA and Ansar Dine seems like it centers on serious political disagreements over how northern Mali should be run. And from the reporting, it appears that the efforts to salvage their merger are failing, which means more conflict may be on the way.