April 3, 2014
On March 18, a statement issued from the “military base of Hassi Labiad” in the name of the political and military cadres of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), notables and the religious and traditional leaders of Azawad (i.e. northern Mali) proclaimed the establishment of the Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad (CPA).  The self-described “politico-military” organization claims a strength of “nearly 8,000 veteran fighters” and pledges the group’s commitment to negotiations with the Malian government and “the fight against terrorism in the Azawad and transnational crime.” Ag Assaleh was one of four Turareg rebels to have Bamako lift a warrant for his arrest in October, 2013 in the interests of furthering national reconciliation (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 29, 2013).
Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh
The new movement is led by its chairman, Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh, the former external affairs representative of the MNLA, and a bureau of 32 members, overwhelmingly consisting of Tuareg leaders despite the movement’s claims to represent a broad spectrum of individuals from the Tuareg, Arab, Fulani and Songhai communities of northern Mali. CPA leader Ag Assaleh has made reference to fighters joining the CPA from the “tribes of Ansongo Cercle,” likely a suggestion the movement was being joined by Songhai fighters from that region, which straddles the Niger River south of Gao (Koaci.com, March 20). However, one of the individuals named as an executive member of the CPA, Baye ag Diknane (a founding member of the MNLA), issued an open letter expressing his surprise at being named a top official of the CPA while reaffirming his commitment to the MNLA (Azawad24.com, March 25).
Ag Assaleh was not present at the proclamation in Hassi Labiad, a village 350 kilometers northwest of Timbuktu, as he was in Niamey for talks with various representatives from northern Mali. The announcement was presided over by the CPA’s external relations official, Muhammad Ousmane ag Mohamedoun, in front of 700 attendees, including the Defense Attaché of the Algerian Embassy in Burkina Faso and the first adviser of the Algerian ambassador to Burkina Faso (Le Quotidien [Bamako], March 23). Ag Assaleh maintained that the event was also attended by representatives of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) and the largely Tuareg Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) as well as various representatives of the Songhai and Peul/Fulani peoples (Jeune Afrique, March 19; Journaldumali.com, March 19).
The CPA has divided northern Mali (or Azawad) into four military zones, with a commander appointed for each. Tahha ag Alfaki is responsible for military affairs in the western zone, Assaleh ag Muhammad Rabah (a former MNLA negotiator in the Ouagadougou peace talks) is responsible for the southern zone, Mossa ag Ahmedou (former MNLA communications director) is responsible for the eastern zone and Issouf ag Erfal is responsible for the northern zone.
Negotiations appeared promising last summer, when the Tuareg rebels signed the Ouagadougou agreement with Malian authorities on June 18 to allow the July general elections to proceed. However, after the elections, Bamako lost interest in meeting other provisions of the agreement, leading the rebels to suspend negotiations with the government on September 26, 2013 (AFP, October 6, 2013). Insisting that direct negotiations with Bamako are impossible, Ag Assaleh says he has sent requests to the government requesting new talks through mediators from Algeria, Burkina Faso and the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA), the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali (Reuters, March 25).
Bilal ag Acherif (Jeune Afrique)
One reason for the split in the MNLA is the growing impatience of some members with the leadership of MNLA secretary-general Bilal ag Acherif, particularly his hardline approach to talks with Bamako and his preference for Morocco as a new mediator in the peace talks. With apparent Algerian support for the creation of the CPA, it now appears that the Algerian-Moroccan cold war is now finding Malian proxies, complicating progress in an already difficult peace process (for growing Algerian-Moroccan tensions, see Terrorism Monitor, November 28, 2013).
Ag Assaleh suggests that ag Achérif is involving the Tuareg in Morocco’s struggle with Algeria, noting that while there are no Tuareg communities in Morocco, Algeria, by contrast, is the home of Tuareg groups closely related to those in northern Mali.
If there had been no French colonization, there would be no border between Azawad and Algeria. Our people are located on either side of this boundary… Listen, I’m very independent towards Algerian interests and we are autonomous in our fight. If you think I am close to Algeria, I would respond,”Yes, we are [close] geographically and socially. The majority of southern Algeria is occupied by Tuareg. I could even say I’m 50% Algerian (Jeune Afrique, March 10).
While Ag Assaleh maintains that the independence of Azawad has not been on the agenda since the Ouagadougou Accords, he has also insisted on the full implementation of the Accords’ provisions and warned that: “If the ceasefire is not respected by the Malian side, we will have to return to war” (Jeune Afrique, March 10).
1. “Déclaration de création de la Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad (CPA),” 22 Septembre [Bamako] March 24, 2014, http://maliactu.net/declaration-de-creation-de-la-coalition-du-peuple-pour-lazawad-cpa/
This article first appeared in the April 3, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.