Less than a week after Tuareg rebels belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) merged with the al Qaeda-supported Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) Islamist group and signed an accord to create the Islamic Republic of Azawad in northern Mali, leaders from the MNLA have publicly revoked their support for the accord.
“The political wing, the executive wing of the MNLA, faced with the intransigence of Ansar Dine on applying sharia in Azawad and in line with its resolutely secular stance, denounce the accord with this organization and declare all its dispositions null and void,” read a written message attributed to senior MNLA political leader Hama Ag Mahmoud on June 1. Other senior political MNLA officials, including Magdi Ag Bohada, have also disavowed the accord.
Discord between the MNLA and Ansar Dine occurred almost immediately after both parties signed the agreement on May 26 that established an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali reinforced by the imposition of sharia.
Senior MNLA members have long been uneasy with Ansar Dine’s harsh interpretation of Islam and desire for a strict version of sharia law. “We want sharia similar to that in Mauritania or even Egypt. This point must be clarified,” Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, an MNLA official in the northern city of Gao, told Reuters three days after the accord was signed. The MNLA has also strongly disagreed with Ansar Dine about what types of punishments should be implemented against those accused of committing a crime, specifically the amputation of hands.
Despite the public statements by MNLA leaders renouncing their support for the accord, armed Ansar Dine militiamen continue to patrol the streets of northern Mali’s population centers, including Gao, Kial, and Timbuktu, enforcing sharia no matter how unpopular the new restrictions have become among residents who have long observed moderate Islamic values and customs.
Local Tuaregs have protested against Ansar Dine’s attempt to enforce a strict dress code, the prohibition of alcohol and smoking of cigarettes in public, and the closure of cinemas. According to The New York Times, Ansar Dine militiamen have defaced the shrine of a 15th-century Sufi saint, music has been banned from the radio, and the black flags of Ansar Dine, which mirror those of al Qaeda, have been draped around the urban environs of northern Mali. These and other unpopular restrictions have forced many residents to flee northern Mail since the MNLA and Ansar Dine consolidated power in the region around a month ago.
The United Nations estimates that more than 160,000 Malians have fled to the neighboring countries of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and more than 140,000 residents have been displaced in Mali itself since the Malian government collapsed in late March.
The current political crisis between the MNLA and Ansar Dine has prompted senior members of Ansar Dine, including its leader and former MNLA spokesman Iyad Ag Ghali, to travel back to Gao from an undisclosed location in an attempt to salvage the May 26 accord. Some members of Ansar Dine believe the voice of dissent among the MNLA is restricted to the movement’s political wing, and view the crisis as a minor, if not irrelevant, development.