Chapter 2
Rebellion and fragmentation in northern Mali

Historical lack of understanding and mutual distrust between Bamako and its northern territory have played an important role in Malian instability for decades. By ignoring northern aspirations for economic development (especially social and economic infrastructure) or political representation (lack of governmental seats for instance), the Malian authorities have paved the way for violent contestation and separatist actions. The popular support among Tuareg and Arab populations for some rebel movements and armed groups, and the authority the rebel leaders have had over some northern populations, are good illustrations of the inequalities collectively experienced by the northern population.

The subsequent rebellions in Mali have, in turn, aggravated the long-standing community distrust. The aftermath of the rebellions and the negotiations that led to ‘peace agreements’ also fostered tensions among northern communities, as some groups used those situations to advance their own interests.

The ethnic divisions and lawlessness, due to the withdrawal of the Malian state, that characterised the aftermath of rebellions presented a window of opportunity for terrorist groups to settle in the north. Thriving on illicit trafficking and mixing with local populations, these groups managed to gradually gain influence before the 2012 crisis.

This chapter explains the security issues created by tensions within Malian society, and describes how the central government tried to address them.

Constant rebellion: the historical continuity of Tuareg anger

From 1960 to 2012, there were four Tuareg rebellions and five different (and so far ineffective) north-south peace agreements.

Despite these peace agreements, disarmament programmes and other foreign economic sponsorships (from Algeria and Libya, but also from Western countries), the Malian central state has been accused of marginalising the northern regions and, as a consequence, north-south relations remain tense. By repressing the rebels or buying a precarious peace (e.g., co-opting rebel leaders), Malian authorities tended to set aside the real – political and economic – roots of the conflict. Moreover, by giving to some rebel leaders a disproportionate influence in the negotiating processes (Iyad ag Ghali for instance), Bamako altered the nature of the conflict and fed divisions within the northern groups.

Historical tensions between north and south have always played a decisive role in the cycles of rebellion, although other factors have also fed resentment and helped to perpetuate the conflict. The peace agreements and economic incentives given to some combatants in order to disarm them have indirectly encouraged, in a depressed economic environment, a rebel economy and the emergence of local entrepreneurs of violence. Foreign interference and the central position of northern Mali in the regional race for Sahelian leadership have also influenced the conflict. By actively sponsoring the rebels or indulging them through cross-border movements or supplies, some neighbouring countries (especially Libya and Algeria) have played a big role in destabilising the region and locking the parties into permanent tensions.

This section recounts the rebellions that have taken place in northern Mali since independence in 1960. It describes local and regional responses, including the various peace treaties and pacts that have been signed, and the global consequences they have had on Malian stability up until today.

1963-1991: post-colonial rebellions and Bamako’s military responses

Occurring only three years after independence, the first rebellion in 1963 demonstrated the difficulties of addressing post-colonial challenges and gathering all Malian communities within a single political entity. The choice made by the Malian post-colonial authorities to repress the rebellion, and their refusal to address the root causes of the crisis (i.e., political recognition of northern specificities and a special status for the region), helped to sustain the conflict for years. The authorities’ decision to forbid tourism and establish martial law and military administration in the northern regions illustrated the approach taken to address northern issues.

The overthrow of President Modibo Keita in 1968 and the establishment of General Moussa Traoré military regime helped to quell public discontent, at least for a couple of years and on the surface. However, severe droughts in 1972-1973 and in 1984-1985 fed new discontent by pushing thousands of members of northern tribes to leave the region and seek refuge in neighbouring countries, especially Niger and, to some extent, Libya. If those exiles did not directly destabilise the Malian regime, the exodus led to frustration, distrust and discontent among the northern population. It also encouraged new connections with other groups, especially in Niger, where Tuareg rebel movements had also been active since independence. The Libyan regime ‘warmly’ welcomed those climate-driven refugees as the Jamahiriya leader, Muammar Qaddafi, saw them as a way to assert his political influence in the Sahara. Integrated within the Libyan Islamic legion (created in 1972), Tuaregs were militarily trained and equipped and took part in wars that the Libyan regime led by proxy in other African countries, especially in Chad.

Tuareg and Arab exiles were the main participants in the 1990-1991 second rebellion.[53] Like their elders before them, combatants fought for better living conditions and the recognition of a northern political identity, but also asked that Tuareg be allowed to be combatants in the Malian national army. By deciding to ignore the political motivation of the rebels and preferring to call them ‘highway thugs’, General Moussa Traoré repeated Modibo Keita’s mistakes and contributed, once again, to the radicalisation of the movement. Abuses, especially from the Malian military in the regions of Gao, Kidal and Menaka, aggravated the grievances of the north. Because of its knowledge of the region and the suspected connivance between the rebels and the Libyan regime, Algeria was chosen by the Malian regime as the mediator of the crisis. However, the Tamanrasset peace agreements that were signed on 6 January 1991 were called into question by the overthrow of General Moussa Traoré on 26 March, after a popular revolution of democratic clandestine organisations and the army, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure.

‘Post-democratic’ rebellions and community divisions in the north

The 26 March 1991 democratic revolution put an end to 30 years of the Union pour la démocratie et le peuple malien (UDPM) single-party regime. Despite those political changes, the security situation in the north did not improve and divisions grew within the armed groups themselves, especially between the Ifoghas (led by Iyad ag Ghali) and the non-Ifoghas tribes (Tuareg and Arabs).[54] With the help of Algeria, Mauritania and France, the new Malian political authorities, with the coordination of the armed groups,[55] agreed the Pacte National. Signed in Bamako on 11 April 1992, the Pacte intended to redefine national relationships between north and south according to several main principles: a significant military withdrawal from the northern regions, a massive integration of the rebels into the Malian army, greater territorial political autonomy (with the creation of elected local assemblies holding sovereign powers in the economic and the security fields), and an ambitious development programme. In exchange, Tuareg agreed to give up their political claims regarding the independence of Azawad.

Despite this symbolic show of willingness to address the issues that provoked the crisis and the inequalities between north and south, the new Malian regime did not succeed in gathering all the northern tribes around its project. New waves of tension arose due to deep divisions among the Tuareg populations, both historical and political, the questioned leadership of Iyad ag Ghali, and the slow pace of political and economic reform. In 1996, after four years of uneasy peace, the parties involved signed the Timbuktu peace agreement and commemorated a Cérémonie des flammes de la paix, supposedly ending the war and initiating a fresh start.

But a succession of crises in the north, alleged preferential treatment and fears of new military involvement fed continuous southern distrust regarding Malian’s irredentist north. Meanwhile, people in the north continued to suffer from developmental inequalities and internal divisions. The inability of the Malian government to implement the promises made in 1992 deepened national divisions and the rift between the northern and southern territories.

President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), elected in 2002, aggravated the gap between north and south and significantly raised the security threat in northern Mali. His mistakes undoubtedly paved the way to the 2012 crisis.

Tuareg rebellions under the ATT regime: disunity, interference and terrorism

After 10 years of fragile peace and mutual suspicion, a third rebellion broke out in May 2006. Once again led by Iyad ag Ghali, the combatants took advantage of the withdrawal of the Malian military in the north after the last peace agreement to take control of the cities of Kidal and Menaka.[56] For the third time since 1992, Algeria offered to lead a mediation process. However, the peace agreement signed in July 2006 in Algiers was considered too favourable to Iyad ag Ghali’s personal agenda. As a consequence, several Malian political parties (especially the Rassemblement pour le Mali headed by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita)[57] and non-Ifoghas Tuareg leaders refused to endorse it. The Tuareg, indeed, considered Iyad’s Ifoghas community to be the only beneficiaries of the agreement,[58] while Bamako’s political leaders rejected the compromises made by Amadou Toumani Touré towards the rebellion, believing that the problem had to be addressed militarily. For them, by negotiating with armed groups without even trying to stop the insurgency, ATT ignored what they saw as the main roots of the problems. Detractors accused him of striking a deal in order to prevent any delay in holding the 2007 presidential elections (which would compromise the prospect of his own re-election).[59] Doubts regarding a possible collusion between Iyad ag Ghali’s movement and the AQIM terrorist organisation reinforced the criticism of ATT’s weak management of security issues.[60] Increasing rumours of alleged high-level complicity with traffickers and armed groups punctuated ATT’s second term as head of the Malian state.

Despite the growing discontent of some northern groups regarding the advantages given to Iyad ag Ghali’s supporters, ATT decided to ignore them and reinforce ag Ghali’s position by feeding divisions within non-Ifoghas Tuareg communities. Two northern militias were set up by Bamako to fight against the new North Mali Tuareg Alliance for Change (ATNMC), an armed group led by Ibrahim ag Bahanga in opposition to Iyad ag Ghali’s leadership.[61] The first militia group was led by El Hadj Gamou, a Tuareg Imghad who nurtured an acrid hatred towards the Ifoghas community and gave allegiance to Bamako; the other group was composed of Tilemsi Arabs, whose leader, Major Colonel Abderahmane Ould Meydou, later negotiated with Bamako the liberation of Mohamed Ould Aiwanatt, a very influential Arab businessman involved in the ‘Air Cocaine’ operation, in exchange for the support of his community. Bamako’s divide- and-rule policy led to a ‘tribalisation’ of the northern conflict and to the rapid obsolescence of the Algiers agreement.

After Algeria, Libya volunteered to negotiate with ag Bahanga. A new peace settlement, the fifth agreement since the fall of the Malian military regime in 1991, was signed in October 2009, in Sebha (Libya). Tuareg rebels, along with Malian and Nigerien representatives,[62] agreed to end the fighting, while the Libyan regime offered asylum to Bahanga to ensure his respect for the pact.

The aftermath of the Tuareg rebellions: state withdrawal and security vacuum

The partial implementation of clauses contained in the different peace agreements led to a withdrawal of the central state from the northern regions. The decentralisation promised by the agreements, even though it was badly implemented, led to a demilitarisation of the north and created what could be called a ‘security vacuum’ around the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

Combined with the lack of economic development in the north and the resentment of local populations against the state, the security vacuum in the north presented terrorist groups with an opportunity to settle. The GSPC, later called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was the first group to enter northern Mali, in 2003. Because of its significant financial resources, collected through the kidnapping of Western tourists and its involvement in trafficking, the organisation was able to fill the void left by the state in the north. Buying the support of local criminal networks and the goodwill of the northern community by ‘distributing money, handing out medicine, treating the sick and buying SIM cards’,[63] the GSPC acted as a social security provider in regions abandoned by the state.[64] This enabled the organisation to conduct its activities without being bothered by the state and allowed it to attract young recruits, attracted by the prospect of easy money and disappointed by the lack of other local economic perspectives. MUJAO, which became active in Mali after its split with AQIM, in 2011, followed the same kind of pattern.

Overall, the decisions made after the Tuareg rebellions paved the way for terrorist groups in the sense that they could act as a para-sovereign organisation or ‘substitute government’ in the north in the absence of a strong central state. The lack of reaction, and sometimes the complicity of some Malian political leaders, allowed these groups to prosper and contributed markedly to the deterioration of the security situation in the north.

Northern disunity as a main cause of instability?

Beyond the undeniable lack of political will on both sides, the failure of the Malian national pact is also linked to internal divisions within northern communities and the continuous attempts from Bamako and the international community to address northern issues as a hegemonic bloc. North Mali is deeply divided into several communities, groups, clans and political leaderships that conform to distinct political ‘myths and mythologies’.[65] In order to achieve long-term stability, Malian authorities would have to deal with different interests and sometimes contradictory local demands.

Map 4
Ethnic groups in Mali
Ethnic groups in Mali

Source: ‘Atlas Jeune Afrique 2010’, in Bossard, L., op. cit., OECD, Sahel and West Africa Club, 2015, 191.

Tuareg, Arab, Songhay or Fulani people have different political agendas, social or security claims. They do not share the same culture, languages or traditions; they do not all recognise Azawad as their common land and the need for independence as an end in itself. Those communities rarely fought for the same armed group nor were they sponsored by the same key player (Algeria and Libya for Arabs and Tuareg, Bamako for the Songhay, etc). If those differences and divisions are the biggest challenges for the Malian state to overcome on the path to peace, they are also the direct result of Bamako’s policies towards those communities (i.e., government-sponsored militias in the north and Bamako’s divide-and-rule tactics in the region).

Current difficulties in the Algiers peace talks are directly connected to those community divisions. The Platform and Coordination groups that are supposed to represent northern interests in the peace process do not have a common agenda, including on territorial matters (autonomy, federalism, decentralisation – among other issues). Those differences make it extremely difficult to agree on common discussion points and any viable solution to the crisis continues to be unattainable. Understanding the dynamics of northern groups is therefore crucial to achieving a long-term peace agreement and meeting local needs that are currently ignored or fulfilled by others, including terrorist organisations.

Origins and political allegiances of the northern communities

Northern Mali has a very low-density population, with just 1.3 million inhabitants (out of 14.5 million in Mali as a whole), and the communities who live there (Tuareg, Arab, Songhay or Fulani) are deeply divided. Tuareg and Arabs represent more than 60 percent of the Septentrion, with Tuareg groups forming a significant majority. Those internal divisions have always seriously affected the unity of rebel movements and made it even more difficult to use a blueprint or pre-established framework to put an end to crises, including that in 2012.

While Tuareg are numerically predominant in the three northern regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal), deep internal divisions have nevertheless prevented them from becoming indisputable leaders in the north. In creating the Mouvement national pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) in 2011, Ibrahim ag Bahanga aimed to unite all the Tuareg communities within a single organisation in order to avoid past mistakes and divisions that have undermined their influence. He succeeded until Iyad ag Ghali created his own organisation, Ansar Dine, in 2012 and actively recruited within the Tuareg Ifoghas. The fragile unity of northern movements did not survive this.

The next section analyses the dynamics of northern communities, especially the divisions within Tuareg and Arab tribes, which have weaken past rebellion movements and now complicate the resolution of the conflict. It also highlights the deep differences between these communities and other northern groups, especially the Fulani and the Songhay, who are historically closer to the Malian state and have sometimes been used by Bamako against the Tuareg rebels.

Tuareg communities: disunity within pluralism

Disunity, along with the lack of training and poor military equipment, have been some of the major weaknesses in past ‘Tuareg’ rebellions. Since the time of colonial domination of Sudan, disputes among communities, especially among the Tuareg, have been used to weaken any possible unity and impose ‘exogenous’ political orders. The very rigid social structure of the Tuareg community – with noble, vassal, religious or former serf clans – greatly facilitates divisive strategies.[66]

Each Tuareg clan is divided into numerous groups and sub-clans, sometimes with different political agendas. The town of Kidal has no less than 60 Tuareg sub-groups, organised mainly into the ‘noble’ Ifoghas (four main sub-groups), the Taghat elet (two main sub-groups) and the Idnan (two sub-groups).[67] Subordinate ‘vassal’ (Imghad)[68] or ‘former serf’ clans (the Bella, a sedentary lower class whose members are regularly used as informal slaves) are also represented in the city even though they do not control the political or traditional power. After independence in 1960, the Ifogha were divided into pro- and anti-Bamako clans. Two Ifogha brothers, Intallah and Zaid ag Attaher disagreed on the clan’s relationship with Bamako. Intallah eventually chose to support the new central state and was rewarded for his loyalty by being endorsed as the new Amenokal (traditional chieftaincy) of the Ifogha community. His relatives still run the community (the new Amenokal, Mohamed ag Intallah, created the High Council for the unity of Azawad, HCUA, a group involved in the current peace talks alongside the MNLA within the same Coordination).

In other Malian cities, especially Gao and Ménaka, Ifoghas are much less represented, contrary to the Idnan, Iwellemmedan and the Chaman-Amas. The Iwellemmedan, a noble cast of Tuareg pastoralists, have historically played a huge role in the region, especially during the colonial era when it led the 1914-1916 rebellions against the French army. They then represented the dominant Tuareg group in Mali before being supplanted by the Ifoghas, who were supported by the colonial administration because they were less hostile to foreign troops. After independence, the Iwellemmedan were electorally favoured by Bamako as a counter-influence the Ifoghas. The current leader of this community, Bajan ag Hamatou, is still serving as deputy of Ménaka.

Lastly, in the Timbuktu region, where the Songhay are numerous, Tuareg groups are mainly composed of Iwellemmedan and Kel Instar. The latter regard themselves as descending from Arabs and, as a consequence, have close ties with other Arab groups, especially the Bérabiche. Because of their historic ‘rights’ over the richest lands, the Kel Instar are very influential in Timbuktu. Kel Instar Zakyatou walette Halatine, a former Minister of Tourism in the ATT regime, had her home in Bamako totally damaged after the launching of the Tuareg rebellion in January 2012. This event confirmed the deep distrust between southern communities (mostly Bambaras) and Tuareg or Arab members.

The 1990s rebellion further divided the Tuareg community and highlighted tensions that still strongly shape northern communities. While fighters from the Kidal Ifogha ruling clan signed the Tamanrasset agreement in 1991, the Tamasheq lower class (Imghad) and the Tuareg from Timbuktu (Kel Instar) or Menaka (Chaman-Amas) split from Iyad ag Ghali’s Mouvement pour l’Azawad (MPA). Mutual accusations of hogging the limelight in the negotiations or compromising with southerners, have weakened the Tuareg movements and allowed the Malian government to regain control of the events. Those divisions were also seen again in 2006, especially with the schism between ag Bahanga and Iyad ag Ghali.[69] However, during the first months of the 2012 rebellion, the MNLA succeeded in representing all the clans of Tuareg society. But the creation of Ansar Dine put an end to this very temporary unity and led to new divisions – among the Tuareg (MNLA, Ansar Dine, Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad – HCUA, Front de Libération de l’Azawad – FPA, GATIA, etc), the Arabs (MAA, MUJAO, etc) and the Songhay (Coordination des Mouvements et Fronts Patriotiques de Résistance – CM-FPR) especially.

The Arabs: revolt from the margins

While numerically inferior in northern Mali, Arab communities are far less divided than the Tuaregs. Composed only of three main groups, Arabs have been deeply marginalised by the Malian central power. Before the 2012 crisis, no Arab succeeded in being elected to the National Assembly or the High Council of Regional Authorities (HCCT). On the contrary, 12 Tuareg representatives (out of 147) and numerous Tuareg territorial councillors, including Iyad ag Ghali himself, have represented northern interests in Bamako. To compensate for this clear political inequity, in October 2007 Amadou Toumani Touré appointed Moctar El Moctar, an Arab from the Tilemsi, as Minister of Communication. In 2013, for the first time in Malian political history, an Arab, Mohamed Ould Sidi Mohamed was elected as Deputy of Goundam.

Living mainly in the Gao and Timbuktu regions, Arabs are divided between noble clans (Kounta), emancipated groups (Tilemsi Arab) and the Berabiche (most of them in Timbuktu). Kountas occasionally liaise between Ifoghas from Kidal and Berabiche from Timbuktu but have generally lost a great deal of their past dominant influence. Tilemsi Arabs are thought to be very influential in regional trafficking (especially the Lamhar tribe) and to have strong links with the MUJAO.[70] Their influence in the Gao region is one factor that has explained the MUJAO control of this city in 2012. In the past, this clan was supported by the Malian government in order to facilitate negotiations with AQIM (on hostage release, ransom intermediaries).

The Berabiche are very influential in northern Mali, living in Timbuktu (around 35 different factions) and also in the region from the Mauritanian border to the north of the Kidal region. By securing convoys across the desert, they became a key element of the criminal economy in the whole region. Since 2006, and the failed attempt by Kountas to impose their leadership upon all the Arab tribes (Coordination des communautés arabes du Mali – CCAM), the relationships between Kountas and Berabiche are more distant. During the last crisis, Berabiche created the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (FPLA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

Arab communities have actively participated in all the ‘Tuareg’ rebellions (by, for instance, contributing troops), at least until Malian political liberalisation in 1991. Indeed, from the signature of the Pacte national in 1991 to the last 2012 crisis, Arab communities fostered links with the Malian government, mainly to protect their trade interests. Currently, General Mohamed Abderhamane Ould Meydou, a Tilemsi Arab and a former rebel leader/military multi-deserter (in 1999 and 2004), is, for instance, one of the main Malian military staff involved in the north (he negotiated with Bamako the support of Tilemsis in exchange for the release of Mohamed Ould Aiwanatt).

While the positions, political allegiances or regional interests of each Tuareg or Arab group have differed historically, the political use of northern divisions by colonial and post-colonial actors (sometimes with a reversal of ancient social organisations) has also deeply complicated any understanding of northern dynamics. Those community divisions explain the growth of armed groups (especially within the Tuaregs) and, at the same time, help to explain the difficulty of implementing a viable solution to the crisis. They partly account for the failure of previous agreements and are significant factors in the current situation.

The Songhay and the Fulani

The disunity between northern populations has been deepened by Fulani (14 percent of the northern population) and Songhay (7 percent) resentment against the Tuareg and the Arabs. However, unlike Tuareg communities, these groups are far less divided and well more integrated with the central state. The two communities have played a major political role in Mali’s history and have never accepted that Tuareg grievances were overshadowing their own needs. Their positions have been well understood by Bamako, which regularly used Tuareg divisions to weaken the rebel movements.

The Songhay have lived in northern Mali (especially in the Gao region) since the 9th century,‍[71] and from 1325 to 1375, the Songhay city of Gao was politically incorporated into the Malian Empire. However, at the end of the 15th century, the Songhay Prince Sonni Ali[72] expelled the Malian Mandingoes from Gao and started to build what would become the Songhay Empire. After taking Timbuktu back from the Tuareg in 1468 and the commercial city of Djenné in 1473, the Songhay Empire developed and prospered. Politically centralised and held by a powerful aristocracy, the empire took an Islamic turn under the reign of Askia Mohammed (1493), the successor of Ali, who made a pilgrimage to Mecca and earned the title of ‘Caliph of the Sudan’. After several wars of conquest in the name of Islam, the Songhay Empire reached its peak before being conquered by the Moroccans at the end of the 16th century.

The illustrious history of the Songhay and their significant contribution to Mali’s prosperity and prestige help to explain their attachment to the territorial integrity of Mali and their good political relationships with the central state. The Songhay community is fully involved in Bamako’s political life: Amadou Toumani Touré (former president), Choguel Kokalla Maiga (government spokesman), Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga (former minister), Soumaila Cissé (former minister, former President of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union, current head of the political parliamentary opposition), all Songhay, have held high-level positions within the Malian political sphere.

The Fulanis’ history in Mali started with their settling in Macina (a region corresponding to the inner Niger Delta) somewhere between the 7th and 9th century.[73] From the 13th to the 19th century, the Fula people lived under the domination of the Empire of Mali (until the early 15th century), the Songhai Empire (mid-15th century) and the Segou kings (until 1818). At the end of the Segou reign, the Fulani, led by Hamadou Bari (later known as Cheikou Amadou), rebelled against southern Bambara clans. Capitalising on the massive conversion to Islam that had struck the Macina,[74] Amadou succeeded in implementing a theocratic regime and creating the Macina Kingdom, called Dina (literally, the ‘belief in Islam’). Organised around the Hamdallaye political centre, the Macina was also divided into five regions, each administrated by governors in charge of implementing sharia law and diffusing Islam from the top to the bottom of the kingdom. The Macina was prosperous when it was attacked and conquered by the jihadist leader, El Hadj Omar Tall, in 1862. The assault on the Macina was the result of the kingdom sheltering the Bambara Segou King, one of the main targets of Omar Tall’s jihad. The domination of the Toucouleurs (1862-1890) and, later, the French (until 1960), did not interrupt the historic influence of the Fulani, as these two entities maintained the political organisation of the Dina.

Even in recent times, Fulani political leaders have played a very important role in Mali; for instance, Adame Ba Konaré (one of the most renowned Malian historians and wife of former president Alpha Oumar Konaré), Oumar Tatam Ly (first prime minister of IBK) and Ali Nouhoum Diallo (the former president of the National Assembly) are all Fulani. Their presence in Malian political or intellectual fields illustrates the fact that some northern communities are included in central state structures, even they are numerically under-represented.

Bamako’s northern militias: a proxy counter-insurgency strategy

Because of their past history and important role in Malian politics and the dissemination of Islam, the Songhay and Fulani became very critical of the continuous Tuareg uprisings. Not only did the Tuareg try to establish themselves as the ‘voice of the north’, articulating the grievances of every community in the northern regions, they also conducted regular attacks on Songhay and Fulani sedentary and semi-nomadic populations.

In the 1990s, during the second Tuareg rebellion, a Songhay self-defence militia, the Ganda Koy (‘masters of the land’), was created to protect sedentary populations against bandits and lighter-skinned nomads (primarily Tuareg and Arabs, commonly referred to as ‘the Whites’). At the time of its creation, this militia benefited from direct support from the Fulani, the Bozos (‘people from the river’), and the Bellas (the Tuareg lower class) and from the indirect support of the Malian army. Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, a Songhay (former head of the Malian intelligence service, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and first Minister of Defence after IBK’s presidential election) is allegedly the main instigator of this vigilante initiative.[75] The alleged support of the Malian state for the militias (e.g., handing out cash and arms) would have allowed state services to discreetly intervene in the conflict without formally engaging the army and suffering losses among southern military personnel. At the same time, it also helped to arouse the spectre of tribal war in the country.

The Ganda Koy conducted brutal attacks on Tuareg and Arab populations, giving an ethnic and racial component to the 1990s Malian crisis. The most ‘famous’ Ganda Koy operation involved the killing of 53 Mauritanians and Tuareg Marabouts of the Kel Essouk clan, near Gao in 1994. The militia was seen to be dissolved in 1996 during the Timbuktu ‘Cérémonie des Flammes de la Paix’. However, the movement only entered a ‘dormant phase’ and was never officially dismantled. It has even been reactivated several times since then, especially when tensions within rival communities re-emerge. After the creation of the MNLA in 2011, the movement resurfaced and called on Songhay and Fulani military to join in order to counter the Tuareg fighters returning from Libya.[76]

Parallel to Ganda Koy, another self-defence militia was created: the Ganda Iso. This group was created in 2009 by Seydou Cissé, one of the main figures of Ganda Koy.[77] Cissé led the political branch and a Fulani, Sergeant Amadou Diallo, was appointed as the head of the military branch. However, Diallo’s responsibility in the Hourala massacre of 2008 provoked tensions at the top of the movement, as he had committed a public massacre of four Tuareg civilians in the village on a market day.[78] That atrocity triggered retaliations by the Tuareg and led to a split between the military and the political leadership of Ganda Iso. From that moment on, tensions between the Tuareg and Ganda Iso increased, leading to multiple battles.

During the 2012 crisis, Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso chose to collaborate with the Malian army against the Tuareg, especially in the Gao region.[79] The two militias merged during the conflict and created the CM-FPR, in order to advance their interests during the peace talks with Algiers. Since June 2014, the CM-FPR has been part of the ‘Platform’ (alongside one branch of the Arab Movement of the Azawad – MAA, and the Coordination for the People of Azawad – CPA). These groups are opposed to the ‘Coordination’ that gathers Tuareg and Arabs fighters from the MNLA, the HCUA, a group led by Mohamed ag Intallah and mainly composed of former Ansar Dine members, and the MAA.

Since the beginning of the Algiers peace talks in April 2014, Bamako has decided to support the GATIA, a Tuareg militia backed by the Malian army (and controlled by General ag Gamou), in order to fight the MNLA. On top of its use of Songhay and Fulani groups, Bamako further divided the northern ‘front’ by actively engaging Tuareg fighters against the rebels. In deciding to do so, the Malian government gave its implicit consent to a de facto ‘tribalisation’ of the conflict, which has had serious consequences for the security situation in the north and for current negotiations on a solution to the conflict.


The history of national and inter-community violence in Mali has accompanied the post-colonial state-building process. Since 1963, rebellions and other security crises have challenged Malian unity and the legitimacy of ‘Bamako policy’ in administrating the national territory. The diversity of the Malian population has been used as a divide-and-rule instrument, first by French colonists and then by post-colonial politicians, in order to assert their authority in the north, but also by the Tuareg noble class to impose its leadership upon the entire community.

All past peace agreements have failed, partly because of this disunity and the difficulty, in that context, of satisfying the interests of all communities (which would, in turn, guarantee a post-conflict stability). Because local interests differed, and were even sometimes incompatible, past agreements have not been able to sustain a viable peace between north and south and within the northern communities. Since independence, tensions and regular episodes of violence have deepened national antagonisms and fed southern resentment towards the ‘armed bandits of the north’. The growth of illicit trafficking and criminal activities in the north also encouraged Bamako’s historically ‘tough’ posture. Excessive militarisation of the problems in the north, the failure to address the economic dimension of the crisis, and discretionary benefits dispensed to a small number of affiliated or friendly clans, have exacerbated tensions. Past ‘solutions’ have further complicated political discussions and postponed any viable, and essential, debate on Mali’s national equilibrium, especially at economic and political levels.

The extreme fragmentation of community interests, especially in the north, should encourage reflection on (i) the minimal model for inclusiveness (which groups and leaders are most representative among each community in order to enhance the presence of the state across the entire country) and (ii) the common denominator between all groups in terms of grievances and demands.

Economic and political rebellions, nationalistic postures and partial regional mediations have made discontent part of the structure of north-south relations, and eventually led to declining interest in the quite legitimate roots of the crisis. While rebel entrepreneurs (such as Iyad ag Ghali for instance) and some southern politicians share a common responsibility for the conflict, other actors have acted as ‘passive co-producers’ of tensions between north and south.

Regional interference and the regional leadership race between Algeria and Libya have played a part in aggravating the disagreements between Malian communities. Moreover, with increased security threats in the Sahel (trafficking, hostage taking, terrorist attacks), some Western countries have decided to tackle these issues directly and make Mali a stronghold of the international ‘war(s) on terror’. This trend will be dealt with in the next chapter.

Iyad ag Ghali and Mohamed ag Najem, two of the main leaders of the 1990 rebellion were fighting for the Libyan Islamic Legion in Lebanon and Chad.
Tensions between the Ifoghas and other groups were mainly due to diverging aspirations. The rebellion split into four groups. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA), the main group active during the rebellion, was reorganised around the Ifogha community and led by Iyad ag Ghali. Non-Ifoghas Tuareg tribes created the Revolutionary Liberation Army of Azawaf (ARLA – mainly composed of Taghat Melett, Idnan and Imghad), the Popular Liberation Front of Azawad (FPLA – composed of the Chaman Amas), and the Arab Islamic Front of Azawad (FIAA – north-western Malian Arab minority).
Rebel groups decided to coordinate into a ‘Coordination des mouvements et fronts unifiés de l’Azawad’ in order to negotiate the National Pact.
Iyad ag Ghali led the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC) with Ibrahim ag Bahanga and Hassan ag Fagaga, who later decided to split and create the North Mali Alliance for Change (ATNMC). For the first time in the history of Tuareg rebellions, suspicions over the involvement of a terrorist group, AQIM, in the fights were mentioned.
The Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM) strongly denounced the Algiers agreement, considering it to be a weak political solution to a security problem. In a communiqué published on 12 July, IBK stated: ‘We are not supporters of war! Nobody ever wants to go to war. But is it about that in this case? There are just some responsibilities that need to be assumed and nothing else. We need to deal with problems where they arise. That’s it. Political rantings will do us no good.”

Free translation from the declaration (2007) of the RPM after the conclusion of the Algiers agreements, (accessed 5 December 2014).
The Kidal area especially benefited from the agreement, notably the Ifoghas tribes, who were over-represented in the monitoring institutions created to implement the agreement. Other communities of Kidal, such as the Idnan and Taghat Mallet, struggled to reach an understanding of the committees established for the Algiers agreement and were gradually excluded from the process.

For more information on the matter, see: International Crisis Group, op. cit.
Rumours of a deal between ATT and Iyad ag Ghali grew. ATT was accused of voluntarily withdrawing the military from the Tin-Zaouatene region (Algerian border) in order to facilitate cross-border trafficking. In exchange, armed groups agreed to not disturb the presidential electoral process.
Iyad ag Ghali regularly played the role of high-level fixer under ATT’s regimes. For instance, he negotiated the release of the 32 Europeans kidnapped by a GSPC katiba in 2003.

See: Morgan, A., op. cit.
Ibrahim ag Bahanga, one of the leaders of the ATNMC, decided to resume the fight against the Malian government after the conclusion of the Algiers agreement. The proximity of his group to the Nigerien rebel Movement for Justice (MNJ) worried Bamako and triggered the creation of the community militias. Ag Bahanga later went to Libya, before returning to Mali in 2011 where he died in a car accident.
The involvement of Nigerien representatives needs to be understood with regards to the ATNMC links with the MNJ, a group that rebelled against the Niger government.
Boas, M. and Torheim, L.E., ‘The Trouble in Mali: Corruption, collusion and resistance’, Third World Quarterly, 43 (7), 2013, 1279-1292.
To a certain extent, MUJAO acted in the same way in the Gao region.
Le Roy, E. ‘L’introduction du modèle de l’Etat en Afrique francophone: logiques et mythologiques du discours juridique’, in Décolonisations et nouvelles dépendances, eds. Coquery-Vidrovitch, C. and Forest, A., 1986, 81-110.
For a general discussion of Tuareg and Arab communities in northern Mali, see the well-documented US cables Bamako 239 (6 March 2008) and Bamako 594 (1 June 2007).
Iyad ag Ghali is part of the ruling Ifoghas clan of the Kel Ireyakkan, while the Intallah belongs to the Ifoghas Kel Affelah group. Former rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga, also an Ifoghas, belonged to the Ifergoumessen group. Among the Idnan, influent members are Mohamed ag Erlaf (former coordinator of the PSPSDN and current Minister for Environment), Nina Walet Intallou (influential political leader of the MNLA) and Colonel Mohamed ag Najim, the military leader of the MNLA.
The Imghad are a Tuareg clan now opposed to the Ifoghas. General El Hadj Gamou is one of the most influential members of this community.
International Crisis Group, July 2012, op. cit.
Until his death in military combat in December 2014, Ahmed el Tilemsi led the group and was thought to be responsible for the kidnapping in 2009 of Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler.
Historians trace their origins back to the small province of Dendi (at the north-eastern border of Nigeria), from where they emigrated north and settled in Gao.
Sonni Ali was one of the Songhay princes, 18th leader of the dynasty.
The origins of the Fulani are highly disputed, some believing that they are of North African or Arabic origin, others arguing that they descend from nomads from both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Macina witnessed a massive conversion to Islam in previous years, which provided new organisational rules for its population and served as a pretext to unsettle Bambara domination.
Diarra, D., ‘Plongée dans la milice d’autodéfense Ganda Koy’, Courrier International, 2 August 2012, (accessed 11 December 2014) and Radio France Internationale, ‘Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, un stratège inusable à la Défense’, Radio France International, 9 September 2013, ‘Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, un stratège inusable à la Défense’ (accessed 16 December 2014).
McGregor, A., ‘The Sons of the Land: Tribal Challenges to the Tuareg Conquest of Northern Mali’, Terrorism Monitor, 10(8), April 2012, 8-11.
The official year of its creation is 2009. Ganda Iso has, however, been active since 2008.
On 14 September 2008, a fight broke out in Gao between a group of Ganda Iso (allegedly led by Diallo) and the men of Gamou. On 16 September 2008, another battle between the two groups erupted in Fafa (Eastern Mali), the hometown of Ahmadou Diallo. On 1 January 2009, members of Ganda Iso launched a grenade attack on three prominent Imghad leaders in Timbuktu, followed by a similar attack in June 2009, against a Tuareg camp in Tessit (in the Gao region).

For more information on these attacks, see Wikileaks., U.S. Embassy Bamako cable 09BAMAKO3, 5 January 2009.
Reports highlighted that the post-coup Malian military had ‘resumed its old patronage of the Ganda movements by providing food and military equipment to 1,000 members’ – McGregor, A., op. cit.

For more information on these groups, see Diarra, A., ‘Nord Mali: Ganda Iso et Ganda Koy entrent en action dans la région de Gao’, L’indépendant, 28 March 2012.