April 13, 2014 No.

The National Movement For the Liberation of Azawad Looks To Russia As An International Partner

On March 14, 2014, a delegation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), led by its secretary-general Bilal Ag Acherif, met in Moscow with Mikhail Bognarov, Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs and special envoy for Africa and the Middle East. The delegation's visit was part of the attempts by the MNLA to obtain an international consensus in order to emerge from the regional crisis, which began with the unilateral secession of the MNLA, which is mainly a Touareg movement, from Mali and its declaration of an independent State of Azawad (in northern Mali), on April 6, 2012.[1]

Following the MNLA's secession, on January 11, 2013, France launched a military intervention, Operation Serval, against several jihadist movements that had taken control of parts of Azawad. While the MNLA expressed its willingness to participate in the fight against terror, it also demanded that the Malian army refrain from entering Azawad, and that the civilian population of the region not be harmed.[2] After the launch of Operation Serval, the MNLA retained control only of the region of Kidal.

The main military force in terms of fighters in the Kidal region (the town of Kidal and other small towns) is the MNLA. However, other forces are present in Kidal: the French Serval force (mainly in the towns of Kidal and Tessalit) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) (mainly in Kidal, Tessalit and Aguelhok). There is also a presence of the Malian army, but they are not militarily significant.

On June 18, 2013, the MNLA signed the Ouagadougou Agreement with the Malian government.[3] The agreement was a provisional one to allow the July 28, 2013 Malian presidential election to be held also in Kidal. Since then, the situation between the MNLA and Mali has remained stagnant, with no dialogue between the two parties. France has distanced itself from the MNLA, and the group is now turning to Putin's Russia, at a time when Crimea has declared its independence from Ukraine.

A communiqué by MNLA chargé of communication Mossa Ag Attaher explains that the goal of the Russia visit was to spread "the message of the people of Azawad everywhere, particularly in the countries that are members of the UN Security Council, some of which have veto power."[4] According to Ag Attaher, the meeting with Bognarov took place in a friendly atmosphere, and dealt mainly with issues linked to the problems of Azawad and to its conflict with the government of Mali.

"All the causes of the conflict were explained to the government of the Russian Federation. The political, social and cultural reasons for the recurring revolts and the suffering of the people of Azawad were discussed at length. The president of the MNLA's leadership, Mr. Bilal Ag Acharif, clearly expressed the necessity and the urgency of finding a solution to this never-ending conflict through a political dialogue. He reaffirmed the availability of the MNLA to operate by means of political negotiations provided that they are based on the sincere and frank willingness of all the parties," wrote Ag Attaher.

The communiqué notes that the Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs had thanked the MNLA delegation "for the high level of the talks and invited it to continue on the path of a political and negotiated solution." Moreover, he reaffirmed the availability of the Russian Federal government to help the different parties to find a just, equitable and durable solution for the crisis.

Soon after the Moscow meeting, Russian Ambassador to Mali Alexei Doulian was summoned to Mali's Foreign Ministry to explain the MNLA delegation's visit to Moscow. Doulian held talks with Mali's Foreign Minister Zahaby Sidi Ould Mohamed on the issue, but details were not divulged.[5] According to the AFP, the Malian foreign minister stated that the Russian ambassador had said that his country recognizes the territorial integrity of Mali and that Russia is not at all inclined to recognize the MNLA.[6]

Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) had strong words against the MNLA visit to Moscow. During the 44th ordinary summit of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) in Ivory Coast, IBK said: "They [the MNLA] went to Moscow to ask Russia to arm them. But the Russians answered them: We trust your president [i.e. IBK]. We received him [IBK] twice in Russia. The relations between [Mali's capital] Bamako and Moscow go back to 1960. The best thing for you to do is to stop your activities, as not only will we not help you, but we see no other country in the world that will.... They want war! If it is what they want, I am ready!... I forgot! When they [the MNLA] went to Moscow, they offered, in exchange for Russia's help, to give the Russians oil, uranium, and other mining resources that abound in the 'territory'...."[7]

Previously, in 2012, when the MNLA took over Azawad, Federation Council of Russia Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Mikhail Margelov said that the MNLA's claim of independence in northern Mali stood no chance of being recognized by the international community. "We stand unequivocally for the territorial integrity and restoration of the constitutional order in Mali,"[8] Margelov said.

In 2013, Anatoly Isaikin, who heads Russia's arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, said that Moscow had, in February 2013, delivered a $12 million consignment of arms to Mali, that included 3,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 300 machine-guns, and ammunition.[9] It was also reported that Mali had asked Rosoboronexport for Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters, cargo airplanes, fighter planes, armored vehicles, radar systems for anti-aircraft defense, and small arms and ammunition.[10]

The following are excerpts of an article in the Burkina Faso Le Pays daily,[11] in which the author, journalist Pousdem Pickou, states that Russia is seen as a reliable partner that never lets its friends down, and that this is why the MNLA is attempting to bring Russia to its side.

MNLA Looks To Moscow, Falls Out Of Love With Paris

"A delegation of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), led by its political chief, Bilal Ag Acherif, was received... in Moscow by Mikhail Bognarov, Russian deputy minister [of Foreign Affairs and Special Envoy] for Africa and the Middle East. This rapprochement between the MNLA and Moscow can be interpreted in different ways.

"In the first place, the MNLA's turning its attention to Moscow could be the consequence of the 'falling out of love' between Paris and the Touareg rebellion. In fact, under the pressure of the sub-region, and in consideration of the numerous accusations towards Paris that have been made, rightly or wrongly, by Malian public opinion, [which deems] Paris as having been too indulgent towards the MNLA, Paris was compelled to reconsider its relations with pro-independence Touaregs.

"So, the erosion of relations between the former colonial power [i.e. France] and the MNLA – something considered to be not such a bad thing in [Mali's capital] Bamako – might be the reason for Bilal Ag Acherif's wink to his Muscovite comrades in order to fill a political and diplomatic vacuum. This [erosion] might modify the balance of power in Bamako's favor, for present and future negotiations on the status of the Azawad as part of today's democratic Mali.

"Similarly, the MNLA visit to Putin's country could be linked to Bamako's reluctance to implement Ouagadougou's accords [signed June 18, 2013] which are perceived by the MNLA as the only framework for the resolution of the crisis in Northern Mali. [Mali's] refusal to accept the mediation of [Burkina Faso President] Blaise Compaorè, whom certain Malian authorities suspect of being [too] close to MNLA's ideas and of offering food and shelter to the MNLA, clearly contributed to pushing pro-independence Touaregs towards Moscow, since after Ouagadougou's exclusion they needed to find a new sponsor in order to implement their agenda for Northern Mali."

Russia, The Ideal Sponsor

"We can also interpret the MNLA visit to Moscow from a different angle – meaning that the choice of Russia could be linked to other considerations carefully developed by the rebel Tuareg movement. In the first place, Moscow offers the advantage of being acceptable both in Algiers and in Bamako. In fact, historically, these two capitals have always entertained good and multifaceted relations with Moscow... Consequently, the MNLA knows that a possible [inclusion], in Mali's crisis, of Russia – which incidentally is not hostile to Ouagadougou's accords – has a good chance of being accepted by Algeria and Mali. [i.e. if Russia decides to be an actor in the crisis it would be accepted by Mali and the neighboring Algeria, because it has international political weight and because it has historical relations with those two countries].

"In this regard, we can reiterate that Mali's current president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), had gone to Moscow even before he was elected president. Besides, Russia has the advantage of being a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This status of Moscow among the nations renders [Russia] the ideal sponsor for relaying MNLA's lobbying activities to other great powers."

Moscow Never Lets Its Friends Down; "As An Orphan, The MNLA Is Looking For A Foster Father"

"Finally, Moscow has the fiendish reputation of never letting its friends down, even if these friends are sinister. It was likely Russia's attitude of challenging the West in regards to the Syrian civil war, probably inspired the MNLA, which was aware that this country, more than any other country, when it comes to international relations, is not very concerned with moral considerations. From this perspective, the MNLA made the right choice.

"Indeed, the end of the Cold War has somehow modified the balance of terror which Moscow entertained with Washington's allies, but in this particular case, Moscow could reap some advantages by sponsoring the MNLA. The first advantage concerns geopolitics. In fact, Russia could be interested in being present in the Sahelian-Saharan region, also in order to avoid that this area becomes a breeding ground for international terrorism.

"[Also,] beyond this scenario, that is linked to the struggle against Islamist extremism, we can add that Russia could benefit from rapprochement with the MNLA – which, it must be stressed, does not completely adhere to a logic of peace with Bamako, since it has made some hefty weapons sales to the Touareg rebels. Lastly, all the aforementioned elements seem to validate the following hypothesis: As an orphan, the MNLA is looking for a foster father."


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 848, The MNLA's Fight For A Secular State Of Azawad, June 19, 2012.

[3] The Ouagadougou agreement was signed June 18, 2013, by a Mali's governmental delegation and a joint delegation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Supreme Council of Azawad Unity (HCA). The groups that took part in the talks in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou include the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Supreme Council for Azawad Unity (HCA), and the self-defense movements, as well as the Azawad Arab Movement (MAA). The work plan proposed by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the mediator in the Malian crisis, calls for the cessation of hostilities to create conditions for holding free and fair elections and the return of refugees. It also urged the redeployment of the general administration as well as the return of social services and the security forces to northern Mali (Azawad), especially in Kidal, the MNLA stronghold. The Ouagadougou agreement is a preliminary agreement intended to allow the holding of the July 28 presidential election in Kidal as well. The agreement provides for a redeployment of the security forces and the administration in Kidal for the organization of the polls, as well as a gradual return of the army, in cooperation with the international support force in Mali. According to the text of agreement, the two sides would begin an "inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis." Source: Xinhua (China), June 19, 2014;, June 22, 2014. Full text of the Ouagadougou agreement signed on June 18 available here.

[4], Moscow, March 14, 2014.

[5] Xinhua (China), March 18, 2014.

[6] AFP (France), March 18, 2014.

[7], March 31, 2014.

[8] Xinhua (China), April 6, 2012.

[9] Press TV (Iran), February 14, 2013.

[10] RFI (France), April 2, 2013.

[11] Le Pays (Bourkina Faso), March 17, 2014.