Mali: Gamou, a general as uncontrollable as he is indispensable

By Bokar Sangaré
Posted on Tuesday, 10 May 2022 12:05

El Hadj Ag Gamou with his men in Gao, Mali, 9 February 2013. ©Jessica Vieux

A photo showing General El Haji Ag Gamou in uniform, beret on his head, in the company of Colonel (and defence minister) Sadio Camara in a suit and tie, circulated on social networks in early January. However, little information has leaked out about this meeting.

On that day, alongside Minister Camara, a dozen soldiers sat around the table, responding to a summons from General Gamou. A member of the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defence Group and Allies (Gatia), of which Gamou is said to be the leader, tells the story: “Breaking the heavy silence in the room, the general, who had just returned from Gao, said to the crowd: ‘Am I the traitor? If that’s what you think, let’s go to the field and you’ll see which side I’m going to shoot at.’”

Sadio Camara tried to explain himself. It was like a former student speaking to his superior: Camara, just like the president of the Malian transition, Assimi Goïta, was once under Gamou’s orders. The senior officer then reacted to the news that had arrived unexpectedly at the end of December 2021: Goïta had, by decree, handed the Inspector General of the Armed Forces his walking papers. Gamou had held the post since General Dahirou Dembélé offered it to him in 2019. He had preferred it to the governor’s job.

‘Denigration campaign’

No sooner was this dismissal made public than rumours flew on social networks. Some wrote that Gamou intended to “turn against Mali, the country he had so fiercely defended”. Others made him the country’s “new number one enemy”.

Gamou’s entourage denounced it as “a smear campaign”. Gamou’s close friend, who requested anonymity, says: “It is a gratuitous grudge from people who did not get the positions they coveted within the Permanent Strategic Framework (French acronym CSP).” An accusing finger pointed to a wing of the ‘Platform’, a coalition of armed groups in the north, of which Gatia is a member.

This fringe is said to be led by Hanoun Ould Sidi, a Platform figure. “Ismaël Wagué  [minister for national reconciliation] is close to Hanoun Ould Ali. He wanted to obtain the presidency of the CSP in order to control the armed movements,” our source says.

If Gamou joins the rebellion, Mali’s unity is finished.

For several months, the CSP has been at the heart of an imbroglio between the armed groups that signed the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (APR, signed in 2015), the Malian government and Italian diplomacy. The latter has been working hard to bring together as many Malian protagonists as possible within this structure, in order to speed up the implementation of the agreement and the country’s security. This is at least the official motive, because, for those who know the region well, these objectives are more related to migration issues in an area with porous borders dominated by armed groups.

In any case, the junta fears a “rapprochement between Gamou and the ex-independence rebels of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)”, according to one expert. “The government does not want the CSP, which opposed the holding of its national conference on re-foundation at the end of December. The government fears Gamou, who is one of its major figures because if he were to join the CMA rebellion, Mali’s unity would be finished. His loyalty is the last line of defence,” said a source in the CSP, who added that Gamou is the deputy of Alghabass Ag Intalla, a prominent member of the CMA.

Rivalry with Iyad ag Ghali

Today, Gamou is said to be more interested in the presidency of the Superior Council of Imghad and Allies (CSIA), whose vice-presidency is held by the former governor of Kidal and current minister for Malians abroad, Alhamdou Ag Ilyène.

This CSIA is the political counterpart of the Gatia, the militia backed by the Imghad tribe and of which Gamou is considered the godfather. Since the 1990s, rivalries between the Imghad and the Ifoghas have constantly given rise to armed clashes. At the time, the Revolutionary Liberation Army of Azawad (ARLA), led by Gamou, opposed the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (formerly MPLA, now MPA) supported by the Malian government and led by a certain Iyad Ag Ghaly.

The paths of Gamou and Iyad crossed in the 1980s when both men decided to win Libya over to their respective causes. “Gaddafi, who had money but a small population, had told the Tuaregs to leave the land south of the Sahara and return to their lands of origin and had promised them great things. He wanted to create the United States of the Sahara,” says an Imghad official.

Far from leading a life of affluence, these Tuaregs were recruited into a legion of honour, which Gaddafi sent to Lebanon to help the Palestinians, then to the Aouzou strip to fight against Chad, and, in the 1990s, to Mali to rise up against the Malian state. In 1992, a national pact was signed. Gamou became head of the ceasefire commission and then joined the Malian army with the rank of commander.

The ATT turning point

In the Tuareg world, the arrival in power of Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) in 2002 was a turning point. The head of state was criticised for favouring the Imghad from 2006 onwards: “We associate this policy with the figure of Gamou, who acts as an agent of the state. It was at this point that the narrative of the ‘Tuareg who defend the Malian state’ was forged,” says Adib Bencherif, a professor at the University of Sherbrooke. “But Gamou wanted to take revenge on the Ifoghas, who are seen as the dominant group in Kidal [where the Imghad are their vassals and have a lower symbolic status].”

According to Bencherif, the general’s political project was to create solidarity among the Imghad in order to deprive the Ifoghas of their status. “Gamou is not just an instrument [in the hands] of Bamako. He has his own goals,” Bencherif says.

He is the only northern leader who is not opposed to the state.

“Gamou is a liberator, a saviour. His work has liberated the Imghad who live between Timbuktu, Gao, Menaka and Kidal. We managed to get a mayor in Kidal, a deputy and even a governor. We had no influence, Gamou organised us,” says this young Imghad who, like many, admires the general. In the North, within the galaxy of armed movements, Gamou is cited among the great figures such as Alghabass Ag Intalla, Bilal Ag Acherif and Mohamed Ag Najim.

In 2012, according to some sources, he was offered the position of ‘military chief’ of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which he declined, earning himself the reputation of ‘traitor to the rebellion’. “He is the only leader in the North who is not opposed to the state. He defeated the rebellion by deciding to remain a republican, which made him many enemies.”

The current antagonisms are simply an extension of this situation. Bencherif sees in the CSP alliance an ‘alignment of interests’. As early as August 2020, there were reports of discussions between the CMA and Gamou to combine their efforts to fight the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) – a group that Gamou fought as part of its alliance with the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and which killed a hundred civilians last March in Anderamboukane, Tamalat and Inchinane.

Free-agent

In early April 2022, at the request of the junta, the general made a discreet stopover in Niger. The aim was to try to bring the two countries, which are at odds, closer together. As soon as he returned to Mali, Gamou went back to the field “to mobilise allies” in Gao, Menaka, Gourma or Kidal – all areas where the EIGS threatens the population.

“Gamou is a free agent. He has men who are loyal to him, whether they are from the Gatia or the MSA. The state does nothing in the North, which is forgotten in the fight against terrorism in favour of the rest of the country. There, Gamou brings the fighters together. This is a precious asset because otherwise, they will all scatter to other groups, including the EIGS. We have to allow him to play a more powerful role. He wants to make peace with everyone,” says a Gatia official.

Chased out of the General Inspectorate of the Armed Forces, a victim of the mistrust of certain figures in the ruling junta, Gamou could appear to have been sidelined. Don’t be fooled, says Bencherif: “Thanks to all the military feats with which he has distinguished himself since 1992, he remains a major player in Mali, as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger”.

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