The leaders of a secessionist rebel group and an Islamist force, Bilal Ag Acherif and Iyad Ag Ghali, signed an agreement to work together in May to defend the creation of an independent state in northern Mali.
These two men – both Tuareg from northern Mali – are playing a key role in the country’s power struggles. Once rivals for the Tuareg leadership, Bilal Ag Acherif and Iyad Ag Ghali have brokered an uneasy alliance.
Young and unknown among Tuareg leaders before becoming secretary-general of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) in October 2011, Bilal Ag Acherif has established a reputation for determined leadership and skilful negotiations. As leader of the Tuareg separatist group that declared an independent state in April, he faces the combined wrath of the fractious political class in Bamako and several regional leaders – some of whom want his state overthrown by force.
Born in the Kidal region of northern Mali in 1977 into the noble Ifoghas group of Tuareg (a distinction he shares with Iyad Ag Ghali), he left Mali for Libya in 1993, initially to study political science. He returned to Mali in 2010 speaking fluent Arabic and English but little French, unlike most of his fellow educated Malians.
It was the younger Tuareg who founded the MNLA who chose Ag Acherif as their leader. They rejected the older chieftains whom they see as selling out their cause in deals with Bamako. Ag Acherif’s stay in Libya has helped his relations with the MNLA’s military head, Mohamed Ag Najim, who also spent many years there.
A tall thin man with a thin black moustache, Ag Acherif is described as quiet, patient and intelligent by those who have spent time with him. Within the MNLA, he is seen as someone who can bring factions together and mediate disputes. In early June, he refused to bow to pressure from MNLA members outside Mali when they denounced the power-sharing deal that he signed with the jihadists of Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine (meaning Defenders of the Faith). Making such a deal work will test Ag Acherif ‘s political skills.
His rival, and current political partner, Iyad Ag Ghali, built up Ansar Dine after losing the campaign to become leader of the Ifoghas clan of the Tuareg and also the head of the MNLA. Although Ag Ghali lost the battle for the Tuareg leadership, a US embassy cable released by Wikileaks described him as “northern Mali’s undisputed power broker.”
Ag Ghali has been a senior leader in Tuareg rebellions since the 1990s. This time around, however, his group has moved away from calls for independence for northern Mali and is more interested in bringing sharia law to the region. Ag Ghali’s reliance on support from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has prompted Western and African hostility. He started working with fundamentalist groups in the 1990s when Tablighi Jamaat, a non-violent Islamist movement from Pakistan and India, started preaching in northern Mali.
Iyad Ag Ghali was born in the late 1950s in the Sahara Desert north of Kidal. Like many young men in northern Mali in the 1970s, he also left in search of a better life in Libya. He joined Muammar Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion and saw action in Chad and Lebanon before returning to Mali.
Many puzzle over Ag Ghali’s strategy. Some claim his professed religiosity is just a cover for his undaunted ambitions, yet there is little prospect that he would be able to jettison his relations with AQIM easily. Some reports claim that he has an Al Qaeda nom de guerre – Abou Fadil.
Unless Ag Ghali is able to cut a deal with the politicians in Bamako or the leaders in the Economic Community of West African States, a wider war looms. His shaky alliances and local affiliates could face military attacks from regional armies and perhaps bombing from France and the United States. Yet with his record of militia fighting and deal making, few would bet that Ag Ghali is heading for an inevitable defeat. ●●
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This article was first published in the July, 2012 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.
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