Home / From the NMA to the NMLA: the Shift to Armed Struggle

From the NMA to the NMLA: the Shift to Armed Struggle

Noria Research

On 17 January, 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) declared war to the Malian State in the name of Azawad’s independence. Since Mali’s independence in 1960, several waves of rebellion started in the North of the country have taken place successively. In 1963, and later in 1990, the Malian forces had adopted a strategy of repression by terror, aiming mainly at civilians. A massive exile followed and a number of rebels returned to Libya where they had planned the 1990 rebellion and where Colonel Gaddafi had offered them jobs in his army. In 2006, a new rebellion led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga and Hassan Fagaga burst out in the Kidal region. These different waves of rebellion all used armed struggle to meet political ends. The rebellion of 2012 was different as the individuals who started the project were students who, at first, positioned themselves differently from the radical repertoires of action of the previous generations.

Thus in 2010, the National Movement for the Azawad (NMA) was born, a student movement, political and pacifist, that would become, by the end of 2011, the politico-military group called the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA). Was this use of arms the result of the intervention in Libya or of a longer process? How did this passage to political violence take place? It seems that the students became political through associative work and made the choice of violence when they were faced by the repression of the State. Nevertheless, the process that led them from a pacifist engagement in the student organizations to the implementation of an armed group implies the constitution of a network of grassroots solidarity, the construction of a common political project and the acquisition of organizational, military and financial skills.

Building a solidarity network

The founders of the NMA were individuals aged from 20 to 35. Until 1997, they lived in refugee camps in border countries or hidden in the bush with their families. As they were direct witnesses of the abuses committed by the Malian army, and grew up with the stories told by their parents, they maintained since childhood a relationship of mistrust towards the central State. From this time, the young activists of today share the same experiences of exile, fear, exclusion and violence, determining factors in the shift to armed struggle.

Contrary to their parents’ generation, when they obtained their baccalaureate, many of them went to study in the capital. Once in Bamako, the students, who were already embedded in friendship and family relationships, met in associations based on their locality of origin1. These associations aimed at creating a sociability space and leading activities favoring the development of the Northern regions. These places of conviviality rapidly became organized networks within which the students acquired a collective discipline to successfully lead cultural, sports and intellectual projects. The meetings were weekly, as well as fee collection, and the budget was completed by the organization of concerts. As they aspired to contribute to the development of their native region, the young graduates created debate spaces focused on concrete political issues: access to health services, the education of nomadic children, insecurity in the Northern regions or youth unemployment. For example, as they had suffered from the inaccessibility to first aid services, several associations supported the training of two or three nursing students. The issues at the core of their associative engagement thus allowed a response to situations that they faced in their native region. Far from being disconnected entities, these different associations mingled and met each year around an inter-regional soccer tournament. Stemming from these meetings, the student network was rendered official on 8 March, 2007, as a collective called “Afous-Afous” (“hand in hand” in Tamasheq). This collective aimed a bringing together the young Tuareg, Moor, Songhai and Peul people originating from the Northern regions around issues of education and the future of the youths. Chapters of the network were opened in the sub-region by members who were studying in Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Niger. Social networks such as Facebook and Skype, cheap and accessible at university, allowed them to maintain the bond.

The creation of a Movement

At this time, Bilal Ag Acherif, the current secretary general of the NMLA, pursued his economics studies and participated in similar student associations in Libya. With his fellow student Mohamed Ag Ghali, the current president of the political bureau of the NMLA, they took the initiative, when they returned to Mali, to meet the leaders of the associations based in Bamako. During this meeting, they discussed the creation of a political party that would respond to the aspirations of the Northern populations. Two student leaders, one a French-speaker, Mossa Ag Acharatoumane2, and the other an English-speaker, Bilal Ag Acherif, went to Europe to find external political support. Their trip coincided with a drought period in Northern Mali and the humanitarian emergency legitimated their action. In France, Belgium and Switzerland, they met with European Union diplomats, United Nations representatives, and exchanged with separatist political parties, notably with the leaders of Briton, Catalan and Corsican parties. When they returned from Europe, they organized a congress in Timbuktu to render the movement official. The student association networks in Bamako took charge of the funding of the congress, dealt with the administrative formalities and obtained access to the city hall facilities. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, their friends took care of organizing the logistics of hosting delegations from each association and from the chapters of the Afous-Afous collective in Morocco, Libya, Niger and Algeria. The leaders organized the coordination and the communication of the event: the ORTM, RFI3 and Al Jazeera were invited.

The State, which had never intervened in the associative activities of the students, was then opposed to the organization of the congress. The General Direction of State Security (DGSE/GDSS) threatened certain leaders with severe sanctions and kept them under close surveillance4. Even though certain members gave in to the threats and stayed in Bamako, the congress still took place in Timbuktu on 31 October and 1 November, 2010, with the authorization of the local governor. On the morning of 1 November, Mossa Ag Acharatoumane, who represented the movement for the media, was ordered to present himself at the local police station with Bobacar Ag Fadil, another congress participant. Later that morning, they were transferred to Bamako and locked up in the State security prison, officially under a car theft accusation.

The same day, in Timbuktu, the congress ended with the declaration of birth of the National Movement for the Azawad (NMA). When they faced the threats by the agents of the State before the congress, the organizers had planned that certain members would remain in Bamako. The fight for the liberation of their two friends was the occasion in which the students discovered that they could coordinate themselves and act together during emergencies. The night that followed the arrest, a website and a logo are created for the NMA. A memorandum, synthesizing the outcome of the Timbuktu congress, was diffused to all the national and international official institutions based in Bamako. Following this attempt to render their political movement official, the student organized, on 12 November, 2010, a sit-in in front of the Court of Appeal of Bamako, putting forward the violation of Malian law that prohibits that an individual be detained more than forty-eight hours without having access to a lawyer. The sit-in was immediately repressed; ten protesters were wounded, and another three were arrested. The two detained students were freed without trial eighteen days later.

The effects of repression

The media coverage of the repression made the movement popular with the young Tuareg people. The very evening of the arrest, the television channel Al Jazeera showed the photo of the arrested students and the declaration of creation of the NMA, followed by images of armed fighters from the rebellion led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga in 20065. According to the political leaders of the NMA, the use of force to face a student political initiative discredited Mali, which was then perceived as the “democratic model of West Africa”, and thus allowed to justify, in the eyes of the public opinion, the passage to armed struggle.

Within the movement, this series of repressive acts had a federating effect, and the debate on the political discrimination of Tuareg people resurfaced. The violent reaction of the State when confronted with the attempt to dialogue by the students pushed the families to support this educated generation in which they placed the hope for an appeased future. For the students, the repression reinforced the feeling of belonging to a stigmatized group that did not have access to the services of the State and became a symbol of injustice. Making the most of this wave of sympathy, the students led a political awareness campaign for the population. The aim was to constitute a social base for the NMA by using their extended family and friendship networks in the three Northern regions and the bordering countries. “We had a method that was different to all the methods used in the previous rebellions. First we did not start with weapons, we started by diffusing a political message, by creating awareness in the populations, by organizing them, organizing small meetings, organizing small conferences, writing letters, talking about everything that has happened and interacting with all the actors, the women, the young, the notables, the elected representatives, the intellectuals, the resource people, the former rebels. It was everyone that was concerned in society”6, explains Mossa Ag Acharatoumane. This new generation innovated by visiting the most remote encampments. It framed the population by using a variety of organizations, such as the Women Association of the Azawad.

The repression and the prohibition of the movement’s meetings fostered change in the internal organization by imposing a passage to clandestine functioning. From there on, the meetings all took place outside of Bamako and did not exceed twenty minutes. As a consequence of the new popularity of the NMA, the students implemented three committees: a liaison committee, a military committee and an information committee. The regional chapters of the associations became cells and their new functions were to provide monthly reports on the evolutions of the internal alliances, weapons, Malian soldiers and AQIM vehicles transfers. These indications were then classified by the liaison committee, a restricted group of young NMA leaders. This group detained all the information and worked especially on putting in common the skills of each generation. One ex-rebel from the 2006 events, who was integrated to the Malian army following the Algiers Accord, directed the military committee which aimed at holding secret meetings with the army personnel who could become deserters when the time came. The information committee was in charge of the awareness campaigns, the regional recruitment, and all the communications of the NMA, in the social networks as well as on the ground.

Building a discourse

The repression gave a concrete meaning to the movement’s discourses. It pushed the activists to transform the individual frustrations that they formulated in the associations into a political program. The students provided the cognitive elements to the struggle, drawing a map of the Azawad, creating a flag, offering a political project, writing down a common history and inventing a new term to designate the inhabitants of this territory: the Azawadis (Azawadiens).

The young active people at the core of the NMA then met at a congress (the Ohoud Congress) in April 2011, and divided the work into three commissions. The first was in charge of establishing a geographical map of the Azawad; to do this, groups of young people were sent to each border. Inkinane, a participant to the Ohoud congress, explains: « They went to ask the inhabitants where were the limits of the Tuareg command at the time, where were the Azawadi command at this time, where was it limited, where was it not. Where we have regions since the Tuareg confederation years, it is through that that we defined the map, that we knew our territory; it was here that we lived before the French came”7.

A second commission was in charge of the creation of the Azawad flag: each regional bureau of associations then transmitted their proposal. The choice was finally made in favor of a flag with three colored stripes: the black one symbolized “the massacres and the Malian oppression”, the green one the “greenery, freedom, independence”, the red one a “tribute to the martyrs who died for the Azawad”. The yellow triangle that overhangs over these three colors symbolized the desert and the mining riches of the territory. This flag was an immediate success and, in the weeks that followed, the association for the women of the Azawad opened two workshops to sew a number of flags of different sizes.

The last commission was in charge of defining the rules and institutions of the NMA. The congress thus constituted the birth of the consultative counsel, the revolutionary counsel and the political bureau. The consultative counsel formed an assembly of representatives made of opinion and religious leaders, and notables that joined under the initiative of the students following the state repression. The revolutionary counsel was in charge of “safekeeping and orienting the revolutionary ideology of the movement”8. The political bureau was defined as the executive organ of the NMA and had different functions, including the ones of the secretary general, the head of security and the head of communications.

The discourse that was elaborated and diffused during the awareness campaigns reflected the memorandum written by the students during the Timbuktu congress. The students gave their diagnosis of the social and economic situation in the Northern regions and presented the State of Mali as a foreign and enemy entity. The main themes were the insecurity, under-development and marginalization of these regions and their inhabitants. The presence of AQIM since 2003 and of groups of narco-traffickers was interpreted in terms of the incapacity of the State to secure the territory, the students qualifying their regions as “lawless zones”. They denounced the immobility of the State when faced with those groups; a suspicion of complicity between the State and the narco-traffickers was also brought up in the text. The marginalization was essentially illustrated by the absence of sealed roads, of means of transport, of telephone networks, by the lack of education, the very small health coverage and the absence of response from the State in periods of drought. This diagnosis reflected the social reality of the inhabitants of the North and the message became very popular. The memorandum formulated three main claims: the trial of the people responsible for the abuses against civilians since 1963, a inquiry on the international funds destined to development that they consider as constantly diverted by the agents of the State and the autonomy of the Azawad. The movement placed the latter, the core claim of the NMLA, in the framework of international law by using the norms tied to the rights of indigenous people9.

It was also through the memorandum that the students provided a common history of the people of the Azawad. The periods that they decided to use are essentially the sequences of rebellion-repression. They based themselves on the oral accounts of their elders and thus drafted a version of history that remained very close to the collective memory of the targeted population. The use of history had a triple function. It first justified, for the activists, the access to autonomy through the illegitimate character of the occupation of this territory by Mali. It then fitted their engagement in the historical struggle by mentioning the acts of the resistants of the Azawad, calling upon their duty towards the previous generations. Finally, it gave the inhabitants of Northern Mali a shared referential and responded to the needs of the young people at school that had noticed the absence of their community in the school programs. It was in this memorandum that the term Azawadi appeared for the first time, which translated a desire for a unifying territorial identification. The invention of this common term tended to render obsolete one of the state strategies denounced by the students that implied the use of ethnic and communitarian criteria to divide the inhabitants of the North and depoliticize their struggle. As a sign of its diffusion and its adaptation, this term rapidly evolved to become, under the influence of French, “Azawadien” and “Azawadienne”.

The shift to armed struggle

Although the decision for armed struggle was taken after the repression, its implementation needed military skills and financial resources that the students did not have. The concrete organization of the shift to violence was thus supported by preexisting structures.

Following the 1990 rebellion, certain rebels refused to be integrated to the Malian army and returned to Libya. Since their exile, this small group of military men was preparing for a future rebellion in the Azawad. These ex-rebels of 1990 did not have any relationship with Ibrahim Ag Bahanga before he started the 2006 rebellion, but they joined him after the first attacks. A few months later, during the Algiers Accord, this small group of rebels returned to Libya. Bilal Ag Acherif, who was studying in Libya, maintained ties with the group. He was also a very close friend of Mohamed Ag Nagim, a former Libyan army colonel and the current chief of defense staff of the NMLA. The small group of rebels based in Libya made the link between the student leaders and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. From November 2010, the latter showed a clear support in favor of the NMA, putting at their disposal his military gear, his men, and his weapons. Hassan Fagaga, lieutenant-colonel of the Malian army and ally of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, was informed. He then showed that he would be ready to act when the time came, along with other military staff and high-ranked officials from the Malian army, whom he informed.

The rebels of the previous generation supported the students in the management of the military and financial resources. The funding of the organization relied on a network of fee collection implemented in the 1990s. The current NMLA functioned on a micro-finance model based on individual fee collection from the entire diaspora which was friendly to the cause. This budget was essentially centralized by the women, who spread it on the ground in the form of small first necessity goods: fuel, clothes and food. Moreover, the students were communicating with the Tuareg people based in Libya. The transfers of men and arms needed the same safety measures and followed the same mode of functioning as the 1990 rebellion.

The shift to armed struggle and its internal functioning were the end result of a long process. This process implied a social base supported by a common societal project and was facilitated by the existence of a strong percentage of men already trained in weapon use – former rebels from 1990 and 2006, deserters of the Malian army, and Tuareg military men trained in Libya. Moreover, the multinational intervention in Libya gave direly needed resources to the initiators of the conflict: men and military means arrived by numbers in Northern Mali. The death of Gaddafi resulted in lower border controls and the Tuareg people, the last group to support the colonel, inherited a part of the Libyan artillery.

After several discrete meetings, the different groups met officially in Zakak on 15 October, 2011, to create the NMLA. This movement kept the same structure as the NMA; a political bureau, a consultative counsel and a revolutionary counsel. The political project remained the same, the status and the rules of the NMA were also maintained. The only innovations were the creation of statuses for the armed branch of the new party and the adaptation of the website and the logo of the NMA to its new acronym. The students used their knowledge of new medias and fed the communitarian websites with their films, photographs and articles. By doing this, they participated in putting in common the skills, an act which brought together different generations of rebels.

On 16 October, 2011, the NMLA published on its website its first official communication: “We are making a pressing call to the State of Mali to answer urgently by a dialogue to the political claims previously transmitted by the NMA”10. Three months after this call for political negotiation, on 17 January, 2012, the NMLA attacked the Menaka garrison and declared war to the Malian State.


  1. For example, ELLAY (association of the young students of Timbuktu), ASCUNK (association of scholars and academics of Kidal) and BJAM (Bureau for the young Arabs of Mali) ↩︎
  2. Current head of Human Rights at the NMLA ↩︎
  3. Office de radiodiffusion et télévision du Mali/Radiodiffusion and Television Office of Mali, Radio France International. ↩︎
  4. For example, Attaye Ag Mohamed, president of the ELLAY association of Timbuktu and current member of the communications cell of the NMLA, was ordered to present himself several times at the State services, and received, during the entire congress, even though he was in Bamako, anonymous phone calls signifying him that he was under surveillance and threatening him with a possible arrest. ↩︎
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msuTXzq-tJo ↩︎
  6. Interview with Mossa Ag Acharatoumane on 13/11/2013 in Paris ↩︎
  7. Interview with Inkinane on 11/12/2013 via Skype ↩︎
  8. Interview with Mossa Ag Acharatoumane on 13/11/2013 in Paris ↩︎
  9. Following the advice of certain diplomats and political leaders from the separatist parties mentioned above, the students relied on the notion established by the UN of « indigenous peoples ». This strategic decision enabled them to access particular rights, United Nations training and international funding, and to join an international network of minorities that feel endangered of acculturation within their States. ↩︎
  10. Extract from the first communication of the NMLA. URL : http://www.mnlamov.net/projet-politique/37-projet-politique/72-communique-nd-1-du-mnla.html ↩︎