Months on from the outbreak of deadly political turbulence in Mali, the situation in the rebel-held North of the country appears to be worsening.
As many predicted, the lose alliance between the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Al-Qaeda linked Islamist forces, has well and truly broken down, sparking a fresh front of violence.
The MNLA had partaken in an uneasy marriage with Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), in order to force government troops from Northern Mali in a rebellion the was given fresh impetus by arms and fighters flooding over the Libyan border after the fall of Gadaffi. However, whilst the MNLA’s goal is an independent state of Azawad, the Islamists seek to use territorial gains as a springboard to create an Islamic state based on Sharia law throughout the whole of the country. Scores were killed this week as the two ideologies diverged further and the MUJAO forcefully seized control of the town of Gao from the MNLA.
These clashes came on top of protests from local citizens against the rebel occupation as a whole. After a popular local councillor was killed, youths took to the streets where two were shot dead by rebel gunmen. It remains unclear exactly which group opened fire, but the killings have only fuelled resentment. Beyond this there is a particular anger in the areas where Sharia law has already been imposed – reports have emerged of women being forced to wear veils, cigarettes being banned and non-conformers being publicly flogged.
To add an extra layer of uncertainty, a number of local militias some of whom may be acting as proxies for the shaky central government, have joined together in a united front against both the MNLA and the Islamists. Meanwhile the government itself has refused to rule out further use of force by the regular army and talk of a potential ECOWAS/UN intervention continues.
Of course, the latter is driven at least in part by the domestic concerns of other ECOWAS members: refugees flooding into Niger and Burkina Faso are overwhelming the famine-struck states’ limited resources, whilst the Nigerian government is understandably worried by the prospect of Islamist-controlled territory so nearby, as it struggles to battle to Boko Haram insurgency at home.
This combination of rival rebel groups, proxy militias, restless citizens and strong regional interests creates a toxic political blend, which is unlikely to fade anytime soon.