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Meet Nina Wallet Intalou, Female 'Strongman' Of The Tuareg Rebellion In Mali

Exiled in neighboring Mauritania, this 49-year-old exiled firebrand and leader of the Tuareg insurgency calls on the West to accept their demands for independence from Mali, and to get involved in fighting off Islamists in her homeland.

Tuareg independence fighters in Mali, holding up the Azawad flag (Magharebia)
Tuareg independence fighters in Mali, holding up the Azawad flag (Magharebia)
Isabelle Mandraud

NOUAKCHOTT - All different kinds of visitors can be found waiting to speak to Nina Wallet Intalou at her home in the coastal capital city of Mauritania. One particular day last week, there was a young colonel of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) recovering from a battle injury, a French scholar, political supporters, journalists, and diplomats yearning for information.

When it was my turn to talk to her, after I'd crossed the courtyard where an Azawad flag was flying (the flag is a yellow triangle and three stripes, green, red and black), she led me to a quiet room and offered me a seat on a sofa – and a quick dose of straight talk. "We want independence, or a federation with a referendum in five or ten years – not autonomy," she said. "That would mean going back, and we are tired."

Three months after the beginning of the Tuareg rebellion that led to the partition of Mali and the declaration of independence of the northern part of the country, Azawad (which no state has recognized), talks have officially started between the independence movement and the Bamako authorities.

The negotiations are particularly tricky since the jihadists of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and their allies have taken advantage of the Tuareg uprising to take the lead on the ground. They now control the main cities of the North: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. But after a first meeting with the NMLA leaders, late at night, Tiébilé Dramé, the envoy of the new interim Mali President Dioncounda Traoré, has drawn a conclusion: "Nina is the strongman of the group."

AQIM and our culture

A member of the Executive Bureau of the NMLA (most of whose members live in exile here in Nouakchott), Nina Wallet Intalou, 49, is a key figure of the movement. She is also the only woman of the group. Wrapped in a shiny black malafa, the traditional Sahara veiling dress, and smoking a cigarette, she smiles, trying to conceal her concern about the possibility of a reverse: "AQIM is occupying our land," she said. "Even men are not allowed to smoke any more. They are fighting our culture and our identity. Mali has never done anything against them. They want to erase us, with the complicity of Algerian authorities."

Her father was a top nurse in the military from the Idnane tribe. Raised between Kidal, Gao and Mopti, the activist moved to Ivory Coast in 1984, aiming to raise awareness about the Tuareg cause among her African brothers. There, she married a rich businessman, with whom she had three children, and resumed her studies. After graduating in Public Law, she set up a construction business at the age of 26, leading 250 employees and holding the monopoly on the cleaning of phone booths in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital.

After divorcing from her husband, she returned to northern Mali. She was elected Mayor of Kidal in 1997, but could never exert power. "Islamists were starting to settle in the region, and they didn't want a woman to rule a city," she said. "At the time, most of them were from Pakistan and were beginning to create the katiba combat units. Algerians only came in 2003." As a consolation prize, Alpha Oumar Kondaré, then Mali President, offered her a position of local councilor.

Hating Gaddafi

It is said that the elegant and ambitious Nina, twice divorced and the recipient of a Women of Excellence Award in the US, has had famous lovers, such as her brother-in-law Félix Houphouët-Boigny or Muammar Gaddafi. From 1998 onwards, she paid several visits to Tripoli to meet with Tuaregs from Mali working for the former Libyan leader. When I asked her about this, she took offense at the suggestion: "Well, for sure I have never been his mistress! I felt a deep hatred towards the man, seeing how he used the Tuaregs to fight in Chad and elsewhere. Gaddafi fooled them by pretending they were part of the Libyan army, but the reality is they were ill-treated."

A close aide to the military leader of the NMLA Mohamed ag Najim, she nurses a similarly strong hatred towards Malian Tuareg Iyad ag Ghali, who has become the leader of the radical Islam group Ansar Eddine, an ally organization to AQIM. "In 1990 during the first Tuareg revolt, he was our leader," she said. "Then he wanted to become the General Secretary of the NMLA, but we said "No" because he already had links with AQIM. I don't know if it is out of his beliefs or out of opportunism – probably both."

Nina Wallet Intalou now turns her attention to the international community, and her anger suddenly explodes. "Western powers have to get involved and give us the means to act," she declared. "Don't they spend millions to free their hostages? For months, we have been told that we will get help, but we got nothing. Nothing! And yet we have oil, we have uranium, but we are left in the claws of these people!"

The NMLA leader continues, "I have information from Timbuktu that jihadists have opened a military camp there. They hand over weapons and vehicles to young people. Someone who was riding a donkey ends up driving an SUV," she said. "This is how they bamboozle people."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Magharebia

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