Patriots boast of their affiliation with a homeland. The desert dweller boasts of his affiliation with non-existence. For the Tuareg, the desert is a paradise of non-existence (recall Ibrahim Al-Koni's Anubis: A Desert Novel and Gold Dust).
In the wake of "Operation Serval” (Wild Cat), the ongoing French military operation in Mali to oust Islamic militants from the Sahel-Sahara region, the Tuareg and their decades-long territorial claims are being ignored. Yet the Tuareg are at the very heart of the Malian crisis. In fact, they are the ones who triggered it.
For decades the Tuareg have been in conflict with the Malian authorities. Rooted in ethnic and political demands, their “rebellion” reached a turning point last year when in sweeping military operations in Northern Mali, the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad) defeated the Malian army and proclaimed the "independence of Azawad."
The “liberation” of Northern Mali was an unprecedented humiliation for the Malian troops and their commanders. Never before had the Malian army suffered such a defeat at the hands of the Tuareg “rebels." Humiliated and abandoned by Bamako, they mutinied and deserted their positions, triggering the military coup by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo.
In the “re-conquest” of their ancestral territories, the MNLA was joined by armed Islamist extremists, particularly by the fighters of the Jihadist Ansar Dine led by veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Unfortunately for the MNLA, Ansar Dine had a different agenda and the Tuareg war of liberation was hijacked by Islamist groups fighting for Sharia law rather than independence.
The Islamist agenda
Dissension soon broke out between the MNLA and Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups of the coalition — the Movement for the Uniqueness and the Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Having driven the MNLA from power and taken military as well as political control of the region, Ansar Dine imposed Sharia law in its most radical interpretation, cutting limbs, flogging and stoning in public and imposing the veil on the local population.
The imposition of Sharia law in Northern Mali turned to be just the tip of the iceberg when Islamists started moving further south. It was their threatening advance on Bamako that prompted French and international intervention in the form of “Operation Serval.”
The Islamist extremist groups have been present in northern Mali for over a decade. From their base in the Tegharghar Mountains and the surrounding vast desert plains, AQIM and its splinter groups had turned the Sahel region into a “hotbed of terrorism.”
As the battle of the French army and its African allies — namely troops from ECOWAS — in the Sahara desert is getting harder, analysts believe that “Operation Serval” needs “help on the ground” not only to “dislodge” AQIM and its allies, but also to prevent the insurgents from regrouping in the desert.
Despite the position taken up by officials in Bamako against the Tuareg, many experts are adamant that the MNLA could be the key players in this new “war on terrorism." They are in fact, like Pierre Boilley, director of the Paris-based CEMAF (Centre d’Études des Mondes Africains) recently said, “important partners to Bamako.”
Pierre Boilley is not alone in this assessment. Other “experts” believe that without the MNLA, the war against terrorism in the region is doomed to failure, for political as well as logistical reasons.
Like the shifting dunes of the desert, the complex and shifting landscape of political alliances could well once again tip the balance of power. Soon after parting with Ansar Dine, the MNLA confirmed they could be involved in operations against terrorism by declaring “Clearly,we are ready to go to war against our former allies, provided it is not used to restore the status quo ante, that is to say the state's control in the north.”
The Tuareg were betrayed but not defeated.
Their claims remain intact as they declare “Foreign armed intervention against terrorist groups should not allow the Malian army to cross the line between Azawad and Mali before the political settlement of the conflict between them.”
Indeed, MNLA support could be a valuable relief to the international offensive against AQIM, argues Philippe Hugon, research director in charge of the Africa Institute of International and Strategic Relations. Hugon firmly believes "Their (MNLA) support and knowledge of the terrain are essential to the Malian army and the international force." Later, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister admitted: "We (France) have working relationships with the MNLA."
Hugon’s argument refers to proverbial Tuareg navigational skills in the Sahara. They know the terrain more than anyone else. The French military is also well acquainted with the region, thanks to their military archives, but as the Al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants have now retreated to the remote Ifoghas Mountains near the Mali-Algeria border, the French will have to rely on Tuareg skills.
The Tuareg problem
The main objective of this new “war on terrorism” is to rid northern Mali, and by extension the entire Sahel-Sahara region, of militant Islamist groups, and the French intervention is not intended, at least for now, to deal with the Tuareg problem.
The “Tuareg problem” has existed since the French left their colonies in West and North Africa, but Malians — like their neighbours — would like to believe there is no such problem.
The general perception throughout the Sahel-Sahara region is that he MNLA is but a group of “gun welding bandits, drug traffickers who are using Islamic jihad to gain support from the Muslim world.”
Based on media reports, many continue to believe that the MNLA is a result of the ouster of Gaddafi and the collapse of the Libyan state.
To put the record straight, the MNLA was neither born in September 2011 nor in January 2012.
The MNLA is the outcome of a long process initiated, nurtured and developed since Mali's independence in 1960. Some Tuareg would even say that it started back in 1958 when France was organising the “independence” of its colonies, namely Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Since prehistoric times, Tuareg ancestral tribal territories stretch from Mauritania to Libya, passing by Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, northern Mali and northern Niger. If in Niger, Tuareg ancestral land is Ténéré, in Mali, it is Azawad.
Misperceptions and truths
Let us not delve into the many nicknames sociologists and anthropologists have dressed up the Tuareg with, such as the “blue men” because of the indigo colour of their clothes that fades on their skin, or the “Christians of the Desert” because of the Teneghelt, the very special silver gem in the form of a “cross” that is exclusively worn by Tuareg men. For the Tuareg, the Teneghelt indicates the four cardinal directions and it is passed downfrom father to son at puberty evoking the eternal words: "My son, I give you the four directions of the world, because we do not know where you will go to die.”
Despite this wrongly attributed nickname, the Tuareg are Muslims and wear around their neck, next to the Teneghelt, a small leather box containing words of the Quran.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the romanticised nicknames they have been dressed up with for hundreds of years, the Tuareg remain warriors, ready to fight for their freedom, their land and their “family.”
In the past, Tuareg society was divided into casts that included “nobility” and “vassals.” Today, this class division is something of the past, but the Tuareg remain proud of their ancestry and their “family,” especially if they are the offspring of famous “noble” chiefs.
Regardless of the diversity of the “families” that form the Tuareg nation, regardless of their well known belligerent nature and in the face of the many attempts by the French colonial authority and later by Gaddafi to divide them, they have never fought against each other.
The Tuareg have lived in North Africa since prehistoric times. Nomadic, they moved along desert tracks from well to well and from pasture to pasture. They have always travelled with their caravans the vast stretch of the Sahel that extend from Mauritania to Libya, passing by Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, northern Mali and northern Niger.
The impact of decolonisation
When granting independence to their colonies North Africa and Sahel colonies in the early 1960s, the French colonial authorities shaped the borders of these countries, leaving aside all ethnic and cultural sensitivities. In the process, they carved the Tuareg territories, ceding Azawad, the century-long claimed Tuareg lands, to Mali.
Under the newly “independent” Mali of President Modibo Keita, the very land on which the Tuareg nomads grazed their herds was taken away from them and redistributed to sedentary farmers. Emulating the decision of their former colonial masters, the Malian leaders ignored the cultural and traditional claims of the Tuareg.
The first Tuareg rebellion against Bamako in 1963 was quickly crushed by the Malian government. To add insult to injury, the rebels were massacred in public, in front of their women and children who were forced to “applaud” the killing of their own. This trauma would never fade from the collective memory of the Tuareg. It even transcended borders to reach the Tuareg of Niger.
Many of the young boys who had witnessed the massacre of their elders took the roads to exile. Later they joined the military camps of Gaddafi, when in 1972 Big Brother decided to create the Islamic Legion as a “tool to unify and Arabise the region.” Though Gaddafi’s definition of “Arab” was very broad and included the Tuareg of Mali and Niger, as well as other nations such as the Zaghawa of Chad and Darfur (Western Sudan), it was an initiative based on Gaddafi’s dream of creating the Great Islamic State of the Sahel.
Composed mostly of immigrants from poorer Sahelian countries, namely Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania, the Islamic Legion included also Pakistanis who had been recruited in 1981 with the false promise of civilian jobs. Once in Libya, they were all recruited by Gaddafi and provided with inadequate military training.
Drought and famine
Political and social marginalisation of the Tuareg was not the only cause of their rebellion. Every 10 years, in 1963, 1973 and 1983, severe drought decimated the herds of the Tuareg and forced them to move into the cities as “refugees”. The well documented famines of 1974 and 1984 have also increased frustration and furthered alienation.
Though it could be argued that drought and famine affected also the other ethnic groups of Northern Mali, such as the Bambara and the Songhai, for the already marginalised Tuareg, famine was one too many a predicament, and once again many young Tuareg took the road to exile and joined Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion.
In the 1990 rebellion, Tuareg of both Mali and Niger rebelled and claimed autonomy for their traditional homeland. After a few successes, the repression against the Tuareg was terrible. Having opted for “total war” against “the rebels,” Bamako sent airplanes, armoured vehicles and army elite troops to “cleanse” the region. Once again, wells were poisoned, herds of camels decimated, civilians massacred.
Two years later, with diplomatic interference from both Algeria and France, the National Pact of 1992 was signed. It stipulated the integration of the Tuareg in the civil service and the Malian army. It also included “promises” for the decentralisation of power and the construction of a trans-Saharan highway linking the three northern regions. These commitments were guaranteed by Algeria and France. With the exception of a few Tuareg recruited into the Malian army, “nothing materialised effectively” says Mossa Ag Attaher, the official spokesperson of the MNLA for Europe.
The Tuareg never made “alliances” with any political, social or religious entity. They insist there was no alliance between Tuareg and Libya. They had taken sanctuary in Libya after their own numerous rebellions were crushed and if they were getting “military training” in Libya it was only in the hope to “liberate Azawad.”
Observers say that when Colonel Gaddafi's luck “began to turn south,” the Tuareg picked up the spoils of war around them — mostly weapons and ammunition — and headed in the same direction, straight into the deserts of northern Mali, where AQIM was already operating.
The only alliance the MNLA made was with radical Islamic groups last year, and for many Tuareg that proved “disastrous” for their aspirations of independence.
The MNLA soon realised that their alliance with the fighters of AQIM and other radical Islamist groups, would lead them astray and far from achieving the objective they have been fighting for over the past five decades: the creation of an independent Azawad Tuareg state.
This is exactly what happened, but MNLA recovered quickly and last December (2012) they began “peace talks” with the Malian authorities and even changed their claim of “independence” to an “autonomous” Azawad.
Moussa Acharatoumane, a founding member of the MNLA, is adamant when he says the MNLA has to defend its people and its territory and “if this war (Operation Serval) is to bring in the Malian government to reoccupy our lands, then we reject it.”
The Tuareg leader knows that military intervention cannot be the solution to the political problems that exist in Azawad.
The MNLA want a “peaceful settlement” to their conflict with Bamako. They have been “fooled” many times by signing fruitless pacts and agreements. What they are looking for now is the assurance that a peaceful settlement of the conflict figures on the agenda of the Malian authorities and that it would be effectively materialised in declaring Azawad a Tuareg autonomous territory.
Neither France nor its African partners can force the MNLA to the negotiating table. Such a move would be rightly regarded as an “unacceptable interference in the affairs of a sovereign state” by Bamako.
Have the Tuareg been “duped” once again?