Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Tuareg pastoralists are indigenous to three African countries: Algeria on the northern side of the Sahara, north-eastern Mali and central and northern Niger. There are negative connotations associated with the term Tuareg, an Arabic word meaning ‘the abandoned of God’, and they call themselves, Kel Tamashek, the people who speak Tamashek. Tamashek is related to ancient Libyan. The greatest number of Tuaregs, around one million, live in Niger, mostly south and west of Air Massif, with smaller populations in Algeria, Mali and Libya.
Tuareg society is highly stratified and consists of several castes: nobles; imajeren (‘the proud and free’); imrad (‘free but subordinate’); ineslemen, the religious caste; and ikelan, slaves who today live in neo-peonage, tending the palm groves and vegetable gardens of their masters. Inadin are an artisan caste of silversmiths living outside regular Tuareg society, which looks down upon their lifestyle. They wander from Tuareg encampment to encampment, also serving as fortune tellers and medics. Additionally, the Tuaregs are split into various tribes: the Kel-Air, Kel-Gress, Iwilli-Minden, and the Immouzourak.
Tuaregs began a continuous migration south-west in the seventh century with the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, arriving in Niger from the eleventh century onward. As the result of intense population pressure from this continuous migration they pushed resident Hausa communities southward and overran more sedentary groups. Extremely independent, Tuaregs formed a number of sultanates and converted to Islam but retained pre-Islamic customs.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Tuaregs extended control over desert trade and led resistance to French rule, and in the early twentieth century instigated a number of rebellions. At independence several top Tuareg chiefs in Niger and Mali attempted to form a federation to keep themselves outside the political control of the ‘black south’ but unlike in Mali, this agitation was not sustained in Niger.
In the 1970s Niger began mining for uranium in territory traditionally claimed by Tuaregs while they were largely ignored in relief and recovery efforts during the droughts of that decade. Libya tried in 1980 to foment sub-nationalist feelings among Tuaregs in Niger following a diplomatic break with Niamey and a number of Tuareg civil servants were enticed to Tripoli.
After the drought of 1984-5 several thousand Tuaregs from Mali and Niger sought alternative pastures to the north of the Sahara, while others abandoned pastoralism altogether. In 1990 Tuaregs mounted a rebellion in the large northern province of Agadez that was repressed by the military. A renewed rebellion emerged in 1992 with Toubou militias also taking up arms against the government. A 1995 peace agreement based on the government’s agreement to decentralize political power did not end the low-level conflict. Clashes with Tuaregs continued, and there were two additional peace agreements in 1997 and 1998. Following the 1999 elections, tensions between the government and Tuaregs eased somewhat, although there were violent incidents between Toubou and Tuaregs in 2003.
There remained a state of high tension between the government and the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) – a Tuareg-led armed group, formed in 2007, which also includes members of other disenfranchised ethnic communitiees including Peulh and Toubou – including deadly fire-fights with government forces. The MNJ repeatedly declared northern Niger as ‘a war zone’ and attempted to target the region’s uranium extraction industry, including an attack on installations at Imou-Araren in April 2007 and the kidnapping of a Chinese contractor in July 2007. The MNJ also accused the uranium sector, spearheaded by the French conglomerate Areva, of long-time neglect of the environment and of the safety and interest of local, largely Tuareg, populations. Clashes between the MNJ and government forces in mid-2008 cost anywhere between 17 and 26 lives, bringing to nearly 300 the total number of those killed since the rebellion began. In July 2008, MNJ leader Aghaly Ag Alambo demanded that 20-30 per cent of all uranium revenue in Niger be distributed to the northern region.
In 2009, internal divisions within the movement appeared, with some members rejecting Ag Alambo’s leadership. Nevertheless, peace talks brokered by Libya achieved some success in achieving a disarmament agreement between rebels and the government. This, together with some conciliatory measures from the Niger government, helped reduce conflict with Niger security forces. Nevertheless, in the ensuing years Tuaregs continued to struggle with drought, limited access to public services, as well as insecurity and the threat of violence from armed groups active near the Mali border.
While Niger shares some characteristics with Mali, there are important differences. Although Niger’s Tuaregs have suffered marginalization in the past, many of them live interspersed alongside other ethnicities throughout the country and have a long history of coexistence with these other groups. Though Niger does have a history of armed Tuareg rebellion, violent separatism has not taken hold to the extent seen in neighbouring Mali, where the state response to Tuareg unrest was primarily security-oriented. In Niger, however, the authorities have reportedly taken some steps to address Tuareg claims of exclusion.
Since 2011, for instance, Niger has had a northern Tuareg Prime Minister. Decentralization has given Tuaregs access to positions in local administrations. Finally, though there is still a long way to go before their grievances are fully addressed, the peace process with former Tuareg rebels in Niger has placed more of an emphasis on socio-economic reintegration, poverty reduction and inclusion. Cooperation between the state and former Tuareg rebels in areas of mutual benefit, for example joint efforts in demining, has also helped to improve relations, though some issues remain.
Nevertheless, resentment towards Tuaregs from sedentary and southern populations remains. Furthermore, the marginalization of Tuaregs is likely to be aggravated by the continuing desertification of the Sahel, a process likely to continue as global warming begins to bite. Changing rainfall patterns in Niger are contributing to worsening desertification, resulting in massive losses in livestock and food insecurity for Tuaregs. Against a backdrop of persistent poverty and insecurity, access to education and other services is still limited. In addition, Tuareg civilians close to the border with Mali have borne the brunt of the on-going insecurity afflicting their neighbour: in September 2018, for instance, more than 20 Tuaregs were killed by armed men believed to be militants operating in Mali, the latest in a series of violent incidents during the year.
Tuareg society remains highly socially stratified, with a caste-like hierarchy that includes descent-based slavery. Despite being criminalized since 2003, slavery persists in Niger and is particularly prevalent among Tuaregs, as well as Maure and Peulh, with thousands still believed to be trapped in conditions of slavery. The majority are born into slavery and while identifying as Tuareg, many are descended from African communities enslaved by Tuareg raiders generations before. Without rights or recognition, their situation is characterized by abuse, exploitation and sexual assault. For young girls, in particular, the practice of wahaya – the sale of a slave as a ‘fifth wife’ – persists and is predominantly carried out among Tuaregs, with many sold to wealthy Hausa families.