Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Tuareg are nomadic, pastoralist tribes spread across the Saharan regions of Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Within Libya, estimates of their population size vary widely, ranging between 17,000 and 560,000. Libyan Tuaregs live primarily in the west and south-west of the country, especially in the cities of Ghat, Awbari and Ghadames. They speak the Tamasheq languages, which belong to same linguistic branch as Tamazight. The Tuareg population of Libya includes both the long-term inhabitants of the area, and recent immigrants who arrived from Niger and Mali beginning in the 1970s.
Historically, Tuareg merchants and their camel caravans played a central in the trans-Saharan trade networks linking southern Saharan cities with the Mediterranean ports on Africa’s north coast. Under Gaddafi’s rule, Tuareg were often praised and glorified by the state. Unlike Imazighen, whose language rights were repressed, Tuareg were permitted to speak Tamasheq, which Gaddafi considered to be a dialect of Arabic.
Thousands of Tuareg came to Libya from Niger and Mali in the 1970s, in the wake of severe drought in the Sahel during that time period. Gaddafi welcomed the Tuareg and encouraged their immigration, often referring to them as “Arabs of the South” and emphasizing their qualities as fighters and defenders. Gaddafi also went on to support Tuareg rebellions in Niger and Mali and invested in their regions. Many Tuareg were incorporated in the Libyan national army in the 1980s and were able to obtain citizenship and access state services. Other Tuaregs, especially women and children, who did not hold Libyan nationality, experienced the same types of marginalization common to other minorities under Gaddafi. In 2005, Gaddafi opened his doors once again to Tuareg fleeing conflict in Niger and Mali, and many found employment in the petroleum industry.
Due to their good relations with the regime, some Tuareg sided with Gaddafi when civil war broke out in 2011 and provided protection to Gaddafi’s family and close allies. Gaddafi was also rumored to have recruited Tuareg mercenaries from Niger and Mali to fight against the rebels. As a result, Tuareg were marginalized and treated with suspicion after the fall of Gaddafi. This is despite the fact that many Tuareg in fact opposed Gaddafi and his treatment of minorities, both before and during the revolution. Many were also victims of the conflict, with the Society for Threatened Peoples reporting that 500 Tuaregs from Ghadames had sought refuge in Algeria in September 2011.
Tuareg have faced discrimination and racist harassment in post-2011 Libya due to the perception that they were Gaddafi loyalists. Together with other minorities in Libya, they are seeking a greater degree of participation in the political future of the country and guarantees that their cultural and linguistic rights will be respected. Like the Imazighen, Tuareg were granted only two seats on the Constitutional Drafting Committee and joined the Imazighen in their boycott of the process. Draft versions of the Constitution released since 2015 have recognized Tuareg culture and language as important parts of Libya’s heritage, but have fallen short in offering true protections to the community from discrimination and other abuses of their rights. UNESCO has classified the language of the Tuareg as ‘definitely endangered.’
Lack of documentation is another ongoing concern in the Tuareg community. According to some estimates, approximately 14,000 Tuareg do not hold citizenship or official papers. Since Libya’s 1954 citizenship law required applicants to prove that their mother, father, grandmother or grandfather was born in Libya, many of the semi-nomadic Tuareg could not apply for citizenship due to their frequent movement across the borders between Libya, Algeria, Niger and Chad as well as lack of documents proving their origin.
Recently, the Tuareg have been embroiled in conflict with the Tebu in the southern town of Awbari, driven by disputes over oil and water resources and control of the lucrative smuggling trade in arms, drugs and migrants. Beginning in September 2014, clashes between militias from the two communities led to the displacement of 18,500 people, most of whom were women, children and the elderly. The two communities signed a ceasefire brokered by Qatar in November 2015, although sporadic clashes continued. IDPs began returning to the town, despite the fact that homes, infrastructure and services remained destroyed or heavily damaged; in May 2017 the conditions of the agreement were finally implemented with the withdrawal of militias from both sides from the town.
Updated July 2018