Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Tuareg are semi-nomadic herders and traders living in Northern Mali and across its borders in Niger see entry on Tuareg in Niger), Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. They are descended from Berbers of North Africa and speak a Berber language: Tamasheq, calling themselves Kel Tamasheq. They practice Sunni Islam, often in syncretic form, incorporating traditional beliefs.
Tuareg are believed to have migrated from today’s Libya in the 7th century CE, under pressure from Arab invaders. As semi-nomadic herders, traders and agriculturalists, they had some resistance to recurring drought. Due to their prevailing nomadism, the Tuareg never developed centralized leadership, instead operating in kels, a kind of loose political confederation.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tuareg captured black Africans as slaves. The Tuareg resisted the French military after its arrival in 1880, but succumbed to French rule in 1898. The French taxed their trade, confiscated camels for use by the military, and attempted to end the Tuareg’s nomadic lifestyle. The political repression and economic hardship brought on by drought led to a Tuareg revolt in 1917, but the French quelled it. French administrators subsequently confiscated important grazing lands while using Tuaregs as forced conscripts and labour – and fragmented Tuareg societies through the drawing of arbitrary boundaries between Soudan (Mali) and its neighbours. Yet French interest in the Saharan zone was fleeting, leading to false expectations among the Tuareg for an autonomous state, Azawad. This expectation carried into independent Mali.
In the 1960s Malian Tuareg attempted to ally themselves with Algeria but were brutally repressed by the regime of President Modibo Keita. Yet more devastating to the Tuareg was the drought that began in 1968, worsened in 1972 and 1973, and lasted through 1974. From 1972-1974, around 40 per cent of the country’s goat, sheep and cattle herds were lost, with the greatest impact on the Tuareg. Many were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyles and move to cities, refugee camps, or into neighbouring countries. The government of Moussa Traoré squandered much of the international foreign aid sent to relieve the crisis. Throughout the 1980s, including another period of severe drought and famine from 1983-1985, the Trouré regime continued to neglect the Tuareg and treat their communities with hostility. Some Tuareg fled the difficult conditions for Libya, where some young Tuareg trained with the Libyan army or at Libyan guerrilla training camps. Some of these Tuareg returned at the end of the decade, and some of them were armed. In 1990, Tuareg separatists struck at government facilities in the city of Gao, and heavy-handed reprisal attacks by the Malian military fanned the flames of the rebellion. The reprisals also sharpened the ethnic dimension of the conflict, as many of the poorly trained soldiers sent to fight the Tuareg were of the Songhai and related Zarmaci tribes. A January 1991 cease-fire with Tuareg rebel factions, brokered by Algeria, soon fell apart.
The government of Alpha Oumar Konaré, elected in 1992, made coming to terms with Tuareg rebels in the north one of its main priorities. Konaré made numerous concessions to the Tuareg, including 1992 reparations and enhanced regional self-governance. Nevertheless, the rebellion continued with sporadic clashes. Tuareg continued to feel alienated from the rest of the country, as many black Malians considered them Arabs or Libyans, and resentment lingered over historical memory of Tuareg enslavement of blacks. In 1994, Libya, which was also sponsoring rebellions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, backed a faction of Tuareg rebels who again attacked Gao. The Malian army responded, as did a Songhai para-military organization – the Ganda Koy, and Mali appeared to be at the brink of a civil war. The Konaré government, however, responded to Tuareg complaints by improving training of undisciplined and dangerous military units operating in the north and improving the communication between the military and civil society organizations. The government spoke not only with the Tuareg, but also with Songhai and other tribesmen in conflict with the Tuareg, in an effort to convince them to disband their para-militaries. A new peace agreement was reached in 1995, and a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme begun in 1996. The Malian military reduced its presence north of Timbuktu and former rebels were integrated into the military. With Belgian backing, the government engaged in an arms-for-development scheme in the north from 2000 to 2003.
Following the Tuareg revolt of 1990-96, a decade of uneasy peace was followed by a series of major outbreaks of insurgency and an eventual bid for independence. In early 2006, a former rebel, Ibrahima Ag Bahanga, deserted his post and attacked garrisons at Kidal and Ménaka under the auspices of a new rebel movement, the Democratic Alliance for Change. This led to an Algerian-brokered agreement in July 2006, providing for boosted development initiatives for the region (funded by the European Union), and reintegration of rebels into the Malian military. The agreement proved to be fragile, and kidnappings by Tuareg forces along with clashes with Malian soldiers continued to undermine ceasefire agreements .
As part of a peace process in Kidal in 2009, the government dismantled rebel bases – which generated fierce hostility from some Tuareg communities who complained of victimization by government troops – and incorporated Tuareg rebels into the Mali armed forces. Ag Bahanga’s forces, by then the Northern Mali Tuareg Alliance for Change, had been ousted from their bases in Mount Tigharghar the previous month, and were not included in the Kidal peace process.
From 2009 to 2012, the underlying resentment felt by Tuareg and other northern groups coincided with political factors to spark a rebellion against the Malian state, the declaration of the independence of the Azawad region, and the eventual retaking of the north by French and Malian forces.
On the economic side, development programmes negotiated as part of previous peace deals were regarded as having limited impact at best, or being diverted to corrupt officials and military suppression at worst. Tourism, once a major feature of the economy for Tuaregs and northern Mali in general, has declined in the face of kidnappings by militant groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The shadow economy, in particular cross-border smuggling of weapons and drugs, has provided one of the few sources of additional income for Tuareg groups, although this money has made little contribution to the regional economy. Meanwhile, these smuggling activities raise concerns about international security and corruption and cause resentment among the wider Tuareg population.
This disaffection with traditional politics contributed to the formation of groups with increasingly bellicose stances towards the government. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), formed in late 2011, brought together Tuareg leaders from the National Movement for Azawad (the MNA, formed by young Tuareg students and graduates the previous year), and more militant leaders of rebel groups. Many of these leaders were Tuareg who had left Mali in disappointment following the 1992 National Pact, and had been recruited by Ag Bahanga in Libya.
In spite of the unity claimed by the MNLA, divisions between rebel groups and the dominance of more extreme Islamist groups eventually became the undoing of the rebellion. The rebels advance south towards Bamako prompted the Malian government to request French support to halt the rebels.
The United States has viewed northern Mali as an area vulnerable to terrorism and has conducted training exercises with Malian forces and stationed Special Forces in the north. There is concern, both amongst secular Tuareg leaders and Western states anxious to prevent international terrorism, that AQIM (previously called the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC)), which has its roots in Algeria, aim to recruit from disaffected Tuareg. The GSPC were behind the 2003 abduction of 32 European tourists in the Mali-Algeria border area, and AQIM continued to conduct kidnappings from 2008 until 2012, when they became involved in the northern rebellion against the Malian government.
Tuaregs have faced persecution and reprisals, immediately prior to and following the retaking of the north by Malian and international forces, targeted as suspected rebels. Accusations of human rights abuses by both MNLA fighters and other groups, such as looting or rape, or the imposition of harsh Sharia punishments, have fuelled ethnic tensions with southerners or members of ethnic militias in the Malian army. The most immediate challenges faced by Tuareg are to try to re-establish normal lives and livelihoods, while militant groups continue to drive instability in remote regions.