Unrest in the Sahara
Who are the Tuareg?
Al Jazeera takes a look at the history of these nomadic desert people.
Last Modified: 14 Jul 2008 06:23 GMT

Tuareg are a minority in Niger, making up less
then 10 per cent of the population
The Tuareg are a nomadic people, descended from the Berbers of North Africa, who have existed for centuries in the Sahara and Sahel.

For centuries they participated in the trade of goods such as spices and dates - as well as in the more controversial slave trade - guarding the trade caravans that travelled through the desert and protecting the medieval Islamic cities of the region, such as Timbuktu (in modern-day Mali).

The common language among the Tuareg is known as "Tamasheq" and the predominant religion among Taureg is Islam.

Historically they have been referred to as the "blue men" of the desert because of their traditional blue turbans.

Where are the Tuareg found?

They are mostly found in Northern Africa, in the Sahara and Sahel regions - more specifically Mali and Niger.

Why has there been conflict?

The Tuareg have criticised the post-colonial governments of Mali and Niger, complaining of poor governmental representation and unequal distribution of resource.

They have also demanded greater representation in the army.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Tuareg lands suffered sever droughts, which devastated the people's livestock and threatened their traditional lifestyle. The droughts caused them to change their migratory patterns, bringing them into conflict with other ethnic groups, many of them farmers.

In recent years, the Tuareg have also taken issue with Niger's uranium extraction, claiming that the government must seek the permission of the people of the land before mining begins and should distribute the resulting wealth.

Could they really have their own state?

Although some Tuareg do envisage an independent territory called "Azawad" - comprised of northern Mali, northern Niger and part of southern Algeria - it is highly unlikely that the Tuareg could have their own state.

They are considered a minority at less than 10 per cent of the Niger's population and their critics have suggested the Tuareg's family loyalties would make it difficult for them to form a unified state.

Tuareg groups in Niger have effectively abandoned the idea.

Are the Tuareg still fighting?

The Niger government reached a peaceful agreement with the Tuareg to end a series of insurgencies in 1995, but another Tuareg rebellion was sparked in February 2007 when fighters from the Movement of Niger People for Justice (MNJ) attacked a number of military targets.

The government has dismissed the group as "bandits", accuses them of being in league with drug dealers and has allocated considerable funds to fight the insurgency.

There is some evidence to suggest Tuareg have been involved with smuggling items - including drugs and fake brand name goods - across the desert.

Who are the MNJ?

The MNJ says the government has failed to fulfil its peace deal obligations
The Movement of Niger People for Justice was formed by armed Tuaregs who felt the government had not honoured the 1995 peace deal that ended the first Tuareg rebellion.

They have demanded economic, political and environmental reforms from the government and condemned the international mining companies for their impact on the environment.

The group is thought to be led by Aghaly ag Alambo, a former fighter from the Front for the Liberation of Air and Azaouak, which fought the government in the 1990s.

Are the MNJ Tuareg?

The movement is predominantly made up of Tuareg, but other ethnic nomadic groups such as the Toubou and the Fulani have also joined the group.

What comes next?

After the renewed attacks of 2007 and the military's move to quell the MNJ, ongoing conflict has added to the Tuareg's already difficult existence.

Rights groups have warned the fighting has cost the lives of many civilians and affected the livelihood of many others.

The government has in the main backed away from negotiations and the MNJ appears intent on continuing its armed resistance.

Al Jazeera
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