What do the Tuareg want?

They are at the centre of the storm in Mali, but within this diverse group every shade of opinion can be found.

Almost all Tuareg bemoan the dearth of social and economic development in their homeland since the end of colonialism, the author writes [AFP]

What do the Tuareg want? A facetious and yet honest way to answer that question would be to find a person called ‘the Tuareg’ and ask him. You might as well find ‘the English’ or ‘the Japanese’ and ask them what they want while you are at it.

A nation or people rarely if ever think as one. In the case of the Tuareg, difference and disharmony is exacerbated by their vast desert habitat and dispersed nomadic lifestyle, both of which tend to place allegiance to blood and tribe above allegiance to nation or ideology and militate against collective thought or action.

It can be argued that the very notion of a people called ‘the Tuareg’ is an invention of 19th century explorers and anthropologists, who adopted this supra-tribal and alien (i.e. Arab) collective noun with which to group together the Amazigh or Berber speaking nomadic tribes of the southern Sahara.

It can be argued that the very notion of a people called ‘the Tuareg’ is an invention of 19th century explorers and anthropologists who adopted this supra-tribal and alien (i.e. Arab) collective noun with which to group together the Amazigh or Berber speaking nomadic tribes of the southern Sahara.,

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Before ‘Tuareg’ there were only different clans loosely affiliated by their language and cultural habits; Taitoq, Kel Ghela, Kel Ajjer, Kel Gress, Kel Fadey, Kel Ferwan, Ifoghas, Taghat Mellet, Iwellemeden, Chamanamas, Kel Antessar, Daoussahak – the list is long. And all these clans were further sub-divided into sub-clans. This historical backdrop, and the fact that the Tuareg share their living space with other ethnicities like the Arabs, Fulani and Songhoi, all of whom have their own layered clan structure, makes the Sahara one of the most complex places on earth for an outsider to understand.

Today, with the inevitable weakening of the old tribal ways of thinking, the Tuareg are made up of individuals with residual tribal allegiances, different levels of wealth and social position, different attitudes to religion, life and the world beyond their horizon.

Amongst the Tuareg of northern Mali, you will find every shade of opinion from diehard nationalist to convinced Islamist and heartfelt loyalist – to the Republic of Mali that is. The secular cadres and footsoldiers of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) still cling to their nationalist dream of complete independence from Mali, despite their dramatic loss of military superiority and advantage on the ground. The leaders of the Islamist militia Ansar Dine trust that Allah and his unbending law will put their world to rights. Loyalists like the Tuareg militia leader Alhaji Ag Gamou keep faith with the Republic of Mali and its promise of advancement for Tuareg social groups that were once firmly at the bottom of the tribal pile.

Disharmony and enmity between different Tuareg groups and individuals has always existed. At independence in 1960, Mali, Algeria and Niger effectively co-opted the French strategy of divide and rule to deal with their Tuareg populations, favouring and advancing ‘friendly’ tribal chiefs whilst curtailing the power of hostile ones.

When seething tensions in the north east of Mali burst into open rebellion in 1963, the two sons of the amenokal or chief of the noble Ifoghas clan who ruled in northeastern Mali, were on opposite sides of the argument. Intallah Ag Attaher favoured making peace with the Malians and finding an accommodation within the new socialist republic, whilst his brother Zeyd Ag Attaher sided with the rebels and paid for it by spending over a decade in one of the remotest prisons on earth, up near the salt mines of Taodenni in the far north of Mali.

Why did the Tuaregs rebel?

Perhaps, at this stage, it is worth giving a brief answer to the most essential of questions: why did the Tuareg of northeastern Mali rebel in the first place? Nina Wallet Intallou, an ex-Malian politician and member of the MNLA’s executive council, proffers the simplest of answers; because the new nation was a mistake. What she means is that the new borders of Mali divided the Tuareg of north-eastern Mali from the Arab and Berber dominated desert lands further north, with which they had deep economic, cultural and historical ties, and lumped them together with the sedentary black people of the south, with whom they had much less in common.

Many Tuareg could not see why the Bambara, Soninké and Malinké people of the south should impose their language, culture and socialist ideas on them, especially as these ‘blacks’ had never actually vanquished the Tuareg in battle, which, although painful, might at least have given their new overlords some kind of legitimacy. And, yes, racism was part of the mix as well. Some northern Tuareg and Arab leaders argued that they came from noble Cherifian lineages that went right back to the Prophet Mohammed and, as such, found the idea of being subservient to less ‘favoured’ southern blacks completely unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the new rulers of Mali, hundreds of kilometres down south in the capital Bamako, thought of the Tuareg as belligerent, racist, feudal, arrogant and lazy. They could not understand why these recalcitrant nomads refused to salute the new Malian flag and accept the government’s bright new socialist ideas, especially their modern ‘scientific’ collectivised farming methods or the secular school curriculum, all of which, the new leaders hoped, would drag the Tuareg kicking and screaming from their outmoded, ‘medieval’ way of life and into the 20th century.

Orphans of the Sahara

It was, in short, a dire mismatch. The first rebellion of 1963 and its brutal suppression by a paranoid and inexperienced Malian army ensured that relations between the central government and their far-flung nomads in the north got off to the worst possible start. The bitterness generated by the conflict was deepened by the terrible droughts of 1972-1973, during which up to 80 percent of the northern animal herds died and thousands of Tuareg families were forced to flee the country in search of food and work. The corrupt misappropriation of aid by government officials during the crisis only made things worse.

From about1985 right through to the signing of the National Pact in 1992 which signalled the official end of the great rebellion of 1990-1991, the Tuareg rebel movement was perhaps more unified, under the leadership of the then firmly secular and nationalist Iyad Ag Ghali, than it has ever been, before or since. But after the pact was signed, the movement split along tribal lines into a chaotic alphabet soup of different militias, some of which ended up actually fighting each other in open combat.

As the 1990s progressed, the new democratically elected Malian government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, an ex-soldier who many Tuareg accused of perpetrating atrocities against civilians during the rebellion, did little to honour the promises made in the pact and continued the policy of divide and rule in the north. Rebellion broke out again in 2006 and then again in January 2012. In fact, many Tuareg argue that the north has been in one constant state of rebellion, with periods of greater or lesser open armed conflict, since 1963.

Nonetheless, the status of the Tuareg within the Malian republic has undoubtedly changed over the years, whatever the ultra-nationalist Tuareg might say. When Mali threw out the military dictatorship of Moussa Traore and brought in multi-party democracy in 1992, a period of great hope and social dynamism in the country, the total isolation of the Tuareg was broken. Tuareg leaders were given representation in national politics, and for the first time ever, in 2002, a Tuareg was nominated prime minister. Even though many of the funds allocated to developing the north were embezzled, either by corrupt local leaders or central government officials, some of the money did get through and some schools, wells and clinics were built, although far too few in the eyes of those who continued to clamour for independence.

Tuareg clans who had been subservient to the warrior-nobility in colonial times, such as the Imghad (‘vassals’) or Bellah (‘slaves’) favoured the weakening of the old social hierarchies in the new Mali. It gave them the chance to climb up the social ladder and achieve both wealth and status, a redrawing of social boundaries that often angered old clan bigwigs.

Furthermore, many younger Tuareg, born after the years of drought and deprivation in the 1970s and 1980s were less driven by the notion that a future within Mali was impossible. They had, de facto, been Malian all their lives. Many had travelled to the south and learned at least a few words of Bambara. They listened to southern music and watched TV programmes made in Bamako. Whilst they still felt separate in many ways, that sense of alienation was weaker than it had been in their parents’ day.

But the bitterness and frustration remained. Most of the Tuareg rebel leaders in northern Mali are the “sons of ‘63” – in other words, men whose parents suffered great injustices in the uprising of 1963. Ghali Ag Babakar, the father of Islamist leader Iyad Ag Ghali, was killed in the uprising, as was the father of Mohammed Ag Najm, the military leader of the MNLA. Their hurt is still visceral and deep and so is their mistrust of the government in Bamako.

Islamism: A new element

Islamism, however, is an entirely new element in this story. Until the mid-1990s, no Tuareg leader had ever fought a rebellion in order to impose his brand of Islam on others by force. It was around 1995 that proselytising preachers from the Tablighi Jama’at, a peaceful Pakistani Muslim missionary organisation, started spreading their daw’ah or ‘summons’ throughout Mali. Iyad Ag Ghali, fascinated by their message, invited them up to Kidal in the northeast.

He was disillusioned by the fractiousness of Tuareg tribal politics and, although he does not belong to the sub-clan of the Ifoghas amongst whom the clan chief is chosen, he hoped to reinforce his prospects of becoming the first non-hereditary leader of the Ifoghas Tuareg. No one doubted his supreme talents as a military and political leader, but Ag Ghaly lacked legitimacy as a religious figure. He figured that an association with the ‘alien’ Salafi doctrines of the Tablighi Jama’at and their logical ‘modern’ view of Islam might provide him with that legitimacy and allow him to contest the authority of Intallah Ag Attaher, the current aging leader of the clan.

Some figures in the Ifoghas nobility were seduced by the ‘purist’ Salafi teachings of the Tablighi preachers, but in the end it was only Iyad Ag Ghali and a very close coterie of fellow Ifoghas who immersed themselves entirely in this new religious philosophy. Some, including Iyad, went so far as to further their studies at a Tablighi centre near the city of Lahore in Pakistan and at mosques in Bamako and Paris. He also became very strict and puritanical in his outlook and personal habits.

After Islamist terror groups from Algeria started to operate in northern Mali from about 2001 onwards, they soon made common cause with Iyad and a small but growing group of Tuareg Salafists. Moreover, the Algerian terror group the GSPC, the precursor of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), began to earn large sums from kidnapping, smuggling and money-laundering and the economy of northeastern Mali, such as it was, realigned itself around a new axis in which the smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, stolen cars and people featured prominently. Tourism died a swift death, and, more in desperation than religious fervour, some young Tuareg accepted employment with the Islamists as drivers, informers, foot soldiers and runners.

Inevitably, the prophesied dangers of the Islamist presence became self-fulfilling. In order to undermine the continuing Tuareg insurgency, the governments of Mali and Algeria at best tolerated this presence and, at worst, actually encouraged it in dark clandestine ways. Confusing the cause of Tuareg self-determination with that of Islamic militancy bought them kudos among the international community and enrolled their secessionist problem in the much wider and better publicised global war on terror.

France and the US reacted to the creeping presence of al-Qaeda affiliates in the southern Sahara by boosting military aid to Mali and other Sahelian countries – money that often disappeared into the pockets of corrupt politicians and generals. The Tuareg nationalist cause became synonymous with Islamism, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the global war on terror. The effect was a very neat emasculation of Tuareg dreams and a deep tarnishing of the Tuareg image in the eyes of the rest of the world.

With weapons stolen from Muammar Gaddafi, a man who had always dampened Tuareg ambitions whilst seeming to support their cause, the latest and most far reaching rebellion was launched a year ago. But it was hobbled from the outset by the old devilish disunity. A large number of the Tuareg soldiers who returned from Libya belonged to a tribe called the Idnan who had traditionally competed with the Ifoghas for dominance in the northeast. Iyad Ag Ghali demanded to become leader of the new rebellion but he was refused. He also tried to impose his Salafi philosophy on the movement, but he was once again turned down. Smarting from this rejection he formed his own militia, Ansar Dine, to which the best Ifoghas fighters soon swore allegiance. He ‘lent’ his muscle to the MNLA but when the Malian army were defeated in May 2012, he and his backers in AQIM hijacked the whole uprising and turned it into an Islamist takeover.

Tuareg hopes

Perhaps, on deep reflection, it is possible to define a few hopes and dreams that unite most Tuareg. I say ‘most’, because total agreement seems virtually impossible. A visceral attachment to their earth, to the beauty, pristine wildness, simplicity and space of their desert home seems to be almost universal. So is the deep nostalgia or assouf felt by most Tuareg when they are absent from it, either by compulsion or of their own free will. This feeling alone accounts for the emotional power of 90 percent of all Tuareg music, including that of world famous Tuareg guitar groups like Tinariwen, Tamikrest and Terakaft.

Islamism is a relatively new element in the story of the Tuareg, the author writes [Reuters]

Most Tuareg want to see this natural beauty, this freedom of the wide open spaces preserved and with it the nomadic pastoralism that has been practised there for millennia. Then again, there are some, a few, that consider nomadism to have no future at all and who urge their fellow Tuareg to accept the sedentary life as the only route to a modern and sustainable future.

Allied to nature and nomadism is the Tuareg’s unique Berber culture, especially their language, which is called Tamasheq and their alphabet, the oldest in the world to have been kept in continuous use, which is called Tifinagh. Keeping Tamasheq alive has been a major motivation behind the Tuareg rebellions of the past, spurring demands for Tamasheq education and Tamasheq speaking television channels.

Then there are the other mainstays of Tuareg culture that most Tuareg treasure. Among them are music, poetry, jewellery-making, leather-working, story-telling, traditional healing, camel breeding and more. But, once again, this cultural pride is not unanimous.

Some Salafi Tuareg consider their Berber culture to be backward and irrelevant in the modern world, a folksy throw-back kept alive by meddling Western anthropologists. They would prefer their people to adopt Arabic, the language of the Quran and of the wider Muslim community. With that they would welcome a greater Arabisation of the Tuareg. They deem certain other aspects of Tuareg culture, especially music and dance, to be licentious and ungodly and they object to the relative freedom and social power that Tuareg women enjoy. They also revile the old ‘backward’ Sufi traditions of Islam that most Tuareg adhere to.

Lastly, almost all Tuareg bemoan the dearth of social and economic development in their homeland since the end of colonialism. They would like to see more schools, more health clinics, more wells, better roads, cheaper petrol, better food distribution, less criminality, more peace and stability. When a Tuareg musician sings that his desert is dying of thirst, this is what he means. Without development, the desert is going nowhere.

These then are the dreams that most Tuareg share. It is the conflicting opinions as to how to make those dreams come true that divide them. The nationalists believe that Mali can no longer be trusted to serve the best interests of the Tuareg. They argue that the Tuareg and other northern ethnic groups, especially the Arabs, will forever be marginalised and discriminated against within a Malian state. Only independence can guarantee a future for the Tuareg people and their culture. The MNLA have also been at pains to prove that this also applies to the other ethnicities in the north – Tuareg, Arab, Songhoi, Fulani, Bozo etc. Nationalists also look outwards and favour alliances with foreign powers and international institutions such as the UN and the EU, as long as they further the cause.

The Islamists believe that borders only serve to divide up the great Muslim community or ‘ummah’, which leads in turn to greater human suffering and evil. For them, a simple and strict adherence to the word of God and to his law is all the Tuareg and the greater Malian nation need in order to eradicate the vices introduced from the West and re-establish a safe, clean and prosperous state of affairs in the Sahel.

The Islamist distrusts the West of course, and if help is needed, prefers to consider local resources or appeal to other Muslim states, especially those in the Middle East, for support. Iyad Ag Ghali himself is especially adamant that Muslims should help each other and not go running cap in hand to infidels. That is why he chose to make a pact with al-Qaeda and accept their ‘dirty’ money in his fight to create an Islamic caliphate in the north of Mali, even though he does not necessarily share AQIM’s cold hatred of all things non-Muslim or their propensity to target innocent people.

It must be said that what motivates Tuareg Islamist leaders like Iyad Ag Ghali and what spurs young Tuareg men to join his cause is not necessarily the same. For the latter, the promise of safety within a large, powerful and well-armed group coupled with the prospect of good equipment and regular salary are major attractions. Some have even claimed, probably too charitably, that Iyad Ag Ghali created Ansar Dine in order to given young Tuareg a chance to express what he believed to be their natural Islamic identity whilst avoiding the compromise of joining the Arab dominated AQIM. In other words Ansar Dine offers the opportunity to be both a genuine Islamist and a genuine Tuareg.

Lastly, there are the loyalists who prefer to see the Malian Tuareg stay in Mali. They believe that a Tuareg dominated state in northern Mali is an impossibility. The Tuareg are simply too internally divided, too inexperienced in terms of administration and statesmanship and too dominated by self-serving clan elites to make an independent state viable. They will probably admit that Mali is far from perfect, but better to build a future within its democratic and republican confines than accept the possibility of an autocratic ruler in the north, who will inevitably resort to repression and violence in order to keep all the disparate tribal and ethnic tensions in an independent Azawad at bay. Moreover, they say, what would an independent Azawad actually live on? Gold? Oil? Phosphates? Livestock? Tourism? The economic life of the Sahara is simply too fragile, and too dependent on more urban societies to the south and north to exist independently. Lastly and most importantly, Azawad is an impossibility simply because Algeria would never allow it.

There is hardly anything that all Tuareg want, unequivocally, to a man, to a woman. Except good rains in June perhaps.

This article was first published in 2013 in the Africa issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine