The Colonial Inheritage

Notes on the Tuareg conflict in Mali: Published in the latest 4-pages newspaper of Afrique-Europe-Interact (8th of December 2012)

Since militant Islamic fundamentalists have conquered power in the entire northern part of Mali, the shock runs deep. For Salafism and fundamentalism haven't got a social basis in this traditionally tolerant Islam which is characterized by Sufi mysticism in this West African country. The desire to throw off the yoke of the Sharia, which has been enforced with unscrupulous brutality, is correspondingly high. Nevertheless the unsolved conflict between the Tuareg population in the North and the central government in Bamako, which has been going on since independence in 1960, should be taken into account also from our perspective in Europe. This is necessary because it is undeniable that the Islamic fundamentalists, among them the Al Quaida of the Maghreb, could never have brought under control an area the size of France without the uprising of the Tuareg rebels who were first allied with them.

The problem is: As soon as the Tuareg are mentioned, who call themselves kel Tamaschek (“people who speak Tamaschek”), exoticising romanticisms are close at hand in Europe, originally spread by Western explorers and ethnologists. Referring to their indigo blue clothes, they are named the “blue knights of the desert”, they are supposed to be proud or even fearless people who have persistently defended their nomadic freedom since colonial times.

Reality is, however, more complex and contradictory. Thus the independent Tuareg state “Azawad” in the north of Mali, a project announced by the secular MNLA-rebels at the beginning of 2012, is extensively rejected by the Malian population. For this at least four reasons can be named: Firstly, the Tuareg make up just 32 percent of the population living in the meagre North, in the two largest cities Gao and Timbuktu they make up only 15 percent. So it would be cheated to talk about a national self-determination of the Tuareg. Plus in the case of Mali historical borders coincide with colonial borders and a multiethnic and multilingual community life has been deeply culturally rooted within this region ever since the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Secondly, Mali ranges at place 175 on the UN's Human Development Index, which means that most of its people are affected by extreme poverty. To talk about discrimination could be misleading as after the last peace agreement in 1966 a lot of tangible improvements have been made in favour of the North even if a considerable part of the provided money has been lost to corruption within the administration in the North, mainly run by Tuareg. Thirdly, the Tuareg have by no means been the only nomadic pastoralists having been effected by restrictions for the benefit of the sedentary small scale farmers after the independence. In this context the Fulbe have been mentioned as well, a group similar in number which is also known as Fula (English) or Peul (French). Fourthly, especially the two major droughts from 1968 to 1973 and from 1983 to 1985 have destroyed 80 percent of the herds and so have caused migration by many Tuareg into Algeria, Libya, and Cote d'Ivoire. The latter has caused the paradoxical effect, so the critics, that many Tuareg kept comparing Mali to their host countries, which were in a significantly better situation, when they arrived back in Mali at the end of the 1980s. And so they felt discriminated just because of the obvious difference. Thus, it would be wise, when looking for deeper reasons of the newest Tuareg-uprising, not to solely look at the discriminations, but to take into consideration both sides of the painful history of this conflict, especially at its early beginning.

In concrete terms: When in 1960 Mali, Niger and the country that is today known as Burkina Faso gained independence on the territory of the former French colonial empire (a process in which the borderlines of the colonially ruled Africa, that had been implemented gradually after the Kongo Conference in Berlin in 1895, were confirmed), the Tuareg were confronted with a nation state fragmentation of their former areas of settlement and caravan routes. Consequently many of them objected to any form of cooperation with the young Malian government, especially because this government quickly passed laws which made nomadic livestock farming difficult through taxes, duties on exportations and further activities, but also explicitly questioned the feudal structures and the caste system of the Tuareg society. But on the side of the Malian population there were also major reservations. It must be mentioned that although slavery had been officially abolished in the French colonies in the year 1905, black slaves were still absolutely common for the Tuareg in 1960. All in all this led to a spiral of reciprocal accusations during the founding of the state, according to the historian Baz Lecocq. Afterwards the new government in Bamako saw the Tuareg as “white, anarchistic, feudal, lazy nomads, in favour of slavery and with the need to be civilized.” In the eyes of the Tuareg elite the Malian politicians were only “black, incompetent, unreliable, camouflaged slaves, greedy for power”. Therefor it barely came as a surprise, when in 1962 the first uprising took place, which was crushed in an extremely brutal way. This is a pattern that from then on was repeated regularly and escalated between 1992 and 1994. One of the reasons was the fact that former slaves or their descendants which are called Iklans (Tamaschek) or Bellah (Songhai) are the lowest caste within the Tuareg society.

But anyway: As painful as the conflicts must have been, especially for both of the civil populations, there were also positive events, especially in the years 1994/1995, when civil society players from both sides started peace talks relatively fast. This was done bypassing the Malian army and the Tuareg leaders and led into the great bonfire of weapons of Timbuktu, the “flamme de la paix” in March 1996. Experiences like these lead the Malian section of Afrique-Europe-Interact to the tentative hope that the current dual crisis might be solved conjointly not only with the Tuareg but also with the islamic fundamentalists. For it is a fact that many people are afraid of an escalation of the conflict, considering their already precarious situation. The desire to at least give dialogue-oriented solutions a try although the chances of success are seen as limited, even with Ansar Dine (“defenders of the faith”), which is currently involved in negotiations as it is the largest of the three islamic groups of the North.