The Tuareg factor in North Africa and after Gaddafi

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December 29, 2017 – Fort Russ News – Paul Antonopoulos – Translated from Descifrando la Guerra.

MADRID, Spain – If we think of the main participants in power games on the geopolitical boards of the Middle East and North Africa region, almost everyone will go to the same list of usual suspects: United States, Al Qaeda, Iran, Russia, Islamic State or Saudi Arabia to name a few; but despite its importance, with only these actors it is not possible to explain the situation on the ground.

The local actors are often left aside, as mere pieces for the great powers, in spite of not being completely forgotten; but although it is common to see them aligned with some of the great powers, this does not prevent them from having and applying their own agendas.

The Tuaregs, a people of nomadic tradition, whose name is intrinsically connected to the Sahara desert, is undoubtedly one of the most important local actors in the Maghreb and the Sahel region.

Who are they?

The Tuaregs are a Berber people whose population is approximately 2.5 million,

It mainly extends to five African countries: Niger (36%), Mali (30%), Libya (4.8%), Algeria (3.6%) and Burkina Faso (1.8%), the rest is dispersed throughout Nigeria , Chad, Tunisia and Morocco.

They have different languages, the most used being the tamashek, (followed by tamahaq, tamajak and teserret) with a common script, tifinagh, also used in other Berber languages.

With the reduction of caravan traffic through the Sahara due to the emergence of new and modern methods of transport in the twentieth century, many of the Tuareg populations began to settle in the territories formerly populated by the tribes. This coincided in part with the process of colonial liberation of Africa, which introduced borders where they did not exist before, thus dividing the Tuareg territory between different countries.

The Tuaregs in the Libya of Gaddafi

Libya is a country with more than 140 tribes, which makes it one of the nations in which these have a greater political weight of the entire Arab world. The Tuaregs along with the Toubou, their ancestral neighbors, with whom they have a complex relationship, are the tribes that control a more territory, being mostly in the desert south. Specifically the Tuareg of Libya are located in the Southwest and belong to the Kel Ajjar confederation also predominant in the Southeast of Algeria.

Gaddafi’s relationship with the Tuaregs has been, at least, complex. With his arrival in power in 1969, there was a change in the internal structures of the country. The new ruler considered that the tribes could be a factor of disunity and during the first years of his government, most of them were marginalized and culturally repressed in addition to forced urban exodus in order to replace the tribal loyalties for loyalty to the new Libya.

The situation improved slightly during the following years, but it would worsen again after the failed coup attempt in 1977, thus suffering swings marked by the regional and global situation. This exclusion would result in greater job insecurity in relation to other ethnic groups in the country and in the growth of illegal activities, mainly related to smuggling.

In the area of ​​international politics, Gaddafi’s position was different, and it is there that Gaddafi is the only ally of the Tuareg people (despite internal exclusion) in a region that offered them nothing but repression.

Among the highlights, we find the use of Tuaregs troops in the Islamic Legion, a paramilitary group articulated by Gaddafi in 1972. Many of these Tuaregs were not native to Libya, but young people from the tribes of Mali and Niger, which had left towards Libya, fruit of the severe droughts that hit the region since 1968. There they would be recruited for the Legion, receiving in the process a strong ideologization that sought to undermine tribal ties to turn them against the governments of the area, which maintained the Tuaregs in exclusion.

After the dissolution of the armed group, fruit of the defeats in 1987 during the Libyan-Chadian conflict known as the ‘Toyota War’, they returned to their countries to play an important role in the Tuareg rebellions of the 90s, which would be supported by supplying weapons and supplies to the rebels and Gaddafi acting as a mediator at peace conferences.

From 2004 and 2008 and after the Tuareg uprisings, Gaddafi changed his relationship with them and invited every Tuareg refugee to go to Libya with the promise of granting nationality, stating that this people was indispensable for the fight against terrorism that germinated in the world after the attacks of September 11. In those moments he made important concessions such as the control of the goods routes in the south.

At the outbreak of the Civil War against Gaddafi most of these tribes were loyal and fought the rebels of Misrata. Once he was killed, they reached an agreement to end the hostilities in exchange for maintaining control of the Southwest routes and managing the region. For their part, the Tebu received support from the Government of Tobruk, achieving superiority and rooting a war between tribes for the control of contraband routes and oil fields. In recent years the chaotic situation degenerated in which part of the Tuareg population allied with the Islamic State (even with some groups swearing allegiance) seeking to tip the balance in their favor in the war against the Tebu.

The Tuareg revolts in the 20th and 21st centuries

It is usually considered that there have been four Tuareg rebellions in the last century centered

mainly in the north of Mali and Niger. The first of these rebellions, known as the Alfellaga occurred shortly after Mali’s independence in 1960, since it was expected that the creation of a Tuareg state would come with colonial liberation; a fact that did not occur, which, together with the discontent existing with the new government, led to an uprising in 1963. At the time of greatest outreach there were 1,500 combatants, and it was quickly crushed by the government troops who brutally occupied the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, causing great resentment in the local population and a wave of refugees towards Algeria.

The second rebellion occurred both in Niger and in Mali between 1990 and 1995. The great droughts of the previous decades had caused a great famine that, together with the marginalization on the part of the local governments, led to the flight of the Tuaregs from the region to refugee camps in Libya and Algeria.

In 1990 the lack of aid promised by the government of Niger to the refugee camps in Algeria led to the assault on a police station in Tchintabaraden, capital of the district of the same name in the Tahoua region, which ended with the death of 31 people. After this, the Nigerian army intervened, arresting, torturing and killing dozens of Tuareg civilians in what would be known as the Tchin-Tabaradene massacre. These events led to the creation of various armed groups that would fight against the army of Niger in the mountains of Aïr, with a timely ceasefire in 1994 that led to the creation of two umbrella organizations: the Organization of the Armed Resistance (ORA) and the Coordinated Armed Resistance (CRA).

In April 1995, the ORA signed a peace agreement, which was initially rejected by the CRA, whose leader would die shortly thereafter in a strange plane crash. After this, peace was finally signed on April 15, in the so-called ‘Ouagadougou Agreements’. The next decade was one of relative peace, although with some sporadic attacks by minority groups, until in 2007 relations between the ex-combatants and the government broke down, marking the beginning of the third Tuareg rebellion.

Meanwhile the situation in Mali was equally serious; In 1990, Tuareg separatists stormed several government buildings in Gao, and the repression unleashed by the army provoked a widespread insurrection. One of the main leaders of this rebellion was Iyad Ag Ghaly, who would later be known to found the Tuareg jihadist group Ansar Dine, which would become important in the conflict of Azawad (2012).

The clashes ceased briefly after the formation of a new government in 1992, but the truce only lasted until 1994, when armed groups, supposedly trained and armed in Libya, attacked again Gao renewing the conflict until the signing of a peace agreement in 1996, with a symbolic burning of weapons in Timbuktu.

This agreement promised the repatriation and resettlement of the Tuaregs in the country, in addition to their participation in political life in Bamako, but was not viewed favorably by groups in the more remote regions of northern Mali who continued armed and engaged in smuggling activities on the border, carrying out attacks in a timely manner.

The third Tuareg rebellion, which began in 2007, broke out in Niger as a result of the government’s accusation of non-compliance with the agreements of 1995 and extended to Mali by forming an alliance between the groups on both sides of the border. These events coincide with the appearance of a new regional actor of relevance, AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose influence would resonate especially after the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists at the end of 2008, facts that would attract international attention on the conflict. The fighting continued until 2009 when both African nations signed peace agreements with the rebels, again under the auspices of Gaddafi, which would lead to the integration of the armed groups into the security forces, without actually resolving the problems that initially unleashed the conflict. , and leaving the land for a future reappearance of it.

The Tuaregs after the Arab Spring

After this review, we finally reached our decade, where the relevance of the Tuaregs is again highlighted with the arrival of the Arab Spring, especially, of course, due to the Libyan civil war.

With the arrival of the conflict, Gaddafi would again go to the Tuaregs, seeking their support in a war that was promised hard. Although the response was not far from widespread, up to 10,000 fighters would join the ranks of those loyal to the government. This support would take their toll after the fall of the regime, since after accepting the new government on the death of Gaddafi, who helped hide in their last days, both the loyal remnant and the rebels considered them a threat, causing widespread persecution .

This persecution pushed them to return to their traditional territories where they would become strong, after participating in the looting of the army’s arsenals, helping in the dispersal of these through smuggling, thus fueling the conflicts in the region.

The weapons of Gaddafi and the Tuaregs soon led a new uprising in Mali, demanding the independence of the Azawad region, which comprises the northern half of the country. This would be led by the group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), focused on ethnic Tuareg nationalism. Later, the Islamist groups Ansar Dine appeared, seeking not the independence of Azawad but the creation of a state governed by sharia throughout Mali, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), a split AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The revolt, which began in January 2012, was initially a success, putting pressure on the government and the army to the point that the latter, overwhelmed, staged a coup in March, headed by Captain Amadou Sanogo. What did nothing but weaken the country, since it isolated him from the international community and from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which threatened the closing of borders and economic sanctions against the coup leaders, which brought more victories to the rebels, who came to surround and then capture Timbuktu. This last defeat of the military caused that in view of a possible intervention of ECOWAS troops to the country, they decided to return power to civilian hands.

On 6 April, the MLNA, declaring that it controlled all the territories of the new state of Azawad, proclaimed its independence from Mali, a declaration that was rejected by the international community. When the conflict was already advanced, Ansar Dine and the MUJWA began to confront the MLNA for the control of the territories, since the Islamists sought to impose their vision once the government had been weakened.

The tables were tilted in favor of the Islamists, who sought support in other ethnic groups of Azawad, such as the Fulani, to defeat the MLNA. The result was decided at the Battle of Gao, in which MLNA Secretary General Bilal Ag Acherif was wounded. A short time later, in mid-July, the Islamists had seized control of all the major cities in the territory from the MLNA.

This situation, would cause that France, country with big economic interests in the territories of its old colonial empire, requested before the UN the authorization for an armed intervention on the part of the countries of the ECOWAS with French support. This intervention had to be prepared and it was not expected to start until late 2013, but the Islamist advance – remember that these groups aspired not only to control Azawad, but to conquer all of Mali – over the city of Konna, in the center of the country, forced the direct intervention of France, in what is known as Operation Serval on June 11, 2013.

After months of fighting, the Islamists were expelled from the main cities, provoking the evolution of the conflict to a guerrilla war, to which France requested the establishment of the mission of peacekeeping forces of the UN later known as MINUSMA.

The defeated MLNA, faced with the new situation, sought peace with the government, requesting the autonomy of Azawad in exchange for the cessation of hostilities and support in the fight against the Islamists, after which it would sign an agreement on June 18, 2013. This peace agreement would only last until September of that same year, at which point after an incident in which government forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, the MLNA returned to arms.

The conflict continues today and Operation Serval was replaced in 2014 by Operation Barkhane, of higher rank, which aims to fight against Islamist groups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. This is especially relevant after the recent merger of AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb with Al Morabitum, Ansar Dine and Katiba Macina to create Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam al-Muslimin.

Mali is not the only current conflict in which the Tuaregs are involved, a war unnoticed within the great national conflict is fought in southern Libya, around the oasis of Ubari and its valuable smuggling routes, where a peace of more than One hundred years with the neighboring Tebu tribe has been broken. The conflict began at the local level, with members of both tribes discussing who had the right to control the passage of drugs through the region. This dispute grew, spilling blood and dragging both tribes to war for control of the land rich in oil and minerals. Both sides accuse the other of using mercenaries and extremists from neighboring countries, also fighting a propaganda war in search of external sources of support for their claims to the land.


To finish and once exposed the situation so far, I will make some additional notes regarding the Tuareg aspirations, since I believe that they will soon look for the reflection of those of a more organized (and known) people like the Kurds in the Middle East . A Tuareg state is something distant, unlikely and perhaps more problematic if one can be Kurdish, not so much because of the repercussions for the Tuaregs themselves, but because starting the construction of ethnic-based states in Africa could lead to the combustion of a continent. in itself devastated by ethnic-tribal conflicts. On the contrary, a possible more viable and probable solution, especially for Libya, where the current conflict is likely to end long before the regional neighbors, could be the constitution of autonomous regions with self-government similar to that of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan that allow to maintain the Tuareg customs.

The Sahel is a region ravaged by armed conflicts, transnational criminal groups and jihadist terrorism, as well as by desertification, droughts and famines, which if it trusts one day to achieve peace and stability must seek ways to deal with the great non-national actors and meet their demands; since, without them, just as their history can not be understood, neither can their future be built.

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