Mali, Niger: Tuareg Voices Barely Heard Over the Sounds of War

This post is part of our special coverage Libya Revolution 2011.

Since the break out of the Libyan war, many security and political experts have warned against potential threats posed by the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara, particularly in Mali and Niger. Is it a real threat or mere speculation? For the moment, the only place to hear the voices of the Tuareg is on the Internet.

It all began with substantial migration from Libya to its neighboring countries. Long ago, many observers believed that former Libyan leader Gaddafi may have recruited Tuareg people to secure the south of the country and sustain a booming Libyan economy, while taking advantage of a (mostly cheaper) alien workforce. The death of Africa's “King of Kings” (Gaddafi's nickname) has now pushed thousands of Tuareg people to return to Mali and Niger.

Realistic threat?

The return of the well-armed fighters as well as empty-handed civilians, has fed all sort of rumors in the region. There were rumors that the son of Muammer Gaddafi, Saif al Islam, was hiding in the region, however, these turned out to be false. On November 11, 2011, 14 Tuareg fighters returning from Libya were allegedly killed after exchanging fire with security forces from Niger at the border of Niger and Mali.

It is mostly local and international media that is highlighting the, as yet non-existent, threat of a rebellion coming from the north of the region. Media chatter is awash with the supposed anxiety of the authorities, who allegedly fear a Tuareg rebellion. Both Mali and Niger's governments are stepping up their military presence [fr] and initiatives to ensure order in the Tuareg regions. Missing amongst all this are the voices of the Tuareg people themselves.

Isolated and voiceless

Geographically, the region inhabited by Tuareg people is thousands of kilometers away from the Malian capital Bamako. The isolation of the Tuareg people is reinforced by the fact that the Al-Qaeda organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has kidnapped many foreigners in the region, which has discouraged most visitors to venture into the Saharan region.

The isolation is as much a psychological one as it is a geographical one, which makes the exploration of the area and the understanding of it by outsiders even more more difficult.

More effective than communiqués and declarations, YouTube has made it possible to realize that something has been stirring in the region. In Kidal, a town in north-eastern Mali, an unofficial number of Tuareg people marched to claim the autonomy of the Azawad region on November 1 (uploaded by YouTube user on November 2):

Others in the towns of Menaka, Gao and Tombouctou also marched in solidarity with the call by MNLA – a French acronym for the National Liberation Movement of Azawad – for autonomy.

MNLA is well organized on the Internet where it delineates its objectives on its website [fr]:

[The MNLA] aims to reinforce human and social relations between communities of the region and the rest of the nation in a democratic process. It has chosen a policy to push its agenda via legal actions and democratic spirit and therefore it condemns all sorts of violent actions.

Their demands are not quite well defined yet. They are asking for autonomy but they do not illustrate what this autonomy would practically entail.

Blogger Kal-Azawad highlights the pacifist purposes of the MNLA movement. He speaks about a social movement, not a rebellion and he also denounces the circulating rumors [fr]:

This is addressed to the national and international public opinion:  know that the combatants returning from Libya do not intend to play the AQIM games, nor will they ever be tempted to do so in anyway. On the contrary, our compatriots hold a myriad of projects: the sustainable development of their territory and the security of the Azawadi populations and all its components: Songhai, Tuareg, Arabs, Fula people, the protection of their properties against rogue cases of vandalism and other car hijacking by insignificant uncontrolled armed groups, a massive campaign to raise awareness against any sort of indoctrination by the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and the reconstitution of a local social base in order to reunite the people of Azawad!

An observer [fr] of French television channel France 24, explains that the discussion revolves around a political conflict for self-determination and not for revenge regarding Gaddafi's death or a partnership with AQIM.

The Tuareg people are still quiet regarding the panic that is taking over the region. However, it is yet to be seen how they will react to the post-Gaddafi panic.

This post is part of our special coverage Libya Revolution 2011.


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