‘Travelling across the desert at this time maybe dangerous,’ our guide Elaga warns us. ‘It is perhaps better to stay for now in Timbuktu.’ It is January and we are in Mali planning to drive across the Sahara to Algeria. News has just reached us of the kidnap of four European tourists near the Mali-Niger border and the deaths of 31 Tuareg fighters in an unrelated military operation in the north-eastern province of Kidal. The military action comes as part of a response to a rebel raid on an army base before Christmas which left 20 dead. The kidnap comes in the wake of the abduction of two Canadian UN officials and their driver in Niger. Whilst not directly linked, these incidents point to the heightened state of tension between the governments of these two West African states and the nomadic Tuaregs who have been struggling for greater autonomy in their ancestral homelands for nearly two decades.

Whilst Tuareg rebels were initially blamed from the abduction of the UN staff and the tourists (a Swiss couple, a German woman and a Briton), responsibility for the kidnaps was eventually claimed by the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Some suggest that Tuareg rebels may have traded the hostages to al-Qaeda, but this is hard to establish and several leaders of Tuareg tribes in northern Mali and Niger have called for the hostages to be released. On 22nd March, more than three months after his abduction, the first of the hostages, Soumana Mounkaila, the UN driver, was released in Mali amid speculation that diplomatic efforts to free the hostages are being stepped up.

Despite several peace agreements, the situation in Mali and Niger remains far from peaceful and is complicated by the fact that the lands over which the Tuareg have wandered for centuries are home to some of the world’s largest uranium deposits and substantial reserves of oil. International energy companies jostle for concessions to mining and oil concerns amid accusations of government corruption, whilst rumours of activity by groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda have ensured that these countries have become a frontline in the so-called ‘war on terror’. As energy-hungry world powers vie for resources, the plight of the Tuareg is seldom considered and their traditional way of life is increasingly under threat.

Colonization and marginalization

Niger and Mali are classified among the poorest countries in the world and the Tuareg are among the most impoverished communities within each nation. Their exact number is unclear since, being nomads, they have never taken part in a census, but it is estimated that there are roughly 1.5 million Tuareg split across the Saharan regions of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. Descended from the Berbers, they have roamed the deserts since the 7th century. They are known as the ‘Blue People’ due to their indigo-dyed garments, which leave dark blue pigment on their skins. They are a fiercely proud people with their own language (Tamasheq) and their own ancient script (Tifinagh). They call themselves variously Kel Tamasheq (‘speakers of Tamasheq’), Imashaghen (‘the Free people’), or Kel Tagelmust (‘People of the Veil’).

For centuries the Tuareg controlled the great commercial routes crossing the Sahara, trading in gold, ivory, salt and slaves. The trans-Atlantic growth of European maritime trade from the early 16th century led to the decline of the trans-Saharan trade routes and demise of once great commercial centres such as Timbuktu and Djenne. Yet despite this, the Tuareg remained influential right up until the start of the 20th century, running the cattle and caravan trades. Their leadership in the resistance to colonization meant that their territories were among the last in Africa to be colonized, with Mali and Niger only signing peace treaties with the French in 1905 and 1917 respectively. However, their role in resisting colonization and their reputation as a fierce and rebellious people, led the French to marginalize the Tuareg. Tight restrictions were placed on nomadism and Tuaregs were heavily taxed and their labour exploited. The French also refused them schooling and when Niger and Mali achieved independence in the early 1960s the Tuareg immediately found themselves a disadvantaged and under-represented minority within new nation states ruled predominately by members of sub-Saharan ethnic groups. In Mali, Tuareg uprisings began soon after independence seeking autonomy for their regions, but these were brutally put down by the Malian military.

Rebellion

Terrible droughts in 1972-74 and 1984-85 had a devastating effect on the Tuareg, exacerbated by neglect from the national governments who denied them economic support, food aid and medical care. They fled in large numbers to refugee camps in Algeria and Libya, where they were to remain until economic difficulties in their host countries led them to be repatriated. Newly politicized and with military training from their time in exile, the Tuareg rose in rebellion in the early 1990s in an attempt to create a separate trans-Saharan state. After years of futile negotiations, they settled for peace agreements in Mali (1992) and Niger (1995). Both agreements called for a decentralization of power and the integration of Tuareg fighters into their respective national armies. However, the peace accords did not resolve the Tuareg’s political frustrations and in the ensuing years there was widespread feeling that the governments had not fulfilled their promise to provide greater development in the shape of jobs, education, medical care, economic programmes, and environmental protection. As a consequence, a second Tuareg rebellion began in Niger in 2007 led by the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

The fighting spread to Mali the same year and although a further Malian peace accord was brokered in July 2008, a breakaway faction, the Democratic Alliance for Change led by Ibrahima Bahanga, has continued the insurgency, as evidenced by the recent violent raids. In Niger, fighting shows little sign of abating, with the government cracking down heavily on the Tuareg. A 2008 Amnesty International report found evidence of serious human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces in Niger, including widespread extrajudicial executions of Tuareg civilians. International NGOs have been expelled from northern Niger and there is a blanket ban on reporting in the region.

A key reason that the governments in Mali and Niger are not keen to give the Tuareg greater autonomy is that the areas that they inhabit are home to vast natural resources. Beneath the deserts of Tuareg lands in northern Niger and eastern Mali are the world’s third largest uranium reserves, as well as substantial oil reserves. Over the past 40 years, the French mining company Areva has had almost exclusive rights to uranium exploitation in Niger, but recently that has changed. The government of Niger has issued mining permits to China, India, Britain, South Africa, America, Canada and Australia to establish mines and explore for uranium and oil. In June 2008 China signed a $5 billion deal to exploit Niger’s oil. Thirty new projects are planned for resource exploration and development and there are concerns that the Tuareg will suffer the consequences of these projects without receiving any of the benefits.

Despite the Sahara’s erratic and unpredictable rainfall patterns, the Tuareg have managed to survive in the hostile desert environment for centuries. Over recent years however, depletion of water by the uranium exploitation process combined with the effects of climate change are threatening their ability to subsist. Uranium mining has diminished and degraded Tuareg grazing lands. Not only does the mining industry produce radioactive waste that can contaminate crucial sources of ground water, resulting in cancer, stillbirths, and genetic defects, but it also uses up huge quantities of water in a region where water is already scarce. This is exacerbated by the increased rate of desertification thought to be the result of global warming. Lack of water forces the Tuareg to compete with southern farming communities for scarce resources and this has led to tensions and clashes between these communities. The precise levels of environmental and social impact of the mining industry have proved difficult to monitor due to governmental obstruction.

Energy-hungry nations

Whilst the main concern of the governments of Niger and Mali is to secure revenue from resource exploitation, so the main desire among the energy-hungry nations in the West is to see the unhindered flow of oil and yellowcake uranium. Neither party is concerned about the welfare of the Tuareg beyond ensuring that they do not disrupt this lucrative and strategically important exchange. Indeed, nearly 90 per cent of France’s electrical energy generation, much of which is exported around Europe, comes from nuclear power plants, and their nuclear industry is almost entirely dependent on uranium from Niger. The recent dispute between Russia and Ukraine that disrupted natural gas supplies across Europe demonstrated the fragility of the continent’s energy policy and the importance of the nuclear power industry. Rather than acknowledge the Tuareg’s legitimate frustrations it has proved easier for the Tuareg to be dismissed both internally and internationally as extremists. Labelling the Tuareg fighters as terrorists or Islamic jihadists provides a smoke screen for repression and an excuse to ignore their claims.

‘The insurgents are accused of having links with Islamic extremists in order to garner support for military action from the international community,’ says Issouf ag Maha, elected mayor of Tchirozerine, Niger, and member of the rebel MNJ based in France. Indeed, such accusations feed into a wider US-led strategy to tackle terrorism in the region. In 2003, the US launched a new front in its ‘war on terror’, triggered by a fear that the Sahel region of Africa might become a stronghold or safe haven for al-Qaeda operatives. The Pan-Sahel Initiative was launched in order to give assistance to Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania in seeking out possible Islamic terrorists. In 2005 this programme was superseded by the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative which received approval from US Congress to the tune of $500 million over a six year period. As a result, the militaries of Mali and Niger have been receiving US aid and training to combat terrorism in spite of the fact that up until the recent kidnaps, there was little evidence of Islamic extremism in either country. Indeed, critics have suggested that the strategy has been counter-productive, and that heightened militarization of desert areas has led to resentment and encouraged the very extremism it was intended to prevent.

Over the past few years armed Muslim radicals have kidnapped Europeans in the Sahara on several occasions but their main motive has always been to obtain ransom money. In 2003, an Islamist group kidnapped 32 European tourists in Algeria, holding some of them for six months. They were held in two separate groups, the first liberated by the Algerian army, the second released in northern Mali after an alleged ransom was paid. In 2008, the AQIM kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia. Their release was successfully negotiated after they also turned up in Mali and a ransom paid. Whilst it is clear then that some jihadist groups are operating in the area, their link to Tuareg fighters is less obvious. Although the Tuareg are Sunni, they practice the Maliki form of Islam and have no history of Islamic extremism. In their decades of struggle, Tuareg fighters have rarely targeted Westerners. The MNJ rebel group has kidnapped several French and Chinese uranium mining employees, but has always handed them over to the Red Cross after a few days, claiming they only abducted them in order to convey their grievances to them in personal. The Tuareg have never kidnapped for ransom and have always been quick to claim responsibility for kidnaps.

The silent trade

The Tuareg have always been a people apart, regarded with antipathy by sedentary farming communities. In times gone by a unique form of exchange evolved, dubbed the Silent Trade whereby the Tuareg would place desert salt in piles along the river bank and then retreat for half a day. Gold traders would then come and leave what they felt was an appropriate amount of gold beside each pile before also leaving. The Tuareg would then return and, if satisfied with the amount of gold beside each pile, would take it, leaving the salt. If they felt it was not enough they would retreat again and the gold traders would have to increase the amount of gold. This process could take many weeks but it ensured that the groups could trade without needing to come face-to-face. It can only be hoped that a similar form of silent trade is currently taking place behind the scenes between governments and hostage takers and that the release of the four Europeans and two Canadians will be negotiated soon.

The Tuareg are used to adversity. They have always lived in one of the harshest environments in the world and have always moved in search of rain, water and pasture. For them, there is no sense of property, and they believe all land should be shared and open for everyone to wander. Once ‘Lords of the Desert’, they now find themselves, by an accident of geography, buffeted by global political forces. Their struggle is maligned and their rights ignored but for them this is nothing new. In the words of a popular Tuareg song, ‘Walking together hand in hand, you are living a path which is empty of meaning. In truth you are all alone’.

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If you would like to support the Tuareg in Mali visit the charity Taghreft Tinariwen who work to further the economic and social development in the desert.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring edition of the Contemporary Review and is reprinted with their kind permission.