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Who are the Tuareg and how do they fit into the coup in Mali?

March 23, 2012 |  1:26 pm


Who are the Tuareg?

The Tuareg are nomadic people who live in much of the central Sahara and Sahel. They have been romanticized as “the blue men of the desert” because of the indigo dye used in their traditional flowing garments. Their common language is Tamasheq. Most Tuaregs are Muslim, though for the most part they are not strict adherents to the religion.

Tuaregs make up roughly 10% of the population in both Niger and Mali. The French were never able to integrate them into colonial life; they simply ignored colonial borders. When West Africa was decolonized by the French, Tuaregs found themselves split between several countries.

Left without a state of their own and unhappy with how they were treated, Tuaregs have rebelled many times in Mali and Niger. Crackdowns on the first round of rebellions in Mali and later neglect, with little development occurring in the region, led to enduring distrust and resentment.

"The sons of those killed tried to take revenge in another upheaval in the 1990s," said Georg Klute, an anthropology professor at the University of Bayreuth in Germany."They didn't want to be ruled by these people who killed their forefathers."

What are Tuaregs fighting for?

Tuaregs want government recognition and a share of uranium mining profits. Some have pushed for a state of their own named Azawad. A rebel group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad launched a new uprising in January.

As a tribal society, the Tuareg have not always been united. "There is always disagreement among the Tuareg. It is our curse," one rebel lemented to National Geographic last year. Kluge noted that though Tuaregs made great efforts to unite behind the latest rebellion, not all of them were convinced.

How did Tuaregs end up linked to the late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi?

Tuaregs have suffered economically, especially after tourism took a big blow when Europeans were held hostage in Algeria. Mali and Niger didn't help. "Though the governments had promised aid to the Tuaregs, they tended instead to dedicate their limited resources to developing their respective southern regions, where the majority of their populations live," the Stratfor analysis group wrote.

Poverty pushed many Tuaregs into crime, such as smuggling, in order to survive. Western powers fear that smuggled weapons could make their way into unfriendly hands. It also made Libya an alluring option, as Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi recruited Tuaregs into his army.

What happened to Tuaregs after Kadafi was overthrown?

When Kadafi was toppled last year, many Tuaregs came back to Mali, escaping revenge attacks from the militias that ousted the Libyan leader. They brought their weapons with them -- reviving the Tuareg rebellion with added firepower.

“There’s the feeling that they’re always on the losing side. They’re angry at the outside world,” said Jeremy Keenan, a professor of African studies at London University. “If the only thing they can do is fight, they might as well fight for their own homeland.”

Emira Woods with the Institute for Policy Studies said Mali failed to devote enough effort to political talks with the Tuareg, focusing instead on a military solution. Going to battle hasn't worked against a heavily armed rebellion that knows the northern territory better, she said.

How did the Tuareg rebellion factor into the military coup this week in Mali?

Members of the Mali military argue that the government didn’t  arm its forces sufficiently to put down the Tuareg uprising in the north, calling the ousted president “incompetent.”

What other implications does the conflict have?

The clashes have made life harder in a region already suffering. The United Nations estimates nearly 80,000 people have fled Mali into neighboring countries, many of them Tuareg civilians. At the same time, the region is suffering from poor harvests, inflating prices for basic goods.

“This is the worst human rights crisis in northern Mali for 20 years,” Amnesty International researcher Gaetan Mootoo said last month.

The violence is also the result of Western foreign policy, Woods said. "The Tuaregs have been armed by weapons NATO put into Libya. And the Malian army has been trained by the U.S. through its Africa command," she said. "Is U.S. foreign policy doing more harm than good?"


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Photo: A Tuareg man and his son walk with their camels during a sandstorm deep in the Sahara desert north of Timbuktu, Mali, in 2000. Credit: Brennan Linsley / Associated Press