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Tuareg - Mali

Mali's population consists of diverse sub-Saharan ethnic groups, sharing similar historic, cultural, and religious traditions. Exceptions are the Tuaregs and Maurs, desert nomads, related to the North African Berbers. The Tuareg, a semi-nomadic people who live in northern Mali, but also in Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya, represent no more than 10 percent of Mali’s population. The Tuaregs have had a history of struggle since Mali’s independence in 1960. A series of rebellions, which were the result of a struggle for greater autonomy, to preserve traditional Tuareg ways of life, and to share in the benefits of a modernizing Malian state, led to clashes with the military from 1963 to 1964, 1990 to 1996, 2006, and 2012.

Mali has struggled to regain stability ever since the 2012 Tuareg uprising that left a power vacuum. Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda hijacked the Tuareg's secession movement — and a subsequent coup from the same military base where Tuesday's coup started — left the country in a crisis it found itself in 2020. In 2015, Bamako and the Tuareg leaders signed the Algiers Peace Agreement to end the separatist rebellion. But the agreement has not been fully implemented. That is what haunted the presidency because Malians saw him as being weak and unable to govern.

The Tuareg leaders supported the August 2020 coup and reached out to the junta leadership. For the Tuareg alliance, this is a winning formula. They were not happy with President Keita, they were not happy that the M5-RFP movement which they are part of was not being respected — demonstrations needed to take place for the president to realize the nation was in a crisis. The Tuareg alliance may hope that whatever new power structure was instituted in Mali, will be to their benefit. But that may not necessarily be the case.

Unlike many other African countries, ethnicity has never been a central focus of Malian politics despite the diversity of the population. As a result, democratization and decentralization have not brought about political divides based on ethnicity. In fact, they have both been construed as tools to manage problems of national unity brought about by the northern Tuareg insurgency (which is better understood as a conflict over national integration rather than an ethnic one).

Three distinct, yet occasionally intersecting sources of instability exist in northern Mali. The first is from persistent political and economic marginalization, most notably that of the Tuareg, an ethnic minority from the north that has not historically been well incorporated into the Malian state. Feeling the brunt of this marginalization, the Tuaregs have led several armed rebellions over the past 20 years. In addition, tribal, ethnic, and clan-based divisions have been a constant source of instability, with hundreds of clans spread out over the north. Lastly, the presence of the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has its roots in the Algerian Civil War, now poses a threat of violent extremism.

The area now constituting the state of Mali was once part of three famed West African empires that controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and other precious commodities. All of the empires arose in the area then known as the western Sudan, a vast region of savanna between the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical rain forests along the Guinean coast to the south. All were characterized by strong leadership (matrilineal) and kin-based societies. None had rigid geopolitical boundaries or ethnic identities. The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire, which arose along the Mali-Mauritania border, possibly as early as the fifth century AD but making its presence felt in the region by the eighth century. The Mali Empire arose from a small kingdom based on the upper Niger River that expanded rapidly in the thirteenth century under the Malinké ruler Sundiata Keita.

Its proximity to the river long made Tombouctou a center of trade and learning. The city started as a seasonal camp used by Tuareg nomads around the year 1100. Timbuktu is thought to have been founded towards the end of the 5th century of the Hegira by a group of Imakcharen Tuaregs who, having wandered 250 km south of their base, established a temporary camp guarded by an old woman, Buktu. Gradually, Tim-Buktu (the place of Buktu) became a small sedentary village at the crossroads of several trade routes.

Within a few centuries, it was part of the Mali Empire, and a center of trade. Tombouctou also became a center of Islamic culture, home to three of West Africa’s oldest mosques as well as a university. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient trading cities of Djenné and Tombouctou (often seen as Timbuktu) were centers of both trade and Islamic learning. Under the Askia Dynasty (1492–1592) Tombouctou and Djenné prospered once again, as the rulers actively promoted Islam. It then became an important centre of Koranic culture with the University of Sankore and numerous schools attended, it is said, by some 25,000 students. Scholars, engineers and architects from various regions in Africa rubbed shoulders with wise men and marabouts in this intellectual and religious centre. Early on, Timbuktu attracted travellers from far-away countries. The empire eventually collapsed as a result of both internal and external pressures, including a Moroccan Berber invasion in 1591. Captured by Morocco in 1591, however, Tombouctou began a long, slow decline.

In the late eighteenth century, a group of aristocratic British gentlemen formed the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. The association particularly hoped to find the fabled, fabulously wealthy city of Tombouctou (also known as Timbuktu or Timbuctoo). The gentlemen did not know that the city they sought had long been in decline. Centuries earlier, however, Tombouctou had indeed been a prosperous center of gold and salt trade across the Sahara, and a center of Islamic scholarship. The city’s historic significance earned the city its status as a World Heritage site in 1988.

Divisions within the Malian Tuareg rebel Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC) and the emergence of the Mali-Niger Tuareg Alliance (MNTA) led by Ibrahim ag Bahanga highlighted internal differences between Tuareg groups in northern Mali. Malian Tuaregs are loosely divided into a three-tiered system of tribes, fractions and sub-fractions (also described variously as "clans" or "tents") differentiated by lineage and geographical region. Each actor and group's place within these hierarchies is just one of many variables influencing decisions and local political developments. These divisions were well known by the French during the colonial era. Colonial French administrators and subsequent Malian governments exploited these divisions on numerous occasions, but with dubious success.

Ifogas (or Iforas) is the tribe of the northern Mali's traditional Tuareg nobles. Ifogas have ruled over other Malian Tuaregs since the colonial era. The Amenokal, or traditional leader of Malian Tuaregs, is an Ifogas from Kidal. Kidal Ifogas were at the center of the first Tuareg rebellion, the second Tuareg rebellion, the 2006 attacks in Menaka and Kidal, and the on-going hostage crisis in Tinzawaten. During the 1991-1996 rebellion, most Ifogas rebels belonged to the Popular Movement for the Azawad (MPA) led by Iyad ag Ghali. According to Malian government records, there are more than 60 Tuareg fractions in the region of Kidal alone. The Kidal Ifogas tribe, however, can be subdivided into four main fractions: the Kel Affella, the Ifergoumessen, the Kel Ireyakkan, and the Kel Taghlit.

  1. Kel Affella - this is the traditional fraction of the Amenokal and consists of 20 smaller sub-fractions and dozens of smaller groups spread throughout Tessalit, the Adrar and Tin-Essako in the region of Kidal.
  2. Ifergoumessen - divided into 5 sub-fractions and other groups across Edjerer, Kidal and the Tamensna region bordering Niger. The Ifergoumessen's key leaders have broken with the ADC to pursue a separate rebellion against the Malian government under the banner of the Mali-Niger Tuareg Alliance (MNTA).
  3. Kel Ireyakkan (also called Kel Ouzeyen) - this fraction is broken into 6 sub-fractions and other groups located in Ouzeyen, Abeibara and Edjerer.
  4. Kel Taghlit - this fraction can be divided into 10 sub-fractions located in Tahlits, Tessalit, Abeibara and Tassik.
The Taghat Melet tribe is also based in the region of Kidal. The Taghat Melet can be divided into two main fractions, the Kel Telabit and the Kel Oukenek. During the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s, many Taghat Melet broke with the Ifogas rebel leader Iyad ag Ghali to form a splinter rebel group known as the Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of the Azawad (ARLA). Kel Oukenek members are generally closer to the Ifogas largely due to matrimonial ties. They are located in the Tadjmart and Telia zones. Kel Telabit members are generally closer to the Idnane due to matrimonial ties. They are based in Telabit and Anmalen.

The Idnane tribe can be divided into two fractions, the Talkast and the Taitoq. There are at least seven sub-fractions under the Talkast and Taitoq as well as several dependent groups. In 1991 most Idnane rebel fighters joined with the Taghat Melet to create ARLA and distance themselves from the Ifogas dominated MPA. Talkast can be found throughout the Adrar, in Tadjmart, Alket and Eghachar-Sediden. Taitoq are located in region of Adagh Timtaghen, Tinkar and the Telemse valley.

There are four major Tuareg tribes in the region of Gao and Menaka: the Idnane, the Iwellemmeden, the Kel Essouk and the Chaman-Amas.

  1. The Idnane of Gao are distinct from the Idnane of Kidal. The Gao/Menaka Chaman-Amas should not be confused with the Chaman-Amas sub-fraction which are attached to the Kel Affella fraction of the Ifogas tribe in Kidal.
  2. IWELLEMMEDEN were, until the colonial era, the dominant Tuareg tribe in Mali. They were supplanted by the Kidal Ifogas while under French rule. Their territory stretches through Mali to Niger and includes several important sub-fractions such as the Kel Denneg and the Kel Ataram.
  3. KEL ESSOUK are often regarded as the religious wing of the Kidal, Gao and Menaka Tuaregs.
  4. CHAMAN-AMAS - once under the traditional protection of the Iwellemeden, now largely independent. The Gao/Menaka Chaman-Amas can be divided into several different sub-fractions. During the 1990s rebellion many Chaman-Amas joined the Front for the Liberation of the Azawad (FPLA) led by Rhissa ag Sidi Mohamed.

There are two main Tuareg tribes in the region of Timbuktu: the KEL INSTAR and the IWELLEMMEDEN. The Kel Instar may also be called Kel Antessar. Iwellemmeden of Timbuktu are generally distinct from the Iwellemmeden of Gao and Menaka. The Kel Instar regard themselves as descended from Arab ancestors and are therefore more closely tied to northern Mali's Arab population. The Timbuktu Iwellemeden tribe can be divided in to three fractions roughly located in Dire, Goundam and Gourma.

There are a handful of Tuareg tribes best categorized by lineage rather than geographical zone. These include the ACHERIFFEN, the IMGHAD and the D'AOUISSAHAK (who claim descent from Isaac and the ancient Jews of the Sahara, although still devout Muslims). The Acheriffen live in all three of Mali's northern regions. Although they are regarded as vassals attached, at least in Kidal, to the Kel Affella of the Ifogas tribe, the Acheriffen wield a certain amount of religious power and political independence.

  1. In Timbuktu the Acheriffen are often regarded as more numerically important and better politically organized than the Iwellemmeden and Kel Instar. Some Tuaregs refer to the Timbuktu Acheriffen as the armed wing of the Kel Instar.
  2. Although the Imghad are also regarded as vassals, those living in the zones of Gossi, Gourma Rhaours, Tessit and Menaka are largely autonomous. During the 1990s rebellion Imghad leaders like Col. Elhedj Gamou formed an important component of the ARLA rebel movement.
  3. Many Tuareg believe the D'Aouissahak tribe is descended from Isaac. This is a thesis the D'Aouissahak generally embrace. As a result, they are often regarded as the surviving remnants of ancient Saharan Jews even though today most D'Aouissahak belong to the Quadriyya brotherhood of Sufi Islam.

A working knowledge of internal divisions within Malian Tuareg groups is useful - up to a point. Each actor and group's place within these hierarchies is just one of many variables influencing decisions and local political developments. These divisions were well known by the French during the colonial era. Colonial French administrators and subsequent Malian governments exploited these divisions on numerous occasions, but with dubious success.

Azaohad (Azaoad) is the district of Azawad, an extensive region to the north of Timbuktu. The name Asawad is an Arab corruption of the Berber word Azawagh (pronounced Azawar), which is common to many desert tracts. Azawad proper is a most sterile country, and has been so characterised by all Arab travellers from Ibn Batuta to Leo Africanus. The whole of the western Sahra and the peculiar tract under consideration, are described by Leo Africanus in the following manner:

"To begin with the desert of Zenaga; this is a dry and barren tract beginning from the ocean on the west, and extending eastward to the salt pits of Tegaza. On the north it is bounded by Numidia; that is to say, by Sus, Acca, and Darah; and it extends towards the south as far as the land of the Blacks; that is to say, to the kingdom of Gualata and Tombutto. There is no water found in it, except at intervals of a hundred miles, and this, after all, is salt and bitter, in wells of great depth, particularly on the road from Segelmesse to Tombutto. There are many wild animals and serpents in it, as shall be related in the proper place. In this waste is found a desert very difficult and dismal, called Azaoad, where neither water nor dwelling-place is met with for two hundred miles, from the well of Azaoad to the well of Araoan, which is a hundred and fifty miles from Tombutto, and in which great numbers of men and animals perish of heat and thirst."

The desert of Azawad was so called from its barrenness and dryness. It is not unreasonable to suppose that when the local designation of Tiser fell into disuse, the epithet expressing the general aspect of the region took its place. The name Azawad still remains to the tract of desert northward of Tomboktu. To the wanderer in these wastes, not familiar with more fertile regions, it is a kind of desert paradise, having in favored spots plenty of food for camels and a few cattle.

Mali held long-delayed local elections 20 November 2016. The vote was canceled in several districts, mainly due to security concerns, and one candidate was kidnapped. Jihadists have overrun some towns, contributing to the delays. "These elections have been delayed four times. That's enough," said President Ibrahim Boubacar as he cast his vote. U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-moon has called for a peaceful vote "where political and security conditions allow." Mali had trouble implementing a peace deal and had been battling jihadists in the north.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:38:51 ZULU