Early Thursday morning, March 22, 2012, Malian President Amadou Tomani Toure fled the Presidential Palace when the Malian military took control of the capital city, Bamako. The leaders of this renegade military group, who call themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), went on state television at around 4:30 a.m., saying, My dear compatriots; consider the notorious incapacity of the regime to manage the crisis that rages in the north of the country, consider the inaction of the government to supply adequate means to the armed forces…consider the climate of uncertainty created by the authorities for the general elections of 2012…the CNRDR reclaims the armed forces in defense of the security of Mali…and to take responsibility for ending the regime of the incompetent and disavowed Mister Amadou Toumani Toure.
The crisis in the North that they referred to is the latest Tuareg rebellion, one in a long line of wars waged by the Islamic ethnic group against the Malian government to form their own independent state.
The coup in Mali has shocked and appalled the international community, who were unprepared for an upset in the democratic West African nation. The European Union has suspended its development aid to the region until civilian rule is restored. The Guardian reported that Toure had already promised to step down in the next elections, which are scheduled for the end of April, leading some to question why the military chose this week to stage an overthrow of the government.
But the root causes of Mali's conflict go deeper than the current military rule. They are centuries old, dating back to the Tuareg community's first interaction with colonial invaders. They are also entrenched in a hierarchical system that blends classist society with Islamic principles. None of the causes are simple. And none are likely to be solved by the Malian military's attempted take-over of the seat of government.
Ifadahit Dicko* is a Tuareg social worker who runs community services for his people in Timbuktu. The wide range of programs he is involved in shows the scope of issues that modern Tuareg face- poverty, abandoned children, hunger, lack of education, health issues, and a scarcity of the kind of skills needed in today's Mali. And yet, Dicko claimed that his people have never been marginalized in Mali, but that hunger has caused them to migrate to other countries. One of those was Libya, where they joined Gaddafi's cause. They will never be satisfied until they rule two thirds of the country, Dicko said of the Tuareg.
Historically, the Tuareg people are a hierarchical society, with lords, other nobles, Islamic religious leaders, smiths and other tradesmen at the top, and a diverse group of slaves at the bottom. When France colonized Mali, they abolished slavery, freeing a large swath of Tuareg indentured servants. Lahyerou Ag Aly, of the University of Mauritius, calls the Tuareg by their linguistic name, Kel Tamacheck (or those who speak Tamacheck). She writes that the French were unable to assimilate the Kel Tamacheck, and that they continued to live their tribal norms while much of the rest of Mali learned the language of the foreigners in French schools.
When Mali gained its independence in 1960, slavery was again outlawed in the country. However, Dicko said that some slaves stayed with their masters, either for economic reasons, or because the deeply religious people were told that Allah hates slaves who run away.
A few years after Mali's independence, some Tuareg shepherd boys stole arms from the Malian army in the Kidal area. The government believed it to be an act of rebellion and used the army to violently crack down on any would-be dissidents. A number of people were killed, and the army committed what Dicko said were shameful acts never forgotten by ascendants even today.
Then in 1973, a drought wiped out herds of nomadic cattle and other animals. The last remaining group of slaves, the bush slaves, were no longer needed and had to leave their Tuareg masters. Many migrated to neighboring countries, in particular Libya, where then President Muammar Gaddafi welcomed them as his family, claiming that he had Tuareg blood in his veins. This was the first stage in the Tuareg's transformation from nomadic herders into guerrilla fighters.
Gaddafi used his Tuareg mercenaries for the conflicts he waged in West Sahara, Chad and even Lebanon. He paid the Tuareg well, and the nomadic people found a home- until Western countries began to intervene in Libya. The 1980s embargo against Libya strangled the country, Dicko said, and Gaddafi told foreigners to leave. Gaddafi encouraged the Tuareg to return to Mali and restore their place of heritage and their identity in their homeland. He gave them the weapons they had used to fight his wars, and they returned to Mali.
In the Journal of Peace Research from November of 2008, International Environment and Development Studies scholar Tor A. Benjaminsen writes, …the droughts led to the migration of young men to Algeria and Libya, where they were exposed to revolutionary discourses. There was already a strong feeling among nomads and Tuareg in Mali of being marginalized by state policies of modernization and sedentarization. The Tuareg people, still burning with anger from the massacres of the 1960s, took in Gaddafi's rhetoric of rebellion and funneled it into hatred for the Malian government.
Armed with combat knowledge and weapons, the Tuareg began a revolt to assert their independence in Mali in June of 1990, focusing on the area of Menaka. Their leader was Iyad ag Ghali, who became a hero and went on to act as an adviser in Saudi Arabia, as well as a negotiator when terrorist groups kidnapped Westerners in the Sahara dessert. Tuaregs from Nigeria joined their cousins in the fight for Mali. The United Nations intervened in the rebellion, and treaties were signed to calm insurgency in Tamanrasset in 1992. A Flame of Peace monument was lit in Timbuktu in 1996 as a symbol of the agreements.
Lieutenant Colonel Kalifa Keita of the Malian Army has done extensive academic research into this turbulent period in Mali's history. He writes that the Tuareg civil war in the north coincided with public dissatisfaction with the economy, social conditions, and government policies. A solution to the Tuareg problem had to be found in order to stabilize the country. Current President Toure was then a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, hailed by his people as a hero in protecting the people from violence. Keita himself was involved with the integration of Tuareg men into the Malian forces, which he credits as being a large part of the tentative peace that remained in place for a decade.
But in 2006 Gaddafi visited Timbuktu. A month later rebellion broke out again, and again agreements were made for peace. In 2009, it was the same story.
In 2011, the Tuaregs returned to Libya as mercenaries when Gaddafi asked for help with his war against NATO and France. However, Dicko claims that France struck a better deal with leader Ghali: if he would bring the Tuareg back to Mali, President Sarkozy would support them for their own independent state, to be called Azawad. African news sites have reported that sources close to Malian President Toure have accused France of helping the Tuareg leader get what he wanted from Mali.
Battle-hardened and armed with sophisticated weaponry, the Tuareg returned to Mali in January of this year. In recent clashes the Malian army has been no match for the arms and tactics of these former mercenaries.
Meanwhile, Dicko related that Tuareg from nearby countries- Niger, Algeria and Chad- are coming to Mali to fuel the fight for independence. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is also supported by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram of Nigeria, and other Salafist and Islamic terrorist networks, he explained. Iyad has formed his own Islamic movement, calling for Shariaa law in Mali.
All of this has created a perfect storm for the Malian government. In recent months, the families of Malian soldiers have become increasingly upset at what they feel is a lack of resources allocated to the war against the Tuareg. In February, widows of fallen soldiers staged a protest against the government. Filifing Diakhite, a Malian journalist, said that the former Malian government has hidden information on how many soldiers have been killed in the northern war. Any information is hidden about the deaths, he explained over a muffled cell phone connection. The statistics are not known. We cannot say how many people, how many children have died, only how many people have been displaced.
Whatever the number, the Malian army will no longer abide their casualties. They have taken the situation into their own hands and attempted to gain control of the government. Despite the calls for calm from military leaders, vandals are said to have robbed Tuareg and Arab groups in Bamako and Kati, creating a climate of fear that has led many to flee these areas.
Since this most recent Tuareg rebellion, around 200,000 refugees have fled Mali. Dicko suggested that there may be double that number of internal refugees who are displaced in the north of the country- and they are starving. If they don't get help they will go to find food in other countries, he said.
Dicko said that the coup has put Mali ten years back in terms of democracy and progress. Now he is afraid that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) will involve itself in the fight, and that Mali, will lose freedom and hope in all democratic values for genuine development to all citizens without discrimination of race, color or faith. Dicko and his family, who are Christians, fear that they will be targeted by terrorist groups as the chaos continues.
The Malian coup has shone a spotlight on a decades-old conflict between the nomadic Tuareg and their darker-skinned countrymen. With famine currently sweeping the region, violence is just one more reason for Malians to find safer grounds in UNHCR run refugee camps. If the military does succeed, Dicko believes that they will devote resources to quash the Tuareg rebellion. But there is a chance that the population will be divided in their loyalty between the president and the military. As for the Tuareg, they are not likely to give up the dream of their own state. They will rise again, and again, till a solution is found that either integrates them as equal citizens of Mali, or gives them what they want- a country to call their own.
Megan Radford is an editor with Tunisia Live who spent six years living in West Africa. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice and Peace Studies and a Master of Arts in Journalism.
*Name has been changed to protect the safety of the source and his family.