A few years ago, on a beautifully calm Saharan evening, I was drinking tea with an old Touareg musician in a garden near Tessalit in the far north east of Mali, a place that has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The musician’s work was gaining popularity throughout Europe and North America, so I asked him if he would ever be tempted to leave northern Mali and emigrate to the west.
“The desert is my home,” he answered. “I’ve never been attracted by the idea of emigrating. It’s here that I belong. You have to live simply in the desert. It’s the only way. And simplicity is freedom.”
Disunity has crippled the Touareg cause ever since the French colonial army defeated the mighty Kel Ahaggar at the battle of Tit in 1902. But freedom is the one idea that binds the heart of every Touareg together. Indeed, the aspiration to be free is so central to the Touareg identity, that their own word for a true Touareg of noble mind and heart is amashagh, which simply means ‘free man’.
What does this freedom consist of? At its core lie a proud autonomy and self-reliance, to which interference or coercion, especially by a foreign power, are abhorrent. With that goes the freedom to move about the vastness of that ancestral desert without hindrance. Hence the deep wounds created by the new frontiers that sliced through Touareg lands in the early 1960s. Then there’s the freedom to manage the desert’s unique environment and natural resources according to local needs and customs; the freedom to be a nomad and to be left alone to live quietly in that blessed, or cursed, state of isolation which only a great empty wilderness like the Sahara desert allows.
There are also freedoms that most humans aspire to and which the Touareg share: freedom from taxes that yield no tangible benefit; freedom from corruption and abuse of power; the freedom to preserve and promote your own language and culture; the freedom to achieve personal advancement and happiness in whatever state you happen to be part of; the freedom to worship according to personal conviction and cultural tradition; the freedom to be open and hospitable to outsiders; the freedom to seek peace and prosperity.
There’s also the desire to live a life free from fear and violence, whether perpetrated by the state, by foreigners or by your neighbours. Good relations with the other ethnic groups that share the desert space – Arab, Peul, Songhoy, Arma, Toubou and others – are essential to the Touareg concept of freedom, because without peace of mind there can be no freedom. Strange as it may seem, until June1990 and the outbreak of the second great Touareg rebellion, good relations between the Touareg and their neighbours were the norm, not the exception. You have to back many decades before that conflict to find a case of open war between Touareg and Arab, or Touareg and Songhoi in the deserts of northern Mali, or Azawad, call it what you will.
I believe that the simplest way of formulating what is often referred to as ‘The Touareg Question’ is this: To what extent can the Touareg aspiration to freedom find fulfilment in the modern world? Indeed, can it exist at all in the context of the post-colonial multi-ethnic nation state?
If an answer to that question exists, then it requires some blue-sky thinking, especially now when many of the old formulas that have been applied since independence seem so bankrupt.
Let’s start with nationhood. Personally, I don’t believe that an independent state of Azawad is a possibility; not now and not for decades, even possibly centuries. Neither the social cohesion, the economic foundation nor the global support exist for such a state to succeed. And quite apart from that, Algeria would never let it happen.
Take away the issue of independence, however, and you’ll find that the aspirations of the average Touareg are basically the same as those of the average non-Touareg citizen of Mali, Algeria or Niger. Namely: less corruption, better schools and clinics, better transport infrastructure, fairer taxes and duties, more job opportunities and, in the case of other minorities, greater cultural recognition.
In some ways, the independence issue skews the argument in an unhelpful way. The rebellion of 1990 was fought not for independence but for greater investment in the north and advancement for northern Touareg and Arabs in the state of Mali and its institutions; in other words, it was fought in order to belong to Mali in a more meaningful way rather than to become more separate. Before 1990, these aspirations were shared by most northerners, whatever their ethnicity or skin colour. It was only fear and polarization brought about by conflict that broke down this empathy of aspiration and turned tribe against tribe.
Governments in the region need to concentrate on the aspirations that unite people rather than those that separate them. But alas, creating job opportunities, developing health and education and promoting minority cultures are often harder for a weak and corrupt government to achieve than maintaining control by turning ethnic groups against each other and keeping populations in a permanent state of fear. But find jobs for the youth, build schools and clinics and show respect for local culture and the desire for independence will wane.
In Mali, even the most enlightened policies in the north have little chance of success unless there’s a concerted effort to reorganise the country’s failed governmental structure. Rather than continue to parrot the mantra of ‘Mali, un et indivisible’ and blindly adopt the French Jacobin concept of a rigidly centralised state, why not look at the länder of Germany, the parliaments of Wales and Scotland, local government in Catalonia or even, dare I say it, Quebec and the federal system in Canada. Mali needs to find a new machinery of tribal, regional and national government, in which appropriate powers of decision-making, especially those relating to taxation, security, education and investment are devolved to structures that work like independent cogs in a larger machine. No easy task, I know, but there are plenty of examples around world that can serve as stimuli for blue-sky thinking in this regard.
The cultural aspirations of the Touareg, indeed of all desert peoples, need to be met. The desire to weaken cultural differences and promote a kind of pan-Manding hegemony in Mali, a pan-Haoussa hegemony in Niger or a pan-Arab hegemony in Algeria and Libya is both backward and doomed. Reorganise the state TV companies so that TV programmes, especially news and current affairs, in local desert languages like Tamashek, Fulbe, Hassaniya and Songhoy are broadcast regularly. Allow local traditions of music and theatre equal access to the state-run airwaves. Use education to promote local language and culture. Make every Malian, Nigerien, Algerian or Libyan feel that whatever language he or she speaks, it will never be a hindrance to their aspirations.
The doors of advancement up the ladder of state institutions, especially the army, must be fully opened to minorities like the Touareg. That might be a big ask in Mali, given the acute levels of suspicion and distrust of Touareg and Arabs that now exists in the south of the country. But such equality of opportunity is essential if Touareg and other desert minorities are to become peaceful citizens within larger multi-ethnic nations.
What about the frontiers? If we must accept that they’re not going to change or disappear, then they must be made less divisive and problematic for desert people. The late Colonel Muammar Khadafy might have been a power-hungry despot, but his dreams of creating a borderless Sahara, and issuing nomads with special ‘nomad’ passports were, in my view, visionary.
I myself dream of the day when the states of north Africa and the Sahel realise that it would be in their best interests to a create a free economic zone, based loosely on the model of the EU, that spans the entire Sahara from Lake Chad to the Atlantic. Only then will those absurdly arbitrary national borders cease to make a criminal out of an old grandmother who picks up 3 sacks of couscous in Tamanrasset, because they’re cheaper there than at home, and brings them back to Kidal or Agadez without paying the ridiculously high import duties demanded by the state. As for drug and people smuggling, perhaps the answer to those problems lie in Europe rather than Africa.
The Sahara is a regional space and its problems require regional solutions. In that respect, it’s the supra-national bodies that include countries from both the Maghreb and the Sahel that are key to future peace and prosperity in the region; bodies such as The Community of Sahel-Saharan States or CEN-SAD – another Khadafy invention – or the regional military committee known as CEMOC. Both are sadly quite toothless at the moment. But long-term, the importance of bodies such as these to the Touareg and other desert peoples will far outweigh that of ECOWAS or the African Union.
Meanwhile, Touareg society needs a revolution of its own. The conflict of 2012-13 has shown up the incompetence and geo-political naiveté of many Touareg leaders, especially those drawn from poorly educated and self-serving hereditary elites. Touareg society needs to become more mobile, more open to the promotion of genuine talent, more ready to learn about and engage with the rest of the world.
You’ll have noticed perhaps that I haven’t mentioned Islamist terrorism or Al Qaida once during this orgy of blue-sky thinking. That’s because neither are the cause of the Sahara’s ills but rather their symptoms. The religious tendencies of just a few ambitious Touareg leaders have managed to tarnish the image of an entire people in the eyes of the world. This is a tragedy which most Touareg I know are not prepared to easily forgive.
A young Touareg drives a 4×4 for Ansar ud-Dine, or hitches a ride as a cook, a guide or a foot soldier with a cell of jihadists or drug smugglers not out of a sense of conviction but rather a thirst for opportunity. The same thirst drove young Touareg men to find work in the French nuclear installations of In Ekker and Takormiasse in the 1960s or to travel clandestino to Libya and join Khadafy’s Islamic Regiment in the 1980s.
Touareg youth haven’t just been ‘radicalised’ by Al Qaida. They’ve been radicalised for generations by lack of opportunity and freedom. And opportunity works like an auction. The highest bidder usually wins. The nations of the Sahara need to bid high, not just in a financial sense, but in a social and political one, to keep their youth on track. That’s all there is to it.
The most prevalent state of mind I encounter when talking to Touareg friends and acquaintances is bafflement. How did it all come to this? What’s happening to our once peaceful desert home? Mali, Al Qaida, Algeria, France, America, China, they’re stronger than we are, that’s what they say. “It’s as if we’ve just woken up,” was how my musician friend from Tessalit once put it to me.
The world has to help the Touareg wake up and adapt their instinct for freedom to the realities of the modern world. It can be done. The Touareg question does have an answer. But it will require plenty of courage, investment and political skill. It’ll also need a season of deep reflection in those blues Saharan skies.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2013