After his usual upbeat greeting, Ahmed, my Touareg musician friend from Kidal in northeastern Mali, changes his tone abruptly. “Things are really hard at the moment,” he says in a dejected voice. “There’s no work. There hasn’t been for ages. All I do is go to the bush to look after the animals and then come back here to town.” Then he adds, “We’re watching the news about Gaddafi on the TV. Nobody is happy about it. If Gaddafi goes, then the Touareg will be in great danger. But Gaddafi hasn’t been recruiting in Kidal. I don’t think so anyway.”
Despite Ahmed’s claims, it now seems certain that up to 800 young Touareg have been lured north from Mali and Niger to go and fight as mercenaries for Gaddafi since the start of the Libyan uprising. This is unsurprising perhaps if you consider the dire state of poverty and joblessness in the southern Sahara. Decades of drought, under-development and ethnic conflict have recently been exacerbated by the presence of Al-Qaeda In the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whose kidnappings have put an end to tourism and foreign investment in the region. Gaddafi’s promise of arms and petrodollars represent a pill of hope, albeit a bitter tasting one. Some Touareg youth feel they have no option but to swallow it.
Gaddafi has been buying the affections and fighting skills of the nomadic tribes of the Sahara for a long time. His vision of a borderless desert, an Islamic republic of the Sahara, has often found favour with the Touareg, who have been fighting their own struggle for political self-determination and cultural recognition against the governments of Mali and Niger since independence back in 1960. Gaddafi invited young Touareg immigrants in Libya to join his Islamic Legion in the early 1980s before sending them off to fight wars in Chad, the Sudan and the Lebanon. The same Touareg soldiers then unleashed their own rebellions against Mali and Niger in the 1990s. Despite widespread suspicion that Gaddafi only ever helped the Touareg to further his own territorial schemes, many Touareg fear the consequences of his fall from power. After all, for the past half century, he is the only head of state in the world who has ever supported their cause with arms and cash.
“The Touareg who are fighting in Libya are the ones who live there anyway,” says Nina Walet Intallou, elected member for the Kidal region in Mali’s national advisory council and representative of the Touareg rebel movement. “The south of Libya is Touareg territory. They’re obliged to hold on to what is theirs because if Gaddafi goes, they fear what will happen to them. There’s a risk of total destabilisation in the region. Many people in Libya detest the Touareg. Before Gaddafi came to power they weren’t allowed to go to Benghazi, for example, without a special pass. So if Gaddafi’s enemies are given power, we’re really asking what will become of us. We may even face the complete disappearance of the Touareg as a people.”
Other Touareg leaders cite the severe political and social strain that could result from the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the consequent return of thousands of exiled Touareg from Libya to their homelands in Mali and Niger. Many of these returnees will probably be impoverished, disaffected and, what’s worse, heavily armed. Such an influx would pose a severe challenge to the already tenuous peace that exists between the Touareg and the central government of Mali in Bamako. Ironically, Gaddafi has also been investing heavily in agriculture, water infrastructure, hotels and other sectors in southern Mali, where the Touareg are seen as the enemy. Amadou Toumani Touré, the current President of Mali, was the first of many African leaders to call Gaddafi and express his support after the rebellion broke out in Libya.
Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), the Touareg rebel movement set up in the wake of an uprising in Kidal in 2006, is well aware of the ambiguous attitudes to Gaddafi among the Touareg. The Libyan leader has often given financial support to Ag Sid Ahmed’s boss, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, the hard line Touareg rebel leader who has refused to make peace with the Malian government, blaming Mali’s intransigence and broken promises for his uncompromising stance.
“The Touareg are divided on the Libyan question,” says Sid Ag Ahmed. “Some say that Libya has sided with the Touareg during difficult moments in our history, and that Libya has been an invaluable rear base during the Touareg uprisings. Others say that Libya has never brought us any concrete help or political progress. And yet others say that Libya has actually prevented things evolving normally in the region.”
Gaddafi and his son Seif al-Islam Gaddafi have both played an active part in the endless peace negotiations between Touareg rebels and the governments of Mali and Niger. In the case of Mali however, Libyan intervention has often lead to conflict with Algeria, who see the deserts just over their border with Mali as their own natural sphere of influence and resent Gaddafi’s meddling in the area.
On the international stage, Gaddafi has often proclaimed his great affinity to the Touareg as a people. He is said to have inherited some Touareg blood from his mother, and he sees the Touareg as natural allies in his overriding ambition to create a Sahara without borders, unified by Arab culture and Islam. However, Gaddafi’s international pronouncements are in stark contrast with the way in which he has treated the Touareg and their culture in his own country. In a speech he gave in 1985, he famously claimed that mothers who taught their children Tamazight, the language of the Touareg, were injecting them with poison.
Akli Sheika, a Libyan Touareg living in exile in Britain, was imprisoned for teaching Tifinarh, the ancient Touareg alphabet, in Libyan schools. “I consider Gaddafi to be the enemy number one of the Touareg people,” he told me. “Most of the Touareg in Libya want Gaddafi to leave. Gaddafi is recruiting the Touareg by force and threatening them with violence if they don’t fight with the protestors. Many Touareg from Ghat and Ubari in the south have actually fled to Djanet in Algeria.”
When I speak to Abdallah, a Libyan Touareg who is virtually imprisoned in his family home in Tripoli by all the violence going on in the streets outside, his views are unequivocal. “Countries like Mali and Niger who have been killing the Touareg for over forty years, now want to exploit the situation by saying that the Touareg are supporting the regime here,” he says in an anxious voice. “But this is false. About 200 Touareg have been killed here because they refused to obey orders to shoot innocent protestors. And now the Touareg youth have joined the revolution against the regime…” Abdallah was only able to speak for a few more minutes before insisting he had to hang up because his mobile phone was being tapped.
The fall of Gaddafi is sure to bring fundamental changes to the political situation in the southern Sahara. Whether, as many Touareg in Mali and Niger think, Gaddafi’s demise will spell disaster for the Touareg people, or, as many Libyan Touareg claim, it will spell freedom after four decades of oppression, remains to be seen.
(The names of some of the persons in this report have been changed to protect their identities).
Andy Morgan. (c) 2011
An edited version of this article was first published as a ‘Monocolumn’ by Monocle Magazine (online edition only) – March 2011