The air was silvery, still and luminous. The dark acacia trees, the distant stony hills, the entire floating world were gently hypnotised by the full moon. I sat on the soft sandy bed of the dried-up river near Tessalit in the far north east of Mali, a 100 miles from the Algerian border. Beside me Ibrahim ‘Abaraybone’, Tinariwen’s founder was picking delicately at an acoustic guitar, sprinkling notes so soft that they blended seamlessly with the whispering crack and fizz of the camp fire. Around the glow lazed a company of old ishumar…Kay Kay, Bigga, Hassan ‘Abin Abin’, Iba…men who had lived the errant life of the exiled clandestino in Algeria and Libya in the 1980s, fought the rebellion of the early 1990s against the Malian army and grown older, wiser and quieter together. Scartilo, the ‘bush man’, was pouring out some Touareg tea. All conversation was softly spoken, except when a joke cracked the silence and splintered the thin life-etched faces into merriment. The peace was all-pervasive. This was La Dolce Vita, desert style.
In that same moment of dream-like calm, not more than two hundred kilometres away on the road from Kidal to Tin Zaouatene, an insignificant distance in desert terms, a Malian army column was fighting for survival against the firepower of the Alliance Touareg Nord-Mali pour le Changement (ATNMC), a splinter rebel movement led by desert ‘bad boy’ and Malian public enemy No. 1, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. This ambush left at least 8 soldiers dead, more than twice that number wounded, a large number of hostages taken by the rebels, including several senior army commanders, and numerous trucks and 4×4 vehicles destroyed by mines and RPGs.
As I write, more than a week after the incident, the dogs of war are still roaming the black rocky hills and arid plains north of Kidal, the capital of the Adrar des Iforas region of north eastern Mali. Bahanga’s spokesperson, Hama Ag Sid’Ahmed is reportedly en route to Libya to negotiate yet another cease-fire with the Malian government. Two thousand kilometres away in the Malian capital Bamako the public are losing patience with president Amadou Toumani Toure and his apparent appeasement of the rebels. “Everybody knows the right solution,” writes a blogger on the website of the Malian daily, Le Republicain, “a good beating with a big stick on the head of the desert viper with its separatist venom.”
The contrast between the preternatural peace of our campfire near Tessalit and the vicious fighting south of Tin Zaouatene is in step with the great desert paradox. The vast expanses of the southern Sahara seems alien to the possibility of human life or the hope of human happiness and yet its people, the nomadic Touareg, or Kel Tamashek (‘Those who speak Tamashek’) have a deep attachment to this outwardly forbidding home.
Despite the searing daytime heat and the extreme night time cold of the winter months, despite the dusty rigours of the dry season and the harsh daily grind of the nomadic life, most Touareg wouldn’t swap their desert camp for the most luxurious western penthouse imaginable. Because, at its best, desert life is the epitome of primeval luxury. When the rains have come and water is abundant, the animals well grazed, and all the necessities of life either stocked up or within easy reach from nature’s larder, then the desert dweller lacks nothing and the quiet spaciousness of his surroundings, the intimacy of his family camp and the time-rich rhythm of his days elevate his situation, making it seem far superior to the frenetic dependency of life in the west, or even in one of the big conurbations of west Africa.
The founder members of Tinariwen knew this only too well when they answered Colonel Gaddaffi’s all back in 1980 to come to special training camps in Libya and learn how to be soldiers. The project was clear. The Kidal region had been crushed after the first Touareg rebellion of 1963, declared off-limits to all outsiders except the Malian military and placed under martial law. In 1973 it had suffered catastrophic droughts that almost wiped out the animal herds and the traditional nomadic way of life that went with them. A second drought hit the region in 1984. In the late 1980s, Mali was being ruled by a brutal military dictator, Moussa Traore, with a simplistic centrist attitude to governance in which more sophisticated notions of federalism and decentralization were not tolerated. There was everything to fight for, not least the right of a Touareg to live like a Touareg in his or her ancestral land, whilst also enjoying the rights of citizenship afforded to every Malian.
Although Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Kedou, Hassan, Japonais, Diara and the other singer-songwriters that comprised the Tinariwen collective during the 1980s were always poets rather than mere propagandists, the message of their early songs reflected the clear-cut moral simplicity of the aims and objectives at hand. My friends, wake up to the new reality. Leave your old tribalism behind, and join the struggle for our homeland. Remember your families and your sisters back home. Be strong for them. These messages were sung to whiplash electric guitar melodies and riffs, built on the old tunes that the Touareg griots would play on their teherdent or traditional lute, on Arabic and Berber pop from Algeria and Morocco and on whatever scraps of western music managed to filter through to the Sahara: Jimi Hendrix, Boney M, Kenny Rogers, Santana, Bad Company and Dire Straits.
Now, in 2008, the struggle is more complex. The great rebellion of 1990 succeeded not only in helping to topple Moussa Traore’s benighted regime and turning Mali into one of Africa’s more stable and successful democracies, it also brought about a degree of decentralisation. Most of the top jobs in the civil administration, customs and security forces in the Kidal region are now held by Touareg, often by ex-rebels who benefited from UN-sponsored reintegration programmes at the end of the rebellion. Furthermore, since the National Pact of 1992, there has been a Touareg prime minister, Touareg ministers, Touareg members of parliament, Touareg governors, deputies, division commanders and mayors. The Touareg are no longer muffled and completely sidelined as they once were.
So what propels Ibrahim Ag Bahanga and his band of hard men to continue fighting? Outwardly it is a simple and self-justified impatience with the prevarication and broken promises of the Malian government. The rebellion of the 1990s ended with the signing of a National Pact in April 1992, which laid out a set of priorities and developmental goals to which the Malian government pledged both finance and manpower. The main prerogatives in the National Pact were education, water infrastructure development, road building, promotion of the Tamashek language and increased general investment in the region. By the end of 2005 only a tiny proportion of these goals and promises had been fulfilled. This lack of concrete progress led to the constitution of a new rebel movement, the Alliance Democratique du 23 mai pour le Changement (ADC). The 23 of May 2006 is the date on which the Alliance attacked two army barracks in Kidal and another in Menaka, looting huge arsenals of arms and munitions before retreating to the remote Terharhar mountains north of Kidal and setting up a base there. The action resulted in very few casualties and Algeria eventually sponsored peace talks which led to the singing of the Algiers Accords on July 4th 2006, which reaffirmed the promises outlined in the national pact, added a few new ones, and set out a road map and timetable for their implementation.
Two years on and hardly anything has been done, despite the existence of a permanent implementation committee (‘comité de suivi’) comprising members of the Alliance, the Malian and the Algerian governments. Bahanga took some 30 Malian soldiers hostage in September 2007 in order to pressurize the government into speeding up the implementation process. These hapless Malian soldiers were released in two batches, in exchange for promises to decrease the military presence in the Kidal region. Bahanga deemed this promise to have been broken and even worse, that the military presence in the region was increasing rather than decreasing. He issued an ultimatum to the government via the French radio station RFI, and then a few days later, on March 20th last, ambushed the military convoy on the road to Tin Zaouatene.
There are deeper more complex social and political currents at play however. In fact, for such a seemingly empty and lifeless region, the Sahara has to be one of the most politically complex zones on the planet, compromising a tangle of interlocking spheres of interest, each encompassing the next like a set of traditional Russian dolls. In the outermost geo-political sphere, France, the USA and China jostle for influence and a lion’s share of the area’s rich mineral resources, most notably Uranium. The US conjures up the mirage of Islamic fundamentalism in the region to justify supplying arms and training to the Algerian and Malian military. China asks no awkward questions but instead builds roads and bridges, like the wonderful new crossing over the majestic Niger at Gao. France pleads historical and linguistic affinities, with less and less success.
Then there are the regional power struggles between Algeria and Libya who use the Touareg of Mali and Niger like pawns in a larger egocentric chess game. There’s the whole issue of trans-Saharan trafficking, which has become more cutthroat and dangerous now that one of the main smuggling routes for cocaine into Europe is via West Africa. There are the national politics of Mali and Niger, in which the ‘Touareg question’ plays the same role as Ulster did in the political landscape of the United Kingdom throughout the last third of the 20th century. And finally there are the local politics of Kidal, which deserve several volumes of analysis in their own right. Suffice to say, they boil down to a struggle for influence between the old clan chiefs and their families, and the new revolutionary leaders, like the charismatic Iyad Ag Ghali and now Ibrahim Ag Bahanga.
And meanwhile the nomad still prays for rain every April, and celebrates every September, if his prayers are answered. Tinariwen decided long ago that they were neither politicians nor soldiers at heart, but musicians. And despite the complexity of the political and social storms that rage around them, they prefer to keep their vision simple and focus on the right of the nomad to live by his own ancient laws, on his own terms, without outside pressure or influence. Their love of the desert remains paramount and visceral. Hassan once told me that the moment he drives north out of Gao, on his way to Kidal or Tessalit, after a long European or North American tour, he feels like a man plagued by a prolonged thirst who at last can drink again. The relief is total. And Ibrahim, answering a question posed by a journalist, once said; “I have no desire to emigrate to Paris or Los Angeles. That life holds no attraction for me. In the desert you are forced to live close to nature. The desert forces you to live simply. And simplicity is freedom.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2007
First published in a Tinariwen Tour Programme produced by Songlines for the Tinariwen UK Tour 2007