My previous column introduced the Tuareg populations in Africa. In addition to historic conflicts, there were two major Tuareg revolts since Mali’s independence, in the 1960s and in the 1990s. After the latter, efforts were made to have more development in the north of the country and integration into the government.
Tuaregs are a minority, 10 percent, of the population but, in the northern districts, it may be as high as 30 percent. The province of Kidal has the smallest population and greatest proportion of Tauregs. Arabs make up about four percent of the north or one percent overall.
The media has referred to these groups as “white.” The Tuaregs are a variety of shades and on average not as dark as many other Malians.
However, by U.S. standards, they are “black.” Even many of the Arabs would have been using the “colored” toilets under segregation.
In reality, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), the group that led the initial revolt in the current fighting against the Mali government, does not speak for all Tauregs and definitely not for the majority of the people in the area it claimed, although a significant proportion of them are strong supporters.
Azawad is the name the Tuareg have chosen for the independent nation they want to create.
As Tuaregs live in parts of different countries and even if those countries are willing to let some of their territories be incorporated into a Taureg nation, the result will still be a sparsely populated, landlocked desert country that will get even drier and not be economically viable.
We are still reaping the fruits of the artificial carving up of Africa by Europe.
Tauregs generally practice Islam, as do all other Malians. They have traditionally controlled trade routes through the dessert which now are known for smuggling. They were a significant part of the late Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi’s military. After his overthrow, they moved south.
The failure of the Western allies to develop plans to contain the weapons flow from Libya meant that there was an influx into Mali.
In addition to the Tuareg revolt, there are several jihadist groups operating in the country. They have relations with Al Qaeda but they are mainly local. There are Tauregs in some leadership positions but participants belong to other Mali ethnic groups, as well as coming from other parts of Africa and elsewhere.
With the growing youth population in West Africa lacking jobs, the prospect of pay from the jihadists can entice participation. “Jihad” means “struggle” and the Qu’ran calls for jihad for Islam. It can be internal to an individual or external. There have been both violent and non-violent jihads throughout the history of West Africa.
The civil war had produced 400,000 refugees who need basic necessities. For those not fleeing, all semblance of normal life was disrupted. The government was overthrown by a segment of the army and the new authorities were pushed by African countries into having an interim government installed and holding elections in July but many challenges remain to establish an effective government.
The U.S. has been training Mali’s army for some time and the captain who led the coup received military training in the US. When the fighting started, some Taureg units with U.S. training defected to the rebels.
One lesson from the conflict is that U.S. efforts in Libya and Mali were short-sighted in terms of their impact. An understanding of the after-effects of a war in Libya was a major reason the African Union urged a go-slow position. African troops are now involved in Mali and a regional approach is vital.
Professor Rita Anderson of the University of Ottawa summed up the situation this way:
“This is not one uniform struggle but struggles within struggles, with multiple overlapping and sometimes conflicting dynamics, agendas and complex entanglements of ethnicity, ideology and political opportunism.”
*Pictured above is Brad Brown, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist, is a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org