During a visit to Bamako, capital of Mali, on 26 February, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé observed that the Malian government would be best advised to sit down and negotiate with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad), which is fighting to carve out an independent state in the north.
He faced a barrage of criticism for legitimizing a rebel movement seen by many in the south as sectarian opportunists.
The French colonial government would not have sued for peace with the Tuareg insurgents, whose sporadic but often effective resistance delayed the conquest of northern Mali and kept the region a military territory. The French established a fortress at Kidal in the Adrar des Ifoghas in 1908, but struggled to win recognition from the more entrenched Tuareg leaders, who resented France’s attempts to take over trans-Saharan trade, impose punitive taxation, and interfere in the Tuaregs’ relations with sedentary communities. There were accusations from Kidal and Gao of the colonialists using divide-and-rule tactics, and exploiting long-standing feuds and territorial disputes between different Tuareg confederations.
Having seen off a small uprising in Ménaka in 1911, the French faced a much more significant insurrection in 1916 - the so-called ‘Kaocen Revolt’, named after its leader, Kaocen Ag Mohamed - when a Tuareg force, strongly influenced by Sufi anti-colonial religious leaders and suffering from the effects of severe drought, occupied large parts of what is now northern Niger before losing ground and being brutally countered by the French military the following year.
In the run-up to independence in 1960, there were hints from Paris that the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (or Organization of the Saharan Regions, OCRS), could maintain control of desert areas in Mali and surrounding states. The OCRS was dissolved, but the sporadic recurrence of similar proposals has fuelled suspicions in Bamako of French plots to destabilize Mali and work for a mineral-rich, pliant Saharan state, occupied by Tuaregs but controlled by Paris.
The ‘Alfellaga’ – a rebellion crushed
Well before the French withdrawal in 1960, there were strong signals of discontent from Tuareg leaders about the prospect of integration into a new state. The post-independence administration, led by the fiercely nationalist, Marxist-influenced Modibo Keita, held little appeal for nomadic communities, who encountered unwelcome changes in land ownership rules, a rigid adherence to established boundaries, and new bureaucratic controls. Tuareg trading links were much stronger with Algeria in the north than with Bamako in the south.
The north was very much a country apart, viewed with suspicion and hostility by many in the south. Sparsely populated, but covering a vast land mass, it barely featured in Keita’s plans for national development. Civil servants sent to the north reportedly viewed their deployment there as akin to a prison sentence.
*** The rebellion that broke out in 1962, known as the Alfellaga, was launched from Kidal, and featured a low-intensity campaign of hit-and-run attacks, but triggered an all-out response from Keita’s military. Thousands fled. The well-documented massacres of civilians, poisoning of wells and destruction of livestock have been repeatedly referenced in Tuareg literature and music, and in the manifestoes and programmes of later rebel movements. An Open Letter from Tuareg Women to the European Parliament in 1994 catalogued a series of atrocities from this period, “from the extermination of entire camps to public executions, the burning alive of civilians, and the deaths of women and children in prison”.
Migrating from the margins
President Modibo Keita (1960-1968) and his successor, Moussa Traoré (1968-1991), were both accused of militarizing the north, starving it of resources and clamping down on all signs of an autonomous Tamasheq cultural identity. The region was also hit by devastating droughts in 1972-73 and 1984-85, which decimated livestock, wrecked pasture and crippled livelihoods. Many Tuaregs switched uneasily to farming and forms of hired work, but the growing impoverishment triggered a huge exodus to urban centres in Mali and North Africa..
Many of those leaving were absorbed into the then expanding oil economies in Algeria and Libya, or went further afield to the Middle East. Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, already a self-anointed champion of the Tuareg cause, deployed hundreds of Tuaregs in the failed border war with Chad in 1986.
Returning with guns
Defeat in Chad and economic downturns in Algeria and Libya helped force a return of Tuareg combatants and ordinary civilians to Niger and Mali in the late 1980s.
Migrants in Libya, quite possibly with Gaddafi’s backing, had already formed a new Tuareg rebel movement, the Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MPLA or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) in 1988, led by Iyad Ag Ghali and later renamed the Mouvement Populaire de l’Azaouad (MPA, or Popular Movement of Azawad).
In what was to become a recurring pattern in Mali and Niger, rival movements, often with different regional bases and support networks, rapidly emerged.
In Mali the MPLA was joined by the Arab-led Front Islamique Armée de L’Azawad (FIAA, or Islamic Front Army of Azawad), the Front populaire pour la libération de l’Azaoud (FPLA, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad) and the Armée révolutionnaire pour la libération de l’Azawad (ARLA, or Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of Azawad). All these eventually merged into the Mouvements et Fronts Unifiés de l’Azaouad (MFUA or Unified Movements and Fronts of Azawad) - at least for the purpose of signing a peace agreement - but retained their own identities.
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The new combatants announced their presence with an attack on both the prison and garrison at Ménaka in June 1990. They had nothing like the arsenal of the next generation in 2011, but enough guns, vehicles and military savoir faire to quickly embarrass a demoralized, poorly paid army, fighting for a regime facing mass protests in the south, and which would be ousted in March 1991.
The road to Timbuktu – looking for a lasting peace
Algeria brokered a first peace accord in Tamanrasset (in Algeria) in January 1991, but the violence continued. Even after President Traoré’s overthrow and the installation of the Comité de Transition pour le Salut du Peuple (CTSP or Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People), headed by Amdou Toumani Touré, atrocities continued. For example, over 40 Tuaregs and Arabs were killed by government troops at Léré, near Timbuktu in May 1991.
The CTSP’s programme of nation-building, typified by the National Conference in Bamako in July-August 1991 and the agreement on a new constitution, included dealing with the north.
The ‘Pacte National’ signed by the government and the MFUA in April 1992, went far beyond a straightforward truce. Its recommendations provided for: integrating former rebels into improvised military structures; an Independent Commission of Enquiry to look at human rights violations; another commission to monitor ceasefire arrangements; a special status, or ‘Statut Particulier’, for the north, taking account of past neglect, giving the region its own Commissariat, and new regional and local assemblies. There would be seats in parliament for formerly displaced people, donor-backed funding for growth and investment, roads and schools. The Malian military would pull back, scaling down troop deployments and bases.
Predictably, the Pact was easier to sign than to implement. An extremely volatile four-year period followed, marked by mutinies, inter-rebel disputes and serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence. Tensions in the north between nomadic and sedentary communities, already worsened by the loss of pasture and the scarcity of water, required careful handling.
The Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koye (MPGK), formed in 1994 as a self-defence militia, drawn mainly from the Songhai community and led by ex-army officers, was a dangerous development. Ganda Koye quickly gained a reputation for indiscriminate reprisal actions against Tuareg and Arab communities, while rebel movements, particularly Front Islamique Armé de L’Azawad (FIAA) sometimes replied in kind.
Huge efforts were made to make the Pacte Nationale work. Mali’s new President, Alpha Konaré (1992-2002), preached peace and coexistence in the north. Tuareg movements began to reject unrealistic promises. An emerging civil society worked tirelessly on peace messages and got peace agreements signed at local level in areas like Ménaka and Gao. Outside experts like former French minister Edgar Pisani, philosopher Ahmed Baba Miské of Mauritania, and Norwegian Kare Lode, lent their weight to peace-building at grassroots and national level.
In March 1996, 10,000 people in Timbuktu watched as some 2,700 firearms were destroyed, symbolizing the end of the conflict, and the rebel movements were dissolved. “Truly, this is a story for our times,” said Kalif Keita, former Commander of Mali’s 5th Military Region, the Timbuktu area.
Ten years later, a new insurgency was announced on 23 May 2006 with raids on garrisons at Kidal and Ménaka, opening up a new cycle of violence and a weary sense of déjà vu for those who had lived through previous rebellions.