Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Tribulation in Timbuktu

The Tuareg people are profiting from the post-Gaddafi power shifts across the Saharan sands, contends Gamal Nkrumah

Anyone with a political memory must be musing about Muammar Gaddafi's last words these days. "We are fighting Al-Qaeda. Our war is against Al-Qaeda," the slain Libyan leader told the Milan-based daily Il Giornale weeks before his ouster from Tripoli. He cautioned against Al-Qaeda's activities in North Africa and the Saharan and Sahelian Belts. He got a whiff of the winds of change blowing across the Sahara.

Click to view caption
A representative from the Tibu ethnic group shakes hands with a Tuareg woman in Sabha; below: Malian junta soldiers stand guard at their headquarters in Kati, outside Mali's capital Bamako

The Tuareg's air of liberty, too, wafts through West Africa's Sahelian region. Last week's military takeover in Mali enabled the Tuareg people to form an Islamist emirate on a high-profile regional scale. The Tuareg captured Gao, the largest city in northern Mali and the capital of the medieval Songhai Empire. From their tentative capital, the northern oasis town of Kidal, they proclaimed the construction of a continental, trans-Saharan chain of political Islamic governance.

For this new political entity, if it is permitted to prosper as an independent, sovereign nation, however, Azawad -- or the Tuareg's Islamist Saharan emirate -- will need to demonstrate several features. First, that it can engineer an effective and genuine transition from a tribal backwater of an impoverished state into a new democratic order, rather than descend into chaos.

Second, that its neighbours must not anticipate a desert storm of Saharan militant Islamist revolutions sweeping through the sprawling arid region.

It is high time for the blinkers to come off in Bamako corridors of power. It is too late to take politics out of Timbuktu. If the Malian authorities did not have a policy of targeting Tuareg civilians, the accountability of misdeeds in northern Mali must then fall on the operational command of the Malian military now headed by Captain Amadou Sanogo. The hastily undertaken coup was carried out by Sanogo and other second tier officers, composed in the main of closely affiliated ethnic Bambara and Mandingo, the two predominant Mali tribes, the latter being the Mali aristocracy, and the former being their less thoroughly Islamised kinfolk. The political establishment, including former Malian presidents, have been Mandingo.

Lest we forget, the Tuareg are not the only ethnic group discriminated against in Mali. Peul or Fulani people have to a great extent been excluded from positions of power whether in the military or the political establishment. What distinguishes the Tuareg is their special relationship with Gaddafi. They formed the corps of Gaddafi's Islamic Legion, not to be confused with Al-Qaeda but composed in the main of African mercenaries. In the words of the former Nigerian president, "We knew that at the end of the Libya operation, there would be fallout. And the fallout would be, 'Where would all the weapons go?' What is happening in Mali is part of the fallout from Libya, and we should not expect Mali to be the last African country in turmoil."

The rapid success of the Tuareg in hoisting the austere black banner of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on the historic city of Timbuktu has conjured up the international community's imagination.

Indeed, the Tuareg's daring move has shattered two long- held myths about the indigenous Saharan people. The first, being that they are a people in-between, neither truly black African nor Arab. The Tuareg are neither -- they are related to the Amazigh people, the indigenous peoples of North Africa racially mixed with both Arab and black African elements.

The Tuareg, however, are proud of their distinct rich cultural heritage. They are overwhelmingly Muslim, but they are not Arab. Yet, their black African neighbours to the south -- even though also predominantly Muslim -- see the Tuareg as a race apart and as more politically and racially affiliated to Arabs, a moot point since the Tuareg themselves know better. The Tuareg people see themselves historically as discriminated against by both Arabs and black Africans. The Tuareg, divided into several tribal groupings and dispersed over several Saharan and Sahelian nations including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, were seen collectively as protégés of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. They were instrumental in orchestrating his Saharan incursions.

Ironically, they also constituted the bulk of the militant Islamist movements that sprouted all over the Sahara including Ansar Al-Din and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Gaddafi was either scurrilously oblivious to the Tuareg tribes' infiltration into the underworld of Saharan political Islam or he deliberately tolerated the Tuareg's penetration of these militant Islamist groups in order to act as fifth columns of his secularist and quasi-socialist empire.

Gaddafi supported the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) much to the consternation of successive democratically-elected governments of Mali, and in particular that of the ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Fear stalks the land -- northern Mali and southern Libya alike -- with the shuddering assault by the Awlad Suleiman Arab tribesmen of Fezzan, southern Libya against the Tobou and other non-Arab ethnic groups, the "black Africans", also with strong political affiliations to the Pan-African regime of the late Libyan leader. Gaddafi held them together with an iron fistful of petrodollars. Now the racial prejudices have come to the fore. It has been some time since the complacent official narrative about Libya's 17 February Revolution has passed muster.

The Libyan people must be stripped of the pretensions surrounding the Libyan revolution. Resigning themselves to carnage is also strategically asinine. A while ago, before the violence erupted, the lynching and summarily executions of black- skinned Libyans exacerbated racial tensions and Mali's Tuareg people, like the Tobou of southern Libya and Chad, were caught in the crossfire of the Libyan militias contending for power. The Tuareg and the Tobou are two ethnic groups that are accused by the new rulers of Libya of benefiting from the largesse of the late Libyan leader.

It is against this backdrop that many Tuareg, though, believed that the late Libyan leader had hoodwinked them to the painful truth that like the Kurds, they are destined to remain a nation without a country.

Gaddafi was careful to uphold the territorial integrity of Mali. Deep inside, his political acumen no doubt dictated his sense of diplomatic savoir-faire as he knew all too well that if the Tuareg of Mali succeeded in establishing an independent state in the heart of the Sahara it would be a threat to the rest of the region. Yet Gaddafi masqueraded as the champion of the restive Tuareg. Their storming of Timbuktu today is interpreted by many analysts as a pertinent reminder to their adversaries of the revolutionary zeal that they can muster in the midst of the Sahara.

A protracted political deadlock in Mali can only strengthen the political resolve of the Tuareg to establish an independent state in northern Mali. However, that state is highly unlikely to be recognised by any of its neighbours. Algeria, the most powerful military force in the region cannot contemplate an independent Tuareg state on its southern borders. Libya, with Gaddafi's demise, is too embroiled in its domestic struggles and Mali, Mauritania and Niger are too weak militarily to thwart the Tuareg uprisings without Western assistance.

Moreover, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is highly unlikely to recognise the Saharan emirate, or any other Tuareg-centred political entity.

The link between the Tuareg armed opposition groups and Al-Qaeda has made them highly suspicious as an ethnic group in the eyes of the democratically-elected governments of the region.

The Malian civil war (1990-96) took place between Tuareg secessionists and the central authorities in the Malian capital Bamako. The war alienated many ethnic Tuareg from the Malian state even though the government of ousted president Toure deliberately attempted to integrate the Tuareg politically into the nascent Malian democracy.

The black flag of Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Dine flying over Timbuktu sent shock waves throughout the region. So is there a working relationship, a marriage of convenience, between the Tuareg secessionist groups and the new rulers of Libya -- the Transitional National Council (NTC)?

The insinuation made by some observers of political developments in the Saharan and Sahelian regions of Africa sounds highly improbable. AQIM, in particular, was avowedly anti- Gaddafi. They detested "his oppression, his disbelief and his tyranny". So how could the Tuareg forces that constituted a critical element of Gaddafi's entourage also be aligned to AQIM?

The NTC cannot plough black-skinned Libyans under. Just as successive Malian governments failed to subdue the Tuareg. Theirs is a fight to the death.

"We only came out to defend you against these despots who usurped your rights, plundered your wealth, and prevented you from having the minimum requirements of a dignified life and the simplest meanings of freedom and human dignity," read an AQIM statement just before Gaddafi's mortifying capture and assassination.

The racial war currently taking place in Libya is a potential disaster that will spill over into neighbouring states -- Mali included. It will leave Libya a country in a world where any tyrant knows he can shell a rival tribe into submission, safe in the assumption no one will step in to stop him.

So what do ordinary Malians and Libyans do? While the problems over racial discrimination and colour prejudice are in part the latest manifestations of long-standing challenges facing Libya, are not the struggles of the Tuareg people in neighbouring Mali identical?

Corruption in Mali and in Libya must be brought to book. The parallels between the two countries are curiously not dissimilar. The key difference is that Libya has oil, and plenty of it while Mali must import most of its fossil fuel from abroad. Libya has an extensive coastline and Mali is landlocked. The NTC is struggling to process a wave of information on its adversaries. Hatred and violence are endemic.

A food crisis is in the making in the Sahel region. The authorities in the region are preoccupied with politics and not preparing the (post-Gaddafi) seven lean years. They must be brought to their sense and stripped of their pretensions.

The NTC's relationship with the new political parties now being formed in Libya is a much more intriguing case, with the Islamists on both sides of the equation. In Libya are inching closer to power, possibly through the ballot box. How much influence developments in Libya will have on its neighbours to the south is hard to say.

The earthen adobe architectural wonders of Timbuktu -- the great mosques of Djingareyeber, Sankore and Sidi Yehia unique in Africa and the Islamic world -- cannot be left in the hands of the nomadic Tuareg, the Malian authorities contend. Timbuktu, the ancient seat of learning famed for its now lay in ruin, destroyed in 1591 not by desertification, but by invading Moroccan marauders.

In place of military intervention, the international community spearheaded by West African nations must impose quarantine on Mali's military to end the fiasco in the north. Sanctions must be designed to treat the military junta as an outcast, but not to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

The loss of its uranium producing northern wasteland s cannot be discounted as a source of calamity as far as Mali's coffers are concerned. If the north secedes the ripple effects will reverberate throughout the region. It is the feeling of shame that will come to haunt Mali and instill the spirit of fear in its neighbours. The Blue Men of the Desert, as the Tuareg are often described have certainly made their mark.

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