mercredi, juin 07, 2006

That Desert is Our Country

That Desert is Our Country'

Tuareg Rebellions and Competing Nationalisms
in Contemporary Mali


untitled.JPG, 16 KB

An abstract of my PhD thesis

Defended at Amsterdam University, November 6, 2002

If, after reading the abstract below, you would like to read the whole thesis, you can order a copy by mailing

This thesis investigates the causes and origins of the conflict between the Malian state and the Kel Tamasheq (or Tuareg) people inhabiting its Northern regions, which culminated in two rebellions by Tuareg dissidents against the state: one between 1963 and 1964, and a second between 1990 and 1996. Research has not led to one clear-cut answer, concentrating on one specific theme within social science. The thesis argues that the conflict found its origins in a Kel Tamasheq desire to regain political independence, which had been lost after colonial conquest. The conflict was also about the nature of the state and who holds power in it; about racial prejudice and stereotyped images of self and other; about various forms of nationalism; and about political and social developments within Kel Tamasheq society.

After the Second World War, colonial politics worldwide were restructured. In French West Africa and the Maghreb, this restructuring led to the establishment of a new political elite, political parties and a gradual transfer of power in AOF and Morocco from the French to this new elite. At the same time, as the hitherto worthless Sahara started to spout mineral wealth, various conflicts broke out to retrace the Saharan borders - culminating in the French Moroccan war over Mauritania between 1957 and 1958 - while further north-west, a ferocious colonial war of independence ravaged Algeria. In this geo-political configuration, the Moors and Kel Tamasheq literally formed the centre stage as inhabitants of the Sahara. It was in this period that the basis for a future conflict was laid.

What is most striking about this period, is that the multifarious political projects the Kel Tamasheq and Moorish political elite engaged in were all more or less directed against something: Kel Tamasheq and Moorish incorporation in Mali. The OCRS, a French initiative to restructure their Saharan possessions into one colony, sought to keep the Sahara under French tutelage, which precluded Tamasheq and Moorish independence. The Nahda al-Wattaniyya al-Mauritaniyya sought to incorporate the Moorish and (partly) Tamasheq inhabited parts of Mali in either Mauritania or Morocco. Even those leaders who participated in party politics and elections in French Sudan, did so in an attempt to curb the political power of the ‘southern’ political elite. In this period, Kel Tamasheq nationalism was only formulated as a negative nationalism. It was about what they did not want to be - Malian - with hardly any idea what they did want to be.

When in 1960, French Sudan became independent as the Republic of Mali, the various political adventures of the Kel Tamasheq elite had made them highly suspicious in the eyes of the Malian leaders, who were in fear of a Kel Tamasheq rebellion with the support of French troops still present in the region. The Kel Tamasheq attitude towards their incorporation within the new state was, in the eyes of the Malian political elite, as threatening as before independence. Demands about government and administration were made which can be summarised as a demand for virtual autonomy: No state interference in internal affairs; administrators should be Kel Tamasheq or Moor; tribal leaders were to keep their power; Arabic education should be equal to French education. These demands do show a certain contempt for the Malian leaders from the side of the Kel Tamasheq and Moors. This mutual fear and contempt, combined with no small amount of prejudice from both sides, and small personal conflicts growing big in rumour, could only lead to the Malian fear for revolt becoming a sort of self fulfilling prophesy. Indeed, in 1963, the negative wish not to be Malian, led a small group of Kel Adagh men to start an armed uprising which was crushed in blood by an anxious regime. Although it was only partly clear what the rebels wanted, it was clear what they did not want - to be part of a state ruled by black Africans. Only in the 1970s and 1980s was a more positive Kel Tamasheq nationalism created which made clear what it wanted - an independent Kel Tamasheq state.

A few things are striking when looking at the Kel Tamasheq national idea as it was imagined in the 1970s and 1980s by the ishumar - the young Kel Tamasheq migrant workers who shaped both this national idea and the political movement that would fight for it. The first particularity is that a people that organised society and politics on the basis of fictive kinship ties, based its nationalist ideal on territorial notions. The desert they had fled during the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s was nevertheless imagined as a possible fertile national space. There were very specific reasons ‘soil’ was taken as the binding national factor instead of ‘blood’. The Tamasheq nationalists perceived kinship relations in politics as a major obstacle to successful political unification of the Kel Tamasheq nation.

Indeed, the social political structure of the Kel Tamasheq in tewsiten - clans - kept hindering the nationalist movement throughout its existence as various clan based factions fought for political dominancy within the movement. These fights, starting in the mid eighties, would continue during the rebellion and even after the rebellion violence between clans continued to haunt internal politics. Nevertheless, the idea of a Kel Tamasheq country to be united proved just as ineffective and it was abandoned rather quickly. The Kel Tamasheq indigenous to Algeria and Libya, the Kel Hoggar and Kel Ajjer federations, never joined the liberation movement. Already during the 1980s the Kel Tamasheq from Mali and Niger, once united under the name Kel Nimagiler, broke up along the lines of the nation states they sought to overthrow - Mali and Niger. The fact that they garbled the names of Mali and Niger to form their own name as a political entity shows how strongly the idea of the existing nation-states was engraved on their minds.

The second particularity is that the movement incorporated certain ideas on the nature of Tamasheq society and the need to reshape it, which its predecessors - the political leaders of the 1950s and the fighters of Alfellaga - had actively resisted. The USRDA had sought to curb the power of the tribal chiefs, which had been created or strengthened during the colonial period, and to promote the interests of the lower strata of society - the Bellah, or former slaves, and Imghad, or free non-nobles. Although these policies had not been successful, they had formed a major cause for the discontent and subsequent violent rebellion of the Kel Adagh in 1963. Now, only a decade later and the Keita regime gone, the new Tamasheq revolutionaries not only sought to liberate their country from ‘foreign occupation’, they also sought to liberate it from tribal and ‘feudal’ leadership and social relations. The prejudices once held against them were now part of a Kel Tamasheq image of self. In the end, the attempt to rid society from its ‘feudal’ chiefs and social relations failed as much as the attempt to liberate the country from Malian rule. After the ‘fratricidal war’ between the competing rebel movements MPA and ARLA in 1994, and especially after the initiative to final peace in northern Mali in October 1994 from the tribal chiefs of the Bourem Cercle, the power of the tribal leaders was even strengthened at the expense of the revolutionaries. The failure of the movement to incorporate the Bellah as a social group would eventually lead them to join the Ganda Koy, a vigilante movement that sought to end the Tamasheq rebellion through violence.

The conflict between the Malian state and the Kel Tamasheq and Moors forms part of a problem that haunts all of the Sahel, a problem often seen by foreign experts as one of ethnicity, but locally phrased in terms of race.

Perhaps the most interesting side to the racial aspect of the conflict between state and Kel Tamasheq, is that both sides were just as much obsessed with race and that both used racial discourse. One could safely say that Alfellaga was the result of relations between two different political elites based on mutual distrust and negative preconceived stereotyped images. While the Keita regime perceived the Kel Tamasheq as white, anarchist, feudal, lazy, pro-slavery nomads who needed to be civilised, the Kel Tamasheq elite saw the Malian politicians as black, incompetent, untrustworthy slaves in disguise who came to usurp power. These ideas resurfaced with the outbreak of the second rebellion in 1990 and were openly expressed in a mutually hostile discourse on ‘the other’ at the height of the conflict in the summer of 1994, when the Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koy set out to defend the ‘sedentary black’ population against the ‘white nomad’ threat against national unity.

On a theoretical level one could argue whether racialism is or is not a subcategory of ethnicity. The answer is: It depends on what one means with both terms and from which side one looks at the problem. Racialism is the construction of social groups and identities on the basis of somatic characteristics. Thus, one belongs to a race when oneself and others say so on the basis of one’s appearance. Throughout this book, I have indicated a congruence between the social categories ‘ethnic group’ and ‘nation’ -- a social political group of a size that does not allow all members to know each other, which means it is partly an imaginary community, in which its members recognise each other’s membership on the basis of certain shared cultural traits. The distinction often made between ‘ethnic group’ and ‘nation’ is a political choice stemming from the idea that nation is inherent to ‘nationalism’, which is inherent to ‘state’, which is expressed in the term ‘nation-state’. I have also indicated that I see ethnicity as an ‘ideology’ which forms the glue or imaginary framework of an ethnic group or nation, whereas nationalism, and here I take Gellner’s definition, is ‘primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent’ (Gellner: 1983, 1). In these definitions, race is not a subcategory of ethnicity. One can imagine members of various racial backgrounds to be member of the same nation and this is indeed the case in Kel Tamasheq society.

The Kel Tamasheq are perceived to be racially divided both by themselves as by the Malian government. The Kel Tamasheq themselves discern three somatic types: koual, black; shaggaran, red; and sattefen, greenish black. Each type roughly corresponds with a certain social group within society, but none of these groups is seen as not-Kel Tamasheq. However, the colonial administration, Malian administration of the 1960s, as well as the Ganda Koy movement of the 1990s, only saw two categories of Kel Tamasheq - white and black. These two categories are more often labelled as ‘noble’ and ‘slave’, but with ‘white’ and ‘black’ used as suffixed extensions. Thus, all white Tamasheq are perceived to be noble, which they are not, and all black Kel Tamasheq are seen as of lower status which, again, is not the case, not even when one sees race in Tamasheq society as purely socially constructed.

Illustration: Zeid ag Attaher (middle, white dress), leader of the 1963 rebellion in the Adagh mountains, is paraded through the main street of Kidal in captivity with his lieutenant Ilyas ag Ayyouba in Mai 1964. Kidal Cercle Archives

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