Last week I took part in a “teach-in” organized by Michigan State University devoted to the ongoing crisis in Mali. A half-dozen Africanist scholars joined a pair of retired U.S. ambassadors to discuss the origins and consequences of that country’s state collapse, ethnic tensions, the rebel takeover and French military intervention. The audience, mostly MSU students and faculty, included several Malians. One recurring subject was the Tuareg people and their place in the Malian nation. Various non-Malian participants spoke of the need to grant the Tuareg some kind of autonomy, while Malians in the room rejected such an arrangement. At one point a Malian graduate student in attendance stated flatly, “There is no ‘Tuareg problem’ in Mali.”
This remark reminded me that listening to Tuareg and non-Tuareg Malians talk about their intertwined history can be like listening to Israelis and Palestinians talk about theirs: the two groups’ respective visions of the past they share are fundamentally divergent, with each group casting itself as victim.
Plenty of analyses by Western officials and journalists these days are structured around simple binaries dividing Mali’s population into north and south, white and black, North African and sub-Saharan, good guys and bad guys. Such crude dualisms need to be dispensed with. Below are a few facts about northern Mali generally, and the Tuareg specifically, that can help in this regard.
- Even in northern Mali, the people we call “the Tuareg” are a minority.
It’s notoriously difficult to count nomads, so we cannot know precisely how many Tuareg live in Mali, or anywhere for that matter. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the “Tuareg and Moor” account for 10 percent of Mali’s population. The Malian government doesn’t collect statistics on its citizens’ ethnic affiliations, but it does sometimes ask what languages they speak. Figures from the 2009 census suggest that about 3.5 percent of Malians speak Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, as their mother tongue; in the country’s three northern regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal), Tamasheq speakers account for about 32 percent. They probably constitute a majority in the Kidal region, which in 2009 had a population just shy of 70,000 people — the size of a modest Bamako neighborhood. But the Songhay, a sedentary, phenotypically “black” population, are the biggest group in northern Mali. (Arabs or “Moors” make up about four percent of the population in those three regions, and one percent nationally.)
- Most of the people we call “the Tuareg” are black. Tamasheq speakers are divided into racial categories determined not only by skin color but by lineage. Dark-skinned descendants of slaves held by high-status Tuareg are known as eklan in Tamasheq, or Bella in Songhay, and they are more numerous than the light-skinned descendants of slave owners. (See Bruce Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa on the evolution of racial categorization in this region.) Historically they have little interest in Tuareg nationalism. Dark-skinned Tamasheq speakers were among the first victims of war crimes — including looting, rape and murder — committed by rebels of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) last year. “For the MNLA, dark-skinned Tuareg are fit only for enslavement or death,” a dark-skinned, Tamasheq-speaking woman recently told Sky News. Maybe there’s no such thing as a dark-skinned Tuareg. In Sikasso I used to frequent a Tamasheq-speaking family of blacksmiths, all of them of dark complexion, who had moved there from Gourma-Rharous (southern Timbuktu region) in the 1980s. Later in Bamako I met a light-skinned, turbaned Targui (the singular form of “Tuareg”) who knew them, but he objected to my assimilating them with his own ethnic category. “They are not Tuareg,” he scoffed. In his eyes, no member of a servile sub-group qualified as Tuareg.
- The people we call “the Tuareg” are not united on anything, least of all separatism. In addition to race, Tamasheq speakers are divided into multiple categories of tribe, clan, and hereditary status. The MNLA — the group that, in the eyes of many Malians, north and south, brought this current tragedy upon the country — has no legitimate claim to speak for “the Tuareg,” still less the Texas-sized chunk of territory which it declared sovereign last year, in which Tamasheq speakers constituted less than a third of the population. An online petition now circulating among Tuareg Malians disavows the MNLA and its separatist aims. “We have been, remain, and will always be full-fledged Malians,” the text claims. Those who seek an independent state for the Tuareg are a “minority within a minority,” as the Bamako press likes to point out.
- The people we call “the Tuareg” have not been excluded from Mali’s government. Following the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s, thousands of Tuareg fighters were integrated into the Malian army, and Tuareg leaders have long held prominent roles in the Malian state. President Amadou Toumani Touré’s first prime minister (2002-2004), and two ministers in Mali’s current government, are among the many Tuareg officials who have served the Malian state. It would be foolish to argue that Tuareg Malians have been underrepresented, let alone shut out, of the political process in Bamako. Like Malians everywhere, they may not have been well represented, but they have been represented.
- Innocent civilians identified as “Tuareg” have been abused and murdered.
Far too often, Malians who point out the above facts downplay or deny the systemic violence against light-skinned Tuareg in Mali. Their claim that the MNLA and other rebel groups have carried out far more crimes against Malians is probably correct: several MNLA leaders are now under international arrest warrants for war crimes. But surely the Malian state must be held to a higher standard, and reports of its troops killing civilians in northern Mali have grown too numerous to ignore. (The MNLA is keeping a list of reported abuses by Malian forces and claims to have filed suit against the Malian government in the International Criminal Court.) The recent statement by Dioncounda Traoré, Mali’s interim president, that “the Malian army has not committed any exaction,” failed to convince even his own partisans. Since French and Malian forces took Timbuktu last month, Arab civilians too have been “disappeared” after being taken into custody by Malian troops (see a heartbreaking report by France24 including footage of an Arab woman finding her husband’s body in a shallow grave outside town). The French are growing uneasy amidst mounting evidence that their own allies are committing war crimes. Remember that Tuareg civilians in Kati and Bamako were already the targets of mob violence in early 2012. Harsh repression by the Malian army of earlier Tuareg uprisings dates back to the 1960s. And yet…
- The label of historically oppressed minority does not easily fit the people we call “the Tuareg.” Despite all the abuses just described, it’s inappropriate to cast southern, “black” Malians as aggressors and northern, “white” Tuareg as victims in any uniform sense. Generations of enslavement, raiding and domination by light-skinned Tuareg over their dark-skinned neighbors has left an indelible mark on inter-group relations (again, see Bruce Hall’s book on that sordid history). Due to this legacy, some non-Tuareg Malians just cannot perceive “the Tuareg” as victims of oppression. They perceive them, instead, as racists who refuse to accept black majority rule (see Greg Mann’s commentary on the racial politics of Tuareg nationalism from last year).
This last point was brought home to me after I was interviewed on NPR last month about Mali’s Tuareg population. My remarks included the statement that “even in Libya, the Tuareg were still subject to discrimination.” Amadou, a Fulani Malian with whom I’ve exchanged friendly e-mails, wrote on an online forum, “With ‘even’ and ‘still’ one may wonder if in Bruce’s mind Tuareg are ‘subject to discrimination’ in their places of origin.” I responded that indeed they were. His prickly retort read, in part, “You know very well that attacks on Tuaregs [sic] were just reactions of misguided people who were acting out of frustration rather than inherent or systematic prejudices against a group of people.” For Amadou, the burning of Tuareg-owned homes and businesses wasn’t discrimination, it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps the MSU student who thinks Mali has no “Tuareg problem” feels the same way.
I’m no expert on the Tuareg or northern Mali in general, and I don’t claim to offer any solutions. But I know three things. One, whatever the “Tuareg problem” is, an independent or autonomous state for “the Tuareg” is unlikely to solve it. Two, simplistic categories used to describe these people and their relations with neighboring groups actually keep us from understanding, let alone preventing, the race-based injustices that have occurred in Mali and throughout the region. And three, until Malians of all backgrounds can meet for open dialogue about the crimes they have endured — and carried out — they will continue talking past each other, and their divergent views of their common history will only grow further apart.