The Tuareg people, a nomadic Berber people living in Saharan north Africa, have had five rebellions in the last century — 1916-1917, 1962-1964, 1990-1995, 2007-2009 and in 2012.
These rebellions have not often been featured in the far-left press. The most recent, in 2012, involved the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declaring an independent state of Azawad.
It is only since France’s intervention into the conflict in Mali that the left has discovered an interest in the region.
Many on the left have been quick to apply to Mali the same analysis of imperialism they used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, there is the involvement of the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in the uprising, and the intervention of a western state against the growth of an Islamist movement.
An understanding of the conflict in Mali as simply one between Islamism and imperialism ignores the history of the struggle for an independent Tuareg state and reduces the Tuaregs and their history to a footnote.
The Islamic strain of the Azawadi uprising is strong (and no doubt the French intervention will strengthen this strand, even in the face of defeat). But it is by no means the most crucial strand — the issues that sparked the initial uprising were the aims of Tuareg independence and autonomy, and the disjuncture of nationalism and statehood in the 21st century.
Crucially, ignoring the Tuareg strand of the uprising writes them out of participation in making peace in the region, and pits Islamic fundamentalism versus imperialism, with no third camp of consistent democracy between them.
The left has struggled to balance opposition to western intervention with a nuanced understanding of the politics of Mali (and the Sahel region) since independence. On a wider level it has failed to analyse and pick up on the political implications of the increasingly uncomfortable relationship of Northern “Arab” Africa with “Black” sub-saharan Africa.
The so-called “age of independence” in Africa — the 1960s — split the traditional Tuareg territory between the states of Mali, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Libya. This drew the Tuareg community into new formations in the midst of the clamour for centralised statehood in the initial post-colonial period.
Tuareg groups have thus been drawn into various conflicts surrounding resources in the Sahel region, often as “hired hands” for other forces’ conflicts. This gave great currency to not only the Tuareg identity in the region, but a wider Berber identify, in opposition to the perceived cultural Arabisation in the region and the imposition of the pan-Arabist political ideology, which has grown since the early 1990s.
On 6 April 2012, the MNLA declared independence of Northern Mali under the Tuareg historic name of “Azawad”, covering the whole of Northern Mali all the way down to the Niger River.
The Tuareg rebellion of 2007-2009 had ended in defeat and peace deals that granted the Tuaregs amnesty but none of their aims. So when armed Tuareg mercenaries returned to northern Mali after the fall of Gaddafi and rejoined the MNLA, the Tuareg cause was empowered once again.
Yet there were other forces competing with the MNLA for sway in the Northern area of Mali — namely the Islamist groups Ansar Dine and the MUJWA, who have come to dominate the movement for Azawadi independence, and by September last year these two groups had driven the MNLA out of its stronghold in Douentza.
Whilst the MNLA’s victory turned out to be short-lived, we should not see this as the overall victory of the Islamist forces in taking the torch of Northern Malian independence. The MNLA has made strong alliances across borders, such as their continuing council with the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, as well as links with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This means that the MNLA is in an strong position when talks start on the reconstruction of the Malian state, if we presume that the Malian/French forces win the battle with the Islamists.
Preempting this situation, the MNLA has begun meeting with other northern community leaders to solidify its support base and begin plans to reassert Tuareg authority in Mali. The battle against Islamism may be coming to an end, but northern Mali still faces an uncertain future, one that Tuaregs must be part of so that this conflict is not repeated again and again in the future — as Marx noted, first as tragedy, then as farce.
With more than 200,000, mostly Tuareg, Malians estimated to have fled the country and 300,000 being internally displaced, the question of the future make-up of the Malian state is paramount, and this debate is being lost in the coverage of the battle against the Islamists.
It seems that there is little chance that the French and Malian forces will fail to drive out the Islamist forces, as they recently took Gao and look set to take Timbuktu, but this does not end the question of Northern Mali and the Tuaregs.
The re-integrating of northern Mali into Greater Mali by the politicians of the South and their French allies will not solve the issues at hand, and the disjuncture of borders and nationalism.
Rather than seeing the uprising in Mali as a rerun of Iraq or Afghanistan, we should see it in light of the Kurdish and Basque struggles — a complex issue of nationalism, self-determination, and statehood in the 21st century.
The questions it poses will not be answered by “Islamism vs imperialism” demgagogy, but by a nuanced understanding of modern African politics.
French troops take Timbuktu
As Solidarity goes to press, French troops have taken Timbuktu, the biggest city of the north-west (desert and semi-desert) part of Mali previously controlled by Al Qaeda and allies.
There remains one sizeable city unreclaimed in the north-west: Kidal. The secular Tuareg militia MNLA claims to have taken it in alliance with a dissident fraction of the Islamist militias, and to be keen to do a deal with the French, but not with the Malian army.
From Sévaré, a crossroads town on the border between the north-west and south of Mali, reconquered early, there are reports of atrocities by the Malian army against light-skinned people suspected of being Tuareg or Arab.
In Timbuktu, after the reconquest, local people have pillaged shops which they say belong to “Arabs”, “Algerians”, or “Mauretanians”.
French casualties have been small, or maybe zero. And most reports suggest wide support in Mali for the French intervention.
However, the prospect of France now quickly withdrawing and handing over to a stable, widely-supported Malian government is quite another matter.
Al Qaeda and its allies have disappeared into the desert vastnesses, rather than standing and fighting. They can return.
French troops have also been sent to neighbouring Niger, to guard uranium mines there owned by a French multinational. The US is negotiating a deal with Niger to post 300 troops there, in order to operate surveillance drones over Mali.
Better troops out now than an African Afghanistan.