What’s the Deal With the Tuareg and a Coup in Mali?

Hello all!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that doesn’t manufacture car names after nomadic ethnic groups.

After the tuareg, people are asking, when is the Volkswagon Berber coming out?

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the recent coup de’ tat in Mali that has ruptured government leadership and look at the fascinating, yet violent independence movement of a rebel group in the North of the country.

On March 23, junior military officers in the Malian army overthrew the democratic government and President Amadou Toumani Toure, instituting a brief military junta regime.  This military regime lasted until last week, vowing to step down, after severe international and internal political pressure forced them to hand over power to the President of the National Assembly. The coup happened to occur a couple of weeks before elections to determine new leadership in Mali anyway (the constitution prohibited President Toure from running for a third term).

the coup ended Mali’s President’s Toure of duty

The officers had carried out the coup in apparent frustration to former President Toure’s loss of control in the North of the country where ethnic Tuareg peoples had taken armed resistance to the state.  Tuareg rebels had beaten Malian armed forces consistently since battles began in January.  Frustration for the coup leaders peaked when the Tuaregs declared victory and control in several Northern areas, including Gao and the ancient trading city of Timbuktu.  While the Tuareg, led by a separatist group, MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) have declared that they want their own controlled area an “independent” state of Azawad, the interruption of civilian rule in the capital, Bamako, has weakened the country’s ability to provide for those suffering from hunger and the ability to restore the original state of Mali.

There are several interesting political connections to the Malian crisis, such as the arms distribution from Muammar Qaddafi’s exile last summer to the Tuareg, a connection of the MNLA to Islamist extremist groups, a food crisis, a North-South split, and the disruption of a 20 year democracy in Mali; a relative success story in a region with little such activity.

Where did the guns go after the Libyan revolution?

To sort through the current foreign policy mess, we’ll take a look at the political and cultural history of the region now known as Mali and see if we can point to some key developments that shed some light and understanding on the situation.

A Trader’s Paradise

The region now known as Mali was part of 3 successive empires, the Ghana, Malinke, and Songhai that controlled the region from 700 AD to the 16th Century.  These empires controlled the strategic Arab trading routes in the Northern part of the country, through Timbuktu and Gao.  Like the impact of the Arab trade and Islamic Empire on Nigeria in the trading center of Kano, Mali’s historic trading center on the Niger River, Timbuktu, was also a great center for cultural, as well as goods exchange.

the Niger River, a resource rich waterway connecting goods and people; also connecting green land

Timbuktu in the 12th Century was an Islamic educational center with 3 universities and 180 Q’uranic schools, and featured an advanced local book copying industry.  Timbuktu and Mali were made famous as an economic powerhouse in the 14th Century as Emperor Mansa Mussa showcased the wealth and power of Timbuktu and the Malinke Empire when he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 flanked by 60,000 porters carrying 3 kg of gold each.  Mansa Mussa carried so much gold with him that his caravan personally devalued the Egyptian currency when passing through Cairo.

Timbuktu continued to flourish as Mali came under the control of the Songhai dynasty, but interestingly was taken over by the Tuareg in 1434 by Akil Akamalwal.  A historical turning point for Timbuktu and Malian prominence came in 1591 when the Moroccan army plundered the city, burned the libraries and universities that contained many important documents from the ancient city.  Stagnancy in Timbuktu and parts of West Africa continued in the 16th and 17th Centuries as higher prominence for Europeans and the slave trade rose income and influence in the South (along with the Asanti Empire) and a steady decline in the caliphates of the Islamic Empire in West Africa.

A gold laden caravan on the mecca to Mecca; Mansa Mussa made a mess of the Egyptian currency

Some quick points from this period:

  • Mali was a prosperous, culturally vibrant, educated region through the trading center of Timbuktu during Islamic expansion between 700 and 1591.
  • Mali was able to remain relatively conflict free despite a large make up of ethnic groups; an exception were the Tuareg, who took over Timbuktu briefly in 1434.

Mali under the French (aka Soudan)

After decades of serious resistance in the 19th Century, the French objective of acquiring the valuable, strategic location of Soudan (the French name for the Malian region) was realized in 1893.  The French were pressed into furthering their holdings in Africa after the British increased their land presence in Nigeria via the strategic and economically important Niger River, and proceeded to carve up their holdings w/ other European powers at the Berlin Conference.

Not to be confused with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan

A key difference in colonial governance between the French and British in Africa, is that the British expansion was conducted by merchants interested in economic expansion and so disseminated power through existing (though dominant) circles of power.  The French, however, used their military to implement a direct, federalist rule with little effort for assimilation.  Africans North of Senegal were considered subjects, not citizens and the French also ignored traditional circles of power and authority centers, preferring to appoint a hierarchical series of commanders (to save money).

Lasting Effects of French Colonization to Independent Mali

For Mali’s immediate independence, the French use of a militaristic administration seemed to  have rubbed off as malignant military rule continued decades after independence.  Interestingly, the military has had a history of stepping into the government when the country is facing a frustrating situation (that sounds familiar…)

Who knew that the 2012 coup was the latest in a long line of takeovers by a military frustrated with civilian rule?

Example Number 1:   After severe economic problems by leaving the Franc zone and nationalizing industries, the seven year old Republic of Mali (under a semi-socialist regime) in 1967 decided to rejoin the Franc zone.  Dissatisfied with economic conditions, a group of young officers ousted the decades old US/RDA party in 1968, and replaced it with a 14 member military council with a Lt. Commander as President.

Example Number 2:  A new constitution in 1974 was written to move Mali towards civilian rule, but the military council remained in power.   A single party system was created, and in 1979, an “election” was held where General Moussa Traore won 99% of the vote for President.  Another classic example of a reluctance to give up power once obtained.  Brutal crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations following the elections in 1980 showed the military’s resolve to stay in power.

Example Number 3:  In 1991, in response to large student protests over President’s Traore’s decision to delay democracy (when other African countries had made the leap to democracy), 17 members of the military arrested the President and instituted a transition civilian council called the Transitional Committee for the Salvation of the People (CTSP) led by later President General Toure.  This paved the way for the 1992 election of a president, national assembly, and municipal council and a relatively stable democracy and 2 subsequent elections.  This was not a perfect transition of course, as plenty of public discontent and severe poverty continued beyond these elections, but comparable to the previous military ruled Mali, Democratic Mali was a significant improvement.

Turns out, the Tuareg reside in a borderless area within several country’s political boundaries

In dividing up their colonial French West African holdings into separately governed districts from the 1880s to 1960, the French left the devastating colonial boundary that disregarded cultural boundaries, or in the case of the Tuareg, a lack there of.  This is highlighted by resistance movements by the Tuareg once these borders were put in place: putting a nation-less group in limbo under the “jurisdiction” or “subjugation” by other peoples.  A series of rebellions in 1963-4 and between 1990-96 saw clashes between the Tuareg and the Malian military.  Peace accords were signed in 1996, known as the “Flamme de Paix” or “Peace Flame”, but the Tuareg have claimed that much of the treaty was ignored by Mali in allocating needed resources to the impoverished Northern region, where much of the Tuareg reside.

the Tuareg claim the flamme de paix has been extinguished by a closed fist

So, the colonial boundary kept by the Malian government attempted to rein in and control a nomadic group within a border that the Tuareg didn’t recognize. This kept the Tuareg dependent on Malian government for resources that were limited at best.  This is the background of the current feud, and the impetus of the separatist desire for an autonomous state.

Contributing Factors to the “Foreign Policy Mess” in Mali

While the revolution in Libya continues its transition, the effects of the war have been devastating in Mali. Longtime allies of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Tuareg fought on the side of the regime, before retreating South of Libya after Libya’s rebel army claimed victory.  Newly reinforced with arms and ammunition, the Tuareg then set their sights on creating the aforementioned independent nation of Azawad, resulting in a standoff with the Malian army in the North of Mali.  Unable to protect the citizens of Northern towns from Tuareg takeover, nearly 10,000 people have fled the rebel captured zone (refugee camps pictured at top).  The standoff and inability to retake the territory shows the Tuareg at their strongest (thanks to their Libyan connection) and the Malian army at their weakest (diminished armed forces with insufficient government revenue).

Was the Libyan revolution a direct contributor to the Tuareg rebellion in Mali?

Many think that the MNLA (Tuareg) are motivated by and reinforced by al-Qaeda linked groups.  Though there is an Islamic group fighting against Malian forces during the upheaval, Ansar ud-Din, their goals are distinct from the MNLA.  Ansar ud-Din wants to create a state ruled by Islamic law centered in Timbuktu (a recreation of the 15th Century), not to create an independent state of Azawad for Tuareg independence.  There are fears that any type of breakaway state formed in this remote, unstable area could become a haven for Islamic fundamentalist groups (much like Somaliland continues to be).  This is an interesting development given the extent of Western counter-terror training conducted by U.S. forces for the benefit of the Malian army.  The U.S. involvement in counteracting terror groups seems to have failed in Mali as the rebellion grows and military efforts to put down the rebels have not succeeded.

The failed effort to contain the region and the growing poverty and hunger in the region will have huge implications for the new President and may involve larger efforts by international aid groups or even the UN.

These are all interesting side stories that will need to be watched closely in the coming weeks in Mali.  For now the questions we need to continue to follow are:

  1. Will the newly restored government try to end the cease-fire with the MNLA and retake the North?
  2. Will the Tuareg’s effort towards independence find international approval? (there have been little if any positive responses so far from international groups)
  3. Will a destabilized region become a hotbed of terror or anti-Western activity?

We here at “What’s the Deal?” will be following these developments closely as they happen.  For now, we should remember these important points from Mali’s history for context:

  • Mali has a rich history and great prominence during the Islamic Era through the prosperous and important trading center of Timbuktu.
  • French colonialism exacerbated a long running feud between the Tuareg nomadic group and the many settled peoples of Mali.
  • Mali has seen several military coups out of frustration with civilian government failure.
  • Mali has had a short, yet successful stint with democracy after 3 decades of autocratic rule (until recent events)

Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you on the other side of history (tomorrow)!

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and further reads:




Disputed desert : decolonisation, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali, Jean Sebastian Lecocq






About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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