Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tuareg Hostility towards a Central Authority

Taken from Boubou Hama, 1967, Recherche sur l'histoire des touaregs sahariens et soudanais [Présence Africaine, Paris].

This is an excerpt of research I undertook at the Centre Archives d’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France in October of this year. Thanks to this opportunity, my dissertation will include background regarding France’s colonial policies and their influence on food security among pastoralists in the regions of Gao and Ménaka, Mali where the majority of my interviews took place. I have Dr. Brent McCusker to thank for this opportunity as he helped me with logistics of the research and I would like to thank Chloé Sugier, Simon Louwet, Erika Kaufmann and Atika Moha for their assistance and hospitality during my visit to Aix.

In the year 1960, when African states gained their independence from European colonial powers almost ‘every minute,’ one group that had debate and skepticism over the benefits of decolonization were the Tuareg. Basil Davidson speaks in many of his books of the optimism and hope in the future that Africans had during the period of decolonization, but it would be difficult to rank the Tuareg in with this celebration. Tuareg chiefs were not happy to see the French leave, though one would assume they would have considering the history their fathers and grandfathers shared with the French. It was violent half the time and other half involved an attempt by the French to undermine Tuareg society (more about this in a moment). The reason for their disdain during the independence movement lay in the dominance of a foreign ethnic group in the African political parties about to receive the reigns of the colonial administration. The Bambara were both the colonial officials and the majority of the independence movement in Bamako, the Zarma in Niamey and though Algeria was further complicated with a war, the Arabs in Algiers. What directions these groups were going to take the former French colonies was difficult to predict and the Tuareg, though the proprietors of the large part of the Saharan desert, were about to fall into the hands of yet another alien central authority.

The Tuareg themselves are not a centralized ethnic group though there are similarities in language and custom between regions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the French, Italians and English moved into the interior of Africa they found six major Tuareg political territories: Touareg Ajjer, Touareg du Hoggar, Touareg de l’Aïr, Touareg de l’Adrar des Ifoghas, Touareg du Niger, and Touareg Kel Gress (see map). Within these regions existed many confederations of Tuareg groups, sometimes living symbiotically next to each other and other times raiding and pillaging each others’ camps. In addition, these territories were not solely occupied by the Tuareg as there were and are distinct groups of Arabs (Kounta, Mahamid and Bérabich to name a few), Tubu and Fulani living in the same region. The Tuareg, however, were the local power elites in terms of their military strength and their roles in the Saharan trade. The French recognized this and as they encroached on Tuareg lands they played on the rivalries other groups had with the Tuareg as well as divisions that existed in Tuareg society.

An example of this divide and rule came with the French expansion along the Niger River and their relations with the Oulliminden Tuareg, a group that claimed jurisdiction on the east side [left bank] of the river from Bourem, Mali to Tillabéry, Niger and further east to the Tamesna Region though their territory would be reduced to the lands around Ménaka with the installation of the French. In the 1890s as French soldiers and officers moved further up the river, they found the Oulliminden in a bitter rivalry with the Kounta [an Arab group] that also claimed the territory around Bourem. The Kounta and the Oulliminden were not at a full scale war but instead conducted raids on each others’ camps from time to time, with those victimized seeking retribution through counter raids. Further complicating the picture were settled groups of Songhaï and Bella Bella [slaves of the Tuareg] who were most vulnerable to these raids and banditry from raiding Kounta and Oulliminden.

The French, though their initial presence was weak, had the military and resources to bring stability to the region and they did this by first befriending the settled peoples along the river and later the Kounta. The Kounta debated little over allying with the French as they saw their presence as an opportunity to secure the territory around Bourem from the Oulliminden. Their alliance to the foreigners would pay off in the long run as the French committed to the region and suppressed any resistance while rewarding groups that aided them in securing their control over the region.

The first collective effort by the Oulliminden to push out the French came in 1899 when the Europeans placed soldiers and built posts in Gao, Ansongo, Sinder and Dounzou. The Tuareg not only attacked these remote colonial posts but also raided Kounta camps near Bourem which were violent but lucrative attacks for the Oulliminden. The region had been experiencing famine for several years not due to drought because the raids destabilized trade and food production. A year later, the Oulliminden ceased their military campaigns in the hope that the French would stop their expansion and guarantee their rights to lands around Bourem. The French did not concede their posts along the river but did (temporarily) create a protectorate for the Oulliminden as they shifted their military operations to the Hoggar and Aïr Mountains to suppress other Tuareg resistance.

The protectorate meant nothing to the Kounta. Angered at the sacking of several of their camps during the Oulliminden uprising, they retaliated in 1901 by raiding a large camp of Oulliminden at Tiguirirt, killing men, capturing slaves and women and taking animals, equipment and weapons. The Oulliminden would strike back but the French did little to bring peace between the two for the next ten years. Only in 1912 did the French impose sanctions on the Oulliminden for conducting raiding parties.

As it became apparent that the protectorate existed only on paper, the Oulliminden approached the French once more in an effort to secure what few rights possibly remained. The Oulliminden were weakened by the earlier clash with the French and by the current Kounta raids. Yet the French were also in no position to implement their policies in Oulliminden territory just yet. For a brief period from 1906-08, the French were considering making the Oulliminden territory, at this point reduced to the region of Ménaka, a Secteur Nomade where colonial policies would favor the preservation of nomad customs and livelihoods. This idea, however, was never realized at least not intentionally.

Many of the colonial policies implemented in Francophone Africa fractured Tuareg society further (at least for the next ten years). The French emancipated the slaves and vassals of the Tuareg on moral, diplomatic and economic grounds. Many of the settled peoples along the Niger River that the French allied with during colonial expansion were slaves of the Tuareg or paying tithes to the Tuareg to ensure their security. Tithes to Tuareg nobles became taxes to French administrators as these communities were potential revenue makers and a source of food production for the colony. Raiding and banditry did not end under French rule but the scale and frequency was reduced dramatically to the point that this was not a viable strategy for many Tuareg.

The Oulliminden did not passively relinquish their military authority in the region but were delayed in any resistance to French dominion for several years. First, their involvement with raids against the Kounta occupied the Oulliminden and delayed any organized resistance to foreign domination. Second the French, influenced by Kounta leaders, imposed economic sanctions on Oulliminden territory in order to punish the group seen as responsible for the region’s instability. Finally few rains came to the region on the summer months of 1912. The Oulliminden faced vulnerability to famine in 1913 with the violence of Kounta raiding parties, the suppression of regional trade by the French, and the failure of rains to renew pasture reserves for their animals.

Despite the drawbacks the Oulliminden armed for a future revolt to French rule in 1914. Misguided by inaccurate intelligence of the French weakening due to other insurgencies up river, the Oulliminden commenced small-scale attacks on French forts in May. The French were swift in their response, arresting the leaders of the revolt before a large assault ensued but in 1916 the incarcerated leaders escaped their captors and organized their forces for a large scale assault to the northeast of Andéramboukane, a military post situated on a permanent lake. The lake was and still is an important water source for the Tuareg and other pastoralists in the region. Rebel leaders must have viewed the control of this water source as vital to regain their authority in the territory and in the maintenance of their herds during the revolt.

The French, guided by accurate intelligence, sent an expeditionary force backed up by Kounta méharistes around the lake to outflank the Oulliminden and in doing so, surprised the Tuareg camps. The battle was completely one-sided as the French ended the Oulliminden revolt and the Kounta received for their assistance carte blanche in dividing up the spoils of the disbanded Oulliminden camps. Once again the Kounta profited from their allegiance and partnership with the French while the Oulliminden experienced hardship and loss to their resistance to colonial rule.

With other Tuareg revolts ending in defeat and submission to French rule in Algeria, Niger and Upper Volta [today known as Burkina Faso], the French pursued a general policy of converting the Tuareg from pastoral livelihoods to farming. Colonial officials viewed the Tuareg nomadic way of life as backward and an obstacle to the development of their colonies. Furthermore, tax collection and policing of African communities was more difficult to conduct with mobile populations as was learned through the intrigues and revolts that took place from 1914-17. In the case of Oulliminden territory, plans and programs to develop irrigation and privatize land in the Ménaka region were proposed but little was implemented as the limited revenues collected in the French colonies often went to grand projects in the south like the Malian cotton growing schemes around Koutiala and Bougouni or the major rice growing project known as l’Office du Niger near Mopti. This neglect allowed many Tuareg the opportunity to restock their herds and continue their livelihoods with minimal interference from colonial officials.

The little funding that trickled into the Ménaka region often went to policing and the maintenance of roads. At the height of the Great Depression, French colonial officials began a debate over whether to keep the region in the administration of Soudan Français where Bamako was the capital (1400 km from Ménaka) or to integrate it into the colony of Niger. Proponents of the change argued that Niamey (the capital of the Niger colony by 1926 and 250 km from Ménaka) was closer to Oulliminden territory and had greater economic ties to Western Niger, more so than the rest of Mali. Another argument voiced later by officials on the ground was the difficulty in regulating the black market activities that developed in Ménaka and extended into the Anglophone colonies of Nigeria and the Gold Coast [the country known as Ghana today].

Any possibility of connecting the region of Ménaka to Niger ended with the start of World War II and the Malian nationalist movement that appeared shortly after the war. Colonial officials shifted their priorities to the maintenance of African loyalty to the French Republic and to the recruitment of colonial subjects into Charles De Gaulle’s resistance to German occupation after 1940. The same ethnic group that filled the ranks of Soudan’s colonial administration was also recruited into De Gaulle’s infantry. The Bambara dominated the ranks of Africans working in the Soudan Français, they were the majority of troops coming from the Soudan to fight against the Germans, and they would dominate the leadership and membership of the political party calling for an end to French rule in the late 1940s and 1950s. The independence movement in Soudan would not accept any reorganization of territory that did not favor their inheritance and when independence came, the new political elite had ideas of how to integrate Mali’s diverse population into one nationality and grand schemes to develop the remoter regions and its resources.

For most Oulliminden the changing political picture had little to no consequence on their lives. French rule, though initially brutal, had little influence on their lives from 1917 to the 1950s. They were able to maintain their society, restock their herds from the violence of the 1910s and redevelop their market links to the south due to the underfunding, understaffing and lack of interest officials in Bamako had in the remote and drier parts of Soudan Français. The only exception to this was the development of nomadic schools in the 1950s where Tuareg parents began gradually to send one or all of their children. As long as the government did not interfere with their society and access to local resources, the Oulliminden were indifferent to either a European or African administration. For a few individuals in Oulliminden society, the new political elite was an opportunity for advancement and their participation in the independence movement in many situations rewarded them local seats of power in the Ménaka region or modest administrative posts in Bamako. Many in Oulliminden leadership however, held concerns over what future plans the Bambara-dominated government held for the Ménaka region and they would be the forefathers and foundation of Tuareg resistance to the central authority of the Malian state in decades to come.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Amnesty International members and others interested in Human Rights

I have a large posting coming up next week on the origins of Tuareg mistrust in central authority but for now I wanted to post a link to a large New York Times article on the current rebellion in Niger that a friend of mine brought to my attention. In my opinion, the writer romanticizes the position of the rebels, le Mouvement dès Nigériens Pour la Justice or MNJ but I do agree with the author that more people need to be aware of what is going on in the Sahara regarding indigenous peoples’ right to their land and resources. Please, if you are interested in this subject read on and contact your congressional leaders, Amnesty International or other human rights organizations about what actions can be taken to end the violence in Niger.

The link to the NY Times article is:


I thank Justin Marcello for bringing this article to my attention.