Will romanticising the Tuareg threaten peace in Mali?

France has a long history of glamorising the “blue men of the Sahara”. But following the intervention in Mali, should France be perceived as partial to the minority Tuareg, the chances of a lasting peace could be under threat.


With their faces obscured behind prodigious indigo turbans and their uncanny navigational skills in a primordial landscape, the Tuareg are perfect Orientalist fantasy material and the French have been working that narrative for over a century.

From the line-etched logo of the famously difficult Dakar Rally, to tourist brochures offering encounters with les mysterieux hommes bleus du Sahara, the mysterious “blue men” are portrayed as “aristocrats of the desert, proud as princes” with a fierce fighting record in a fierce terrain.

“It started with the colonial imagination of looking at a group of people and deciding that one group is more ‘interesting’ compared to the other,” said Mamadou Diouf, director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University, New York.

“It was the French who invented the title ‘the blue men’ because of their clothes and their ability to appear and disappear in the Sahara and it was very much part of the French colonial ethnology,” explained Diouf.

More than a century after the French conquest of the Sahara, much has changed in the terrain that stretches across present day Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

But following last week’s liberation of the northern Malian city of Kidal - marking the end of the first phase of the intervention in Mali - the French discourse on the Tuareg has a ring of déjà vu.

This time, the narrative centres on the latest incarnation in a long list of postcolonial Tuareg rebel groups - the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad).

With the Islamist militants retreating to the remote Ifoghas mountains near the Mali-Algeria border, the French-led mission has reached a difficult phase in terrain far from the Malian capital of Bamako. Once again, the Tuareg are being sought for their desert navigational skills, this time in the crackdown against al Qaeda-linked militants.

“They are important allies for Bamako,” said Pierre Boilley, director of the Paris-based CEMAF (Centre d’Études des Mondes Africains) who believes that without the MNLA, the war against terrorism in the region is doomed to failure.

‘The group of rebels who best know the terrain’

The war against the Islamist militant groups in the region is also complicated by the French hostage issue.

There are currently seven French nationals being held by jihadist groups - some have been in captivity for over two years - in the Sahel, the southern rocky frontier of the Sahara. Following the liberation of Kidal, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was “likely” that the hostages were being held in the Ifoghas region.

Given the difficult terrain, experts such as Pierre Conesa, a former senior French Defense Ministry official, believe the MNLA is best equipped to help address the hostage situation.

"This is the group of rebels who best know the terrain and is presenting itself as the main negotiating ally,” said Conesa in an interview with FRANCE 24 last week.

France’s sensitivity to the MNLA leadership’s wishes was underscored last week when French troops entered their northern stronghold of Kidal, without the Malian army.

Before the Kidal invasion, MNLA spokesmen made it clear that they would surrender to the French military, but not their traditional foe, the Malian army.

The MNLA’s ties with official French military and administrative circles have been a question of much conjecture among Malians in the months before the French intervention.

Some of the group’s top leaders live in France and their spokesmen make frequent media appearances, sparking Malian suspicions.

“The MNLA has a very good communication strategy,” said Marie Rodet, from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “They are well connected, they know how to put out their message and are adept at using media platforms.”

Before the military intervention turned the French into Mali’s new heroes, suspicions of Paris’ perceived links with the Tuareg rebellion were so strong that the French Ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer published an open letter on a Malian news site last year calling on Malians to “please, stop” making “fallacious, unfounded and baseless accusations”.

'Allies in the anti-jihadist counterinsurgency’

If there were any misconstrued Malian fears that France was opposed to Mali’s territorial integrity, the January 11 French intervention has effectively put that to rest.

But as the intervention enters a second - potentially more dangerous – phase, counterinsurgency cooperation with the MNLA appears to be bearing fruit.

On Monday, an MNLA spokesman told reporters that their fighters had captured two senior Islamist fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine and MUJAO (Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa) groups respectively.

In an interview with Radio France International (RFI) last week, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré said he was ready for talks with the MNLA provided they laid down their arms and recognised the country’s territorial integrity.

“The MNLA is coming back into the picture right now,” said Rodet. “Dioncounda Traoré has said the MNLA are legitimate partners. I believe it’s because the French are putting pressure on the Malian authorities. But it won’t be that easy on the ground. I’m not sure the people will forget the MNLA’s role in the current crisis.”

No signs of remorse from the MNLA

In April 2012, shortly after a military coup in Bamako, the MNLA declared the independence of northern Mali – or “Azawad”.

But in the course of eight disastrous months, the Tuareg rebel group lost control of huge swathes of the region to an unsavoury mix of jihadist groups whose push southward was finally halted by the January 11 French intervention.

The MNLA itself shows little signs of coming to terms with their responsibility for the current crisis.

“All Malians share responsibility for this crisis,” said MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “The international community has a responsibility in this crisis because AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] was in Azawad for many years and no one fought them in Azawad.”

But for many Malians who followed the MNLA’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts last year to form an alliance with Ansar Dine, such proclamations sound disingenuous at best. They’re also keenly aware that some of the top Ansar Dine leaders – such as Iyad Ag Ghali – are veteran Tuareg rebels.

Shortly after the group’s April 2012 declaration of independence of northern Mali, there were early signs of ethnic targeting, when FRANCE 24 reported that fearing a backlash, Bamako’s Tuareg community was fleeing the city.

An ethnic backlash erupted last month after the liberation of Timbuktu, when hundreds of people in the historic city broke into shops owned by ethnic Arabs and Tuareg perceived collaborators.

The Tuareg and other lighter skinned ethnic groups - commonly called “Arabs” - comprise around 10 percent of Mali’s total population of 14 million.

Amid warnings by human rights groups, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for the “rapid deployment” of international observers to monitor human rights abuses in Mali.

The situation has since calmed down, but it’s an uneasy calm of simmering tensions in a multiethnic country.

“It’s going to be a long process of social integration, which is why, I suppose, the French are not ready to leave immediately,” said Rodet. “The Tuareg are a tiny minority – even in northern Mali. Some people even say that these Tuareg rebellions are not legitimate. They’re a tiny population, but just because they rebel, they get a disproportionate share of attention.”

Cycles of war, peace and shattered peace

The Tuareg have a history of rebellions and peace accords with the authorities in Bamako since Mali gained independence in 1960.

The first postcolonial rebellion in the 1960s – known as the Afellaga rebellion – was put down by the Malian army. But waves of Tuareg groups, in an alphabet soup of acronyms, took up arms again in the 1990s and early 2000s, many of them aided by combat experience gained as mercenaries in former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regional wars.

The latest conflict is a direct outcome of the 2011 Libyan uprising which saw the region awash with Gaddafi’s arms and former mercenaries.

A coup in the South, a rebellion in the North

Many experts warn that unless the underlining sources of the frequent Tuareg rebellions are addressed, any future political solution will go the same way as previous peace accords – blown away in the Saharan sands.

Click on map to enlarge

An impoverished, landlocked West African nation, Mali ranks among the world’s 25 poorest countries. The harsh, inhospitable northern region has always presented an economic challenge, exacerbating Tuareg disenfranchisement.

But as Rodet notes, “The failure of the centralised state to develop infrastructure is not specific to the North, it can be seen everywhere in Mali.”

According to Rodet, most Malians are responding adversely to the lack of governance. “In the South, it was a military coup and in the North, they were responding by relying on a history of rebellion.”

While everyone understands the need for a political solution to the crisis, Rodet suggests that there’s little to gain by Bamako adopting a “patronizing” position that appears to reward the rebellious.

“The state has to rethink its governance, to begin to build political stability. That’s the challenge for the Malian people,” said Diouf.

But with ethnic tensions simmering under the surface of the French-enforced stability, Mali’s political leadership – such as it is – is likely to rely on the help of regional countries as well as the former colonial power.

In the long run, if France is perceived as partial to the romantic, blue men of the Sahara, the war might be won, but not the peace.

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