Tuaregs protesting for autonomy on November 1. Photo sent by a FRANCE 24 Observer.
With the end of the war in Libya, many Tuaregs who served in Muammar Gaddafi’s army returned to their homeland in the Sahel desert in northern Mali. The country’s authorities are concerned that these veteran fighters may now join the ranks of the separatist movement in northern Mali.
Tuaregs are a nomad community of about 1.5 million people spread across Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. Since Mali gained independence in 1960, Tuaregs have complained of being marginalised and treated as second-class citizens by the authorities. They even staged several armed uprisings in 1963, 1990 and 2007, despite the signature of a peace treaty between Tuareg rebel leaders and the Malian government in 2006. Today, the Tuareg community continues to seek self-determination in the Azawad region of northern Mali.
Tensions between Tuaregs and the Malian authorities have spiked since the return of veterans of Libya’s civil war, some of whom were also part of the 1990 rebellion against the Malian government. The government fears a rebirth of the separatist movement as well as a degradation of the security situation in the Sahel area, where members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are based. In the wake of Gaddafi’s death, the government sent a special envoy to the Sahel region to help calm tensions, but some analysts say Tuareg leaders have nevertheless hardened their stance against the Malian government.
Members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad protesting in Kidal on November 1. Photo sent by a FRANCE 24 Observer.
On October 16, the self-described “non-violent” National Azawad Movement, one of the main proponents of an autonomous Azawad region, joined forces with the North Mali Tuareg Movement, an armed group formerly led by the late rebel chief Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who was killed in August. Together, they became the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). According to the Malian press, this development could be a signal that a new Tuareg rebellion is in the making.
On November 1, hundreds of Tuaregs in the cities of Kidal, Menaka, Gao and Timbuktu responded to the new movement’s call for a march celebrating its first anniversary (in reality, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the birth of the National Azawad movement).
Video of the protest in Kidal on November 1. Published on YouTube by amassakoulable.
“We welcomed the Tuaregs returning from Libya with open arms”
Mohamed Ali is a 28-year-old Tuareg student and member of the MNLA. He divides his time between the Malian capital Bamako and Menaka, in the country's north-east.
Tuaregs here welcomed the veterans returning from Libya with open arms. Some came back to the country with weapons [that Malian authorities are reportedly trying to buy]. But we don’t want to let ourselves be carried away by the situation. This wave of fighters should not be taken lightly. This is why we formed an alliance with the North Mali Tuareg Movement, to integrate them with our own armed branch. That way, we can oversee both the fighters and the weapons.For years, Malian authorities have accused Tuaregs of being responsible for everything that is wrong in the region. They say we support AQMI and radical Islamists as well as drug trafficking, yet this is not true [according to some reports, only a small number of Tuaregs have joined AQIM-linked groups]. Since the end of the war in Libya, the government is convinced that the returning veterans will join AQIM and increase ‘insecurity’ in the Sahel region. But we are sick of being lumped together with terrorists.We want to show that we are neither Islamists nor drug traffickers. Neither are the Tuaregs who served in Gaddafi’s army. Those generally left the country years ago because they were unemployed and ignored by the state.Our fight is political, above all. We are asking for the self-determination of the northern Mali territories, because we believe that we should be able to develop and protect these territories ourselves, especially against the threat posed by AQIM. We would prefer to obtain autonomy through peaceful means, but if the government continues to ignore our demands, then we will consider a return to armed fighting.