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The lurking reality of absurd borders and impossible ethno-sectarian configurations — and the fun has just started.
The war in Libya is over but its aftershocks keep shaking the region. A rebel Tuareg army swept across northern Mali, taking over the famous city of Timbuktu. Tuareg rebellions have long been a recurring phenomenon in Mali and Niger, but this time it was different. Ever since the regime of Gaddafi was overthrown, the governments of Mali and Niger were sounding alarm bells over the influx of heavily armed Tuareg fighters who used to serve in the army of the late dictator. Hundreds of these fighters, and the skills and the weaponry they have brought from Libya, have created a new and seemingly unstoppable type of Tuareg rebel army that has finally achieved what eluded the previous rebellions. Within a few weeks the rebels routed the minuscule Malian army and effectively partitioned the country in two. The Malian government has meanwhile collapsed altogether.
On 6 April, the veteran Tuareg national movement — National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) — declared a new independent state in Gao, the biggest of the three towns in the North. It was not very surprising that the MNLA’s declaration of independence immediately hit a wall. The State Department, the EU, the African Union, Mali’s neighbors and its government, all flatly rejected this idea out of hand. The surprising part was that the declaration was rejected from within the rebel ranks as well. For decades uprisings by Tuareg nationalists have been a major headache for local governments and their outside sponsors. Now a previously unknown rebel faction, which calls itself Ansar ed Dine, said it had no interest in independence whatsoever and its goal was instead to impose the Islamic law on the entire country of Mali
2006. Tuaregs having fun in Timbuktu.
It’s a story familiar in the Middle East and North Africa — if it’s not nationalists, then it’s Islamists. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where the former fail, the latter often step in. The capital of the de facto independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been transformed from a neglected backyard of Iraq into a sea of construction cranes. American flags are posted proudly on dashboards. Not one single American soldier had died here. But in South Yemen it’s no longer the defeated nationalists who are fighting battles against the northern army, but instead Islamic fundamentalists are imposing Sharia law on towns and areas under their control.
Nevertheless, the emergence of Tuareg fundamentalists has amazed some observers. The Tuaregs are known as occasional providers of logistic services to radical Islamic groups, but until now the nomads were not usually known as naturally born fundamentalists. As a matter of fact, MNLA has repeatedly offered its services in fighting Al Qaeda in the strategically important Sahara region to the West and the international community in exchange for recognition of Tuareg independence.
The tradition of men covering their faces certainly gives the Tuareg men a rather sinister look.
In fact, in Roman times, their ancestors were called the Garamantes, and controlled lucrative caravan routes across the Sahara from Mali. They repeatedly clashed with the Romans on various occasions and the last proconsul to earn a triumphus — Lucius Cornelius Balbus — won this distinguished honor from Augustus in 19 BC for having defeated the Garamantes in a series of skirmishes in modern-day Fezzan. Yet, even though the poet Virgil prophesied the subjugation of these tribesmen in his renowned epic the Aeneid, the Garamantes always remained independent of Roman rule in the province of Africa.
Modern day Tuaregs do have a reputation for smuggling, raiding and providing ruthless mercenaries to regimes across the region, including the one of Muammar Gaddafi. But Tuaregs also have a less known soft side of the bon vivants of the Sahara desert, fans of booze, partying and a peculiar music style known as Tuareg rock or Tuareg blues. Other aspects of the Tuareg culture also make them unlikely converts to the Islamist cause. The Tuaregs are largely matrilineal. Though they are not matriarchal, traditionally, in the Tuareg society women were accorded higher social status compared to Arabs and other Berber peoples. Not a bunch of folks one would normally expect to submit themselves readily to the bleak and dry routine of a Sharia state.
The leader of the new faction himself is a perfect example of this dramatic change. A renowned rebel, who single-handedly kick-started a previous Tuareg uprising, as late as 2008, Iyad ag Ghali still appears in Wikileaks sharing intelligence about Al Qaeda with U.S. diplomats. Ag Ghali’s transformation into an Islamic fundamentalist is even more surprising given the existence of personal accounts that indicate that not so long ago the man was still a big fan of smoking, drinking and partying. In this Ag Ghali was certainly not unlike many other Tuaregs of the region.
2009. The desert comes to party in Europe. Tinariwen performing live in Rubigen, Switzerland.
The Tuareg uprising in Mali has received limited media coverage and was largely overshadowed by the ongoing battles of the Arab Spring. Syria, in particular, grabbed the attention of international audiences and produced an unholy amount of analyses and plain speculations. But behind the two uprisings in Mali and Syria, happening in different parts of the region and at the first glance unrelated to each other, is lurking the same reality of absurd borders and impossible ethno-sectarian configurations. It’s a reality that hails back to decisions made by the former colonial ruler of these lands many years ago.
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