Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Veiled People Take up Arms Once Again: The New Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

The Kel Tamasheq or Kel Tamajaq people of the Sahara, better known as the Tuareg, have been rising against various outsiders who sought to rule them during the past century, with nearly half a dozen notable uprisings over the years. These have mainly centered in the Azawad region encompassing parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria.

Tuaregs, a nomadic people numbering about 1.5 million, famous for the ‘veiled’ men, live in an area in the Sahara which encompasses the territories of five countries. Mali has the highest number of Tuaregs followed by Niger. Therefore, these two countries have witnessed the majority of Tuareg rebel activity respectively. Algeria also has a sizable population of Tuaregs followed by much lower numbers in Burkina Faso and Libya.

In the colonial era, these people resented the French and later the Italian encroachment of their freedom, against whom they rebelled. Later, after the countries they live became independent, their anger was directed at the new regimes. This was especially the case with Mali and also in Niger. First such rebellion against the newly independent Mali was crushed ruthlessly during 1962-64. However, the cycle of the central governments attempting to control the Tuaregs and the Tuaregs attempting to free themselves has been continuing. Rebellions broke up especially during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. These rebels were by no means a uniform entity. They belong to dozens of groups and their objectives were numerous, ranging from wider autonomy to a Pan-Tuareg nation encompassing all Tuareg inhabited regions.

The latest development in this cycle has been seen after the civil war in Libya. Some Tuareg were incorporated the Libyan Army of Gaddafi, and at the end of the war they returned to their homelands. Also, the increasing militarization of Libya meant that modern weapons reached the Azawad region. Also, it is said that the modern leaders met with the leaders of the earlier rebellions while they were in Libya and this has helped them to form a strong organization.

However, considering the latest rebellion by this organization, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, as a result of the aftermath of the Libyan Civil War is an oversimplification. Although the influx of weapons and fighters is a crucial factor, which is said to have surprised the Malian government, the underlying reason for the upsurge of violence is the continuing grievances of the Tuareg people. Without the people supporting them the rebels will not be able to fight on for so long. The recurring rebellions and the accompanying military crackdown have generated a sympathetic popular base in the Azawad for the rebels.

The government of Mali has been trying to defeat the latest rebellion at the outset with little success so far. The rebels launched attacks on several towns including Aguelhoc, Tessalit, Menaka and Kidal from mid-January to early February 2012. The families of soldiers in the Malian Army are criticizing the government for its conduct of the military campaign against the rebels. A new approach is required from the government than pure brute force if the rebellion is to be defeated. Whether the Bamako government can launch an effective counterinsurgency has to be seen.

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