Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tuareg Unrests in Mali and Niger - Age-old Contentions Rear Head


Left: Among other grievances, Tuareg rebels are demanding greater autonomy

Tuareg Rebels Raid Mali Barracks

Tuareg rebels have attacked a military base in northern Mali, killing at least 14 people and taking several hostages.

Military sources said at least 20 vehicles carrying rebels arrived at the base 400km (250 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako shortly before dawn.

The attack is the first major clash since the rebels, who are demanding greater autonomy, signed a peace deal with the government in July.

Left: Armed Tuareg insurgents

Last week, Mali's president reiterated his call for further peace talks.

Amadou Toumani Toure called on the rebels to lay down their arms, saying that "those who want war can go elsewhere".

But the BBC's West Africa correspondent Will Ross says the attack shows that yet another attempt to make peace in northern Mali has failed.

A military source described the scene at the base as "carnage".

"There are 14 soldiers killed including the chief of the post, 15 others injured, and it appears that hostages were taken," he said. The source said they believed rebel chief Ibrahim Ag Bahanga was behind the attack.
Mr Bahanga had not signed up to the peace deal and decided to fight on, says our correspondent.

A source close to Mr Bahanga said the rebels had "gained the upper hand in the attack" and claimed to have killed "more than 20" soldiers.

"We regret that, but it was them or us. We have wounded on our side," the unnamed source told AFP.

The Tuareg are an historically nomadic people living in the Sahara and Sahel regions of North Africa. Tuareg militants in Mali and Niger have been engaged in sporadic armed struggles for several decades. The Malian military has accused them of involvement in drug-smuggling.

Tuareg unrest

More than 44 soldiers have been killed in Niger since the formation in February of a new rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

Initially confined to Niger, recent tensions are now spilling into neighbouring Mali, where scores of government troops have been abducted in the country's remote north. While rebels in both countries claim not to seek political dominance, and talk of widespread rebellion is still dismissed by analysts, the rising tide of insurgency is a sure and growing obstacle to the stability of the Sahel.

A Tuareg splinter group in Mali announced it had formed an alliance with Tuareg rebels in neighbouring Niger, who have begun a military offensive since last year against the Niger government.

The governments of Mali and Niger have said they will work together against the rebels who have demanded better development and a share of Niger's mineral wealth.

Who are the Tuareg?

The Tuareg are a nomadic people descended from the Berbers of North Africa. For hundreds of years, they have operated caravans across the Sahara desert, trading in dates, perfume, spices and slaves.

Left: Map area of major Tuareg presence

Summer temperatures in the Sahara reach 50C and winter brings "Harmattan" dust storms which can block out the sun for days. At the end of French colonial rule in West Africa, the Tuareg found themselves straddled between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to the south; Algeria and Libya to the north.

They share their own language - Tamasheq - and have been largely Muslim since the 16th Century. They are known as the "Blue men of the desert" because of their trademark indigo gowns and turbans, which also cover their mouths. Drinking tea is considered an important social ritual with cups drunk in threes; sweet and often flavoured with mint.

What are the Tuaregs' grievances?

While it is hard to assess the level of support for the methods of militant groups among all ethnic Tuareg, the nature of their grievances is broadly the same.

Their forefathers largely subdued by French colonial rule, today's Tuareg in Mali and Niger complain of poor representation in governments and militaries dominated by the darker-skinned peoples of the southern Sahel. The result, they say, has been marginalization and a continued failure to tackle Tuareg poverty. A similar political and historic dynamic exist in Darfur specifically and Sudan in general. Whereas, the political elite in the Sudan remains the descendents of those who traded in African slaves, the reverse, more or less, exists in Niger and Mali. Slavery continues to exist in these countries.

A booming uranium industry in Niger is also the source of controversy. Mining, the Tuareg say, has damaged valuable pastoral lands; while revenues have failed to benefit local communities. In addition to demands for more development the rebels have also called for a fairer share of the mining revenue. While in Sudan, the symbolic resource of a long-felt historical and political contention between African and Arabsized peoples is mainly oil. Although, other natural resources, including water and mineral extractions play a role in the divide.

What have the rebels done?

Treaties signed in Mali and Niger during the mid-1990s ended a period of open Tuareg revolt and brought a decade of relative calm to the region.

Left: Camel racing is a popular Tuareg past-time

But in February this year, Tuareg in Niger, apparently frustrated by continuing inequalities, took up arms and formed the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).

A series of attacks by the group on government facilities in the Sahara has since claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers. Neighbouring Mali has also seen a rise in Tuareg rebel activity where large numbers have been taken prisoner this year.

A colonel in the Malian army is, in addition, known to have defected to join the rebels.

What are the Mali and Niger governments doing?

On the diplomatic side, there have been fresh attempts at reconciliation. The Malian government held talks in Algiers earlier this year with Tuareg opposition group, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

The Niger government has, for its part, called on President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to mediate in its dealings with the MNJ.

Meanwhile, the security ministers of Mali and Niger held talks in August to co-ordinate efforts on the ground. They have agreed to joint patrols along their common border and to allow both countries' forces to pursue rebels into each others' territory.

President Mamadou Tandja of Niger has also called this week for greater international support in resolving the problem. It remains to be seen, however, what this will mean.

Left: Typical Tuareg peoples

What has the impact been on the civilian populations?

While life is said to continue as normal in the capitals of Bamako and Niamey, aid agencies suggest the disruption of Saharan supply routes by recent events is being increasingly felt by people in rural areas. This comes alongside dislocation from recent floods which have affected some 14,000 in Niger alone. Concern has also been raised about the continued diverting of funds away from existing problems such as housing and the fight against malaria.

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