The Dream of Azawad.
Precis: While no two wars ought to be compared to each other, the latest flare-up in Mali is only the latest jihaadist insurgency in the Sahel, going back into antiquity. In its turn, the tragedy of Mali bears the hallmarks of other wars we know rather better, of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, the Kurds of Iraq and the wars which recently divided Sudan.
Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Libya — Africa has become a Gulliver, tied down by millions of miles of irrelevant borders. It is pointless to blame the colonialists for all Africa’s troubles: there was never much order in Africa, no idyllic past. The storied empires of West Africa rose and fell and became the stuff of myths and legends.
This essay is heavily indebted to the work of Peter Chilson at FP and his remarkable Dogon driver, Isaac. I am the child of missionaries to Niger Republic. The Sahel was once my home: I knew nowhere else for many years but I was never truly an African. Peter Chilson is perhaps the only writer I’ve come across who captures the brutal essence of being un blanc en l’Afrique, a white man in Africa, utterly dependent on the goodwill and intelligence of local people, a stranger in a strange land.
Isaac is a Christian and a Dogon, a people who have evolved a strategy of living in cliffs: they have been the prey of Tuareg slavers for centuries. The Dogon are still persecuted for they cling to their animist and now Christian beliefs. Comment chanterions-nous les cantiques de l’Éternel sur une terre étrangère?
As the Nile defines Egypt, so the Niger River defines the Sahel. Beginning in the lush forests of the Guinea Highlands, the Niger River moves north through Mali, turning south at Timbuktu, giving its name to both Niger Republic and Nigeria. Much of the recent fighting in Mali, including the shootdown of a French Gazelle helicopter, centers on the confluence of the Niger River and its first major tributary, the Bani River at Mopti and Kanna
The Niger River forms a huge inland delta at Mopti. Mopti is Mali’s natural nexus of control, the most desirable strategic location, centred at Mali’s waist. To the north and east, Mali stretches out into the Sahara, the province of the Tuareg. It has become detached from Mali proper, given a new name, a Tuareg name, Azawad, the ancient name of a prehistoric river, savannah and flood plain. Plainly, Azawad means a savannah. Once the entire Sahara was a savannah. As tectonic forces lifted the Sahara, the landscape emptied out, leaving only the nomadic Tuareg to dominate the basin.
For many years, the ungovernable and nomadic Tuareg have been fighting for independence, causing no end of trouble. The Tuareg never got a nation of their own, mostly because they were so widely hated as slavers, smugglers and caravan raiders. The Tuareg are easy to distinguish from their southern counterparts: they’re not as black, for one. The Tuareg have never acknowledged the rule of the post-colonial regimes. And the Tuareg still keep black slaves. It is a simple fact, beyond discussion or accusations of prejudice on my part to say that among the Tuareg are some of the cruelest people in the world. If they are hated, they have well and truly earned that hatred. Many if not most of the slaves sold into America were captured and sold by Tuareg and the Tuareg are still at it. They perpetuate a vassal system of captive labour and maintain a strictly-enforced caste system.
It is not unheard-of for the Tuareg to lead African migrants seeking passage into Europe into the deserts and leave them to die, as the Mexican coyotes have done in the deserts of Arizona.
The French built up the myth of the Tuareg as Noble Savages. But for all their cunning and self-serving, the Tuareg are not very clever in the larger scope of things. They’ve made bad enemies and worse friends among the Islamists. And like the Pashtuns, who made the same errors, taking up with the same evil company, the hammer of the gods will fall on the Tuaregs and Islamists alike. Not all the Tuareg deserve what is happening to them but many do.
The Tuareg have been fighting the government of Mali since its inception. Truth is, they’ve been fighting everyone who ever tried to attenuate their evil ways. The Tuareg served as mercenaries in Libya for Gaddafi’s regime. With the fall of Libya, the mercs were pushed out of Libya, but not before they’d armed themselves to the teeth from Gaddafi’s massive arsenals.
Other sinister ministers were pushed out of North Africa into Tuareg-controlled territory: Algeria has been at war with Islamist insurgencies since 1991. President Bouteflika managed to achieve some level of rapprochement with one Islamic faction, but the Salafists became a franchise for Al-Qaeda with the imprimatur of Ayman al-Zawahri.
The Tuareg have made a bad bargain with their new Salafist buddies. No sooner had the Islamists been welcomed into the Tuareg fight for independence than the Salafists became the camel in that tent. When the Tuareg attempted to wrest control of their own insurgency back from the erstwhile Algerian Salafists, the Tuareg were given a tremendous beating. This phenomenon was seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Islamists murdered off the organic Pashtun leadership.
Mali was once held up as a paragon of democracy, not that the veneer of democracy was very thick. It peeled up quickly enough: in March of last year, a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, erased two decades of reforms in a heartbeat. The coup plotters formed two factions, the Red Berets and the Green Berets, culminating in frantic cruelties visited on the losing Red Berets. As Mali went from bad to worse, the Azawad area of Mali simply detached itself from Mali proper, declaring itself independent on 6 April, 2012. The Mali democracy had always been centred on the populous (and black) south. Though there were some good roads put in for the tourists going to Timbuktu, the thinly-populated (and Tuareg) north had always been neglected. But so was most of Mali, it was never a rich nation and extending Mali’s writ into the lawless desert was a thankless task: the Tuareg had never accepted the Bamako government.
The French never really understood the Tuareg, though they fought them long and hard. Though I’ve said nasty (and entirely true) things about the Tuareg, back in the 1950s, there were Tuareg intellectuals who pleaded with Charles de Gaulle to give the Tuareg their own nation. Quoting Peter Chilson’s “We Never Know Exactly Where”
Muhammad Ali ag Attaher, a Tuareg intellectual and chieftain, wrote to French President Charles de Gaulle in 1959, pleading with him to acknowledge a Tuareg homeland. “The Tuareg will never accept the present position of their country,” the letter said with ominous accuracy, “which is divided between the government of Mali and the government of Niger.” But France ignored the plea, and ag Attaher went to prison in Mali for agitating against the new government. (He was exiled to Morocco, where he died in 1994.)
Tuaregs in Niger and Mali have since argued that they have been denied employment, food, and medical resources enjoyed by other ethnic groups, as well as fair treatment by the courts. As a result, talk of a Saharan Tuareg state has pushed beyond the area of Azawad to include parts of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mauritania, and Niger as well.
Still, by 1998 Mali believed it had definitively ended the successive Tuareg rebellions with a new peace accord. “This is one case in which ethnic trauma appears to have been solved… in which leaders on both sides of a difficult divide have shown vision and political courage,” wrote Malian Lt. Col. Kalifa Keita. “This is a case in which democratic reform survived the challenge of ancient hatreds… Truly, this is a story for our times.”
But ag Attaher and his heirs wanted something more radical than a piece of paper declaring peace, and in their story, I imagine, is more than a plea for a Tuareg homeland. It is about a return to old Africa, to the way things were before the colonies, before the cartographic mess Europe made of Africa, before independence and military coups. So when I think of Timbuktu and the new land of Azawad that has taken uneasy custody of it, I imagine the continent without borders, all 104 of them. And the countries they frame (there are 54), I forget about those, too. I turn the clock back. Block out the memory of Europe in Africa altogether: the two Berlin conferences and the “scramble for Africa,” Stanley and Livingstone, the “Belgian” Congo, “French” West and “British” East Africa, the searches for the headwaters of the Nile and Niger rivers, and the colonial wars, like the Bani-Volta insurgency, the Mao Mao and Zulu rebellions, the Boer War, and so on. None of that ever happened. Of course, I’ll have to delete as well all remaining non-African names like “Ivory Coast,” “Cape Town,” and “Brazzaville.” I wipe the map clean and start over, before European traders arrived on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, before the slave trade with the Americas, before the arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe and Islam from across the Sahara. That pushes us back to around the year 1100, when a few million people roamed the continent, surviving off livestock, farming and hunting, ruled by spiritual beliefs, kingdoms, empires, and warlords we don’t know a lot about.
Africa is overwhelming in its history and size, some 12 million square miles of searing desert, high craggy mountains, impenetrable rain forests, and grassy steppes vast as oceans. More than a billion people live in Africa. They speak more than 2,000 distinct languages. All this makes me want to put the borders back on the map if only because they restore something familiar to the shape of Africa, as if Africa in all its glorious complexity has been settled, pacified, and understood. Which, of course, it has not.
I see that now.
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There’s so much more to say. I’ll pick this topic up in a subsequent essay: this should be considered only as a backgrounder. Events in Mali are unfolding faster than I can interpret them. There are no good guys in this fight. The French tried subduing the Tuareg and didn’t succeed. They might make some headway against them this go-round but they are only throwing the Tuareg Bre’r Rabbit into the briar patch. I predict all this will go down exactly as the American war against Al-Qaeda went down in AfPak.