By Baptiste Marecaille
The Tuareg are a people whose existence in the Saharan desert goes back to the birth of civilisation. Their culture, largely dependent on borderless, nomadic migration, has increasingly come under threat, subject to the violent political dynamics of the surrounding states. As the Malian government struggles to reform its constitution and the country slides into a state of emergency, this ultimately raises the question of the continued place of the Tuareg people in an increasingly ‘modern’ society; could they still be considered a people living without borders today?
A people historically independent
Many African countries achieved independence in the early 1960s. The Tuareg’s homeland was fragmented and divided among these newly emerged states. The Tuareg, numbering 1.5 million people, now inhabit a territory that spans five countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger. Though most have now settled, a small number of Tuareg have preserved their nomadic traditions and continue to move across national borders. The Tuareg live in arid, barren and unforgiving lands, amongst the poorest in the world, and as a result they often suffer from chronic food insecurity. The paths that different groups took, whether by settling in different regions or retaining nomadic lifestyles, have led to stark differences in their religions, dialects and customs. The tribe remains the foundation of the Tuareg’s basic social structure, with each tribe dividing individuals into a variety of castes which distinguish between “nobles” and “vassals”. These tribes fall under larger entities, transnational confederations that are referred to as ‘ettebel’. The confederations’ rooted alignment with their respective states runs directly counter to the establishment of a pan-Tuareg movement and the objective of Tuareg emancipation.
The paradox of independence movements
Like many other ethnic minority groups in North Africa and the Sahel, the Tuareg suffer a variety of economic, social, and political grievances. Since their forced inclusion into their post-colonial states, the Tuareg complain of systematic marginalization. They claim that government intervention and development projects (i.e the exploitation of oil reserves), have disturbed their pastoral lifestyle and reduced their access to livelihood. Restrictions on their movement, a direct result of the national borders imposed on them, have led to competition for resources and conflict between the Tuareg and neighboring ethnic groups. Inevitably, this leads to revolts. A recent example of which was the one led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which took advantage of Mali’s governmental instability after the 2012 coup d’etat and quickly took over the north of the country. While not unanimously backed by all of the Tuareg tribes, this rebellion represents the splintering of Tuareg unity as the jihadist movement resonated with some tribes who hoped to glimpse the possibility of independence.
The borders: an impediment or an issue?
Borders are an ongoing concern for the Tuareg people. The failure of globalization’s consistency and inclusivity has reinforced feelings of rejection among the Tuareg. While globalization promised a free flow of goods and people, the Tuareg remain paralysed in the Sahara, repressed by their respective governments with the consent of former colonizers such as France. Borders are an abstract idea, lines on a map with no physical reality. Yet, as evidenced by the Tuareg experience, they can have very real consequences. A colonial relic left behind by European diplomats after an era of colonisation, borders represent a barrier to Tuareg aspirations for emancipation and improved living conditions. Whether or not they will be able to achieve liberation and recover their freedom to move and trade as their forebearers did before them, is a question that remains to be answered.
Baptiste Marécaille is an exchange student in political science from Sciences Po in Paris. Also interested in history and arts, he endeavours to understand and forward French and European politics and their challenges.