Posts Tagged 'Mali'

Who are the Tuareg?

FOR COSMOPOLITAN music lovers, the Tuareg people burst onto the scene in 2001 when their most prominent musical group, Tinariwen, kicked off an internationally acclaimed music festival outside of Timbuktu in the Malian desert. Ten years later, after playing over 700 shows in the U.S. and Europe, Tinariwen won a Grammy for “Best Foreign Language Album.”

But Tinariwen has an important history that dates back before 2001. Its members were part of the Tuareg resistance to the Malian government up until the 1990s. Most grew up in refugee camps after theishumar generation was forced out of the traditional Tuareg lifestyle by government action.

They became critical of their ancestors’ strict social hierarchies. But as Tinariwen became an international sensation, its members donned traditional Tuareg dress and helped to recreate images of a romanticized past.

With the crisis in northern Mali and the French government’s military intervention in its former colony, the Tuareg have become a focus of attention in the West in a new way. In both the mainstream press and in United Nations resolutions, they have been wrongly conflated with Islamic jihadists, while their legitimate grievances against the Malian government have been ignored.

A court in the Malian capital of Bamako issued arrest warrants last week for Tuareg leaders from both the Mouvement National de Liberation de L’Azawad (MNLA), the most prominent political Tuareg group, and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group, imported into northern Mali from Southeast Asia, with a particularly evangelical and sectarian Salafist history. These two groups are completely different in aim, origin and strategy, but the Malian state paints them with one brush.

Who are the Tuareg and what are their demands? Are they asking for a separate state?On the left-wing website Counterpunch, Patrick Cockburn argued in January, “The latest crisis has its origin in a nationalist uprising by the Tuareg in 2012.”

This is partially right, but the nature of Tuareg nationalism–and the demands of the uprising–have to be explored more concretely, or the Tuareg’s calls for economic relief and an end to state repression will be overlooked.

The UN has already ducked the pressing economic and political questions facing residents of northern Mali by denouncing the right of the Tuareg to independence. In practice, though, the uprising didn’t begin with a demand for a separate state. And France can’t be allowed to claim tht military intervention is the solution to the “problem” in Mali–while it ignores the dire economic conditions at the roots of the discontent among the Tuareg.

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THE TUAREG speak Tamasheq, part of the Berber language group. They are a majority Muslim group of a million-and-a-half people living in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. Historically nomadic and pastoralist, the Tuareg dominated the vast desert areas of these countries.

Now, because of a series of droughts in the Sahara, forced sedentariztion, restrictive land policies of the Malian state and state repression, they have become a migrant workforce in northern Africa. Some still practice pastoralism, but many more rely on urban jobs, remittances and state aid. Before the fall of the Muammar al-Qaddafi and his regime in Libya last year, some found employment in the Libyan state machine, including its military and security services.

The Tuareg have always had a strange relationship with French colonialism. During the consolidation of French Sudan–which became the Republic of Mali after independence–the colonialists met fierce resistance from the Tuareg, including a major anti-colonial uprising in 1919. Though the French won, they remained wary of the Tuareg, whose knowledge of the desert region made them formidable enemies.

The colonialists developed a romantic fascination with these desert-dwellers. As one governor of the Gao region of Mali observed in 1962, “The colonial maniacs, in love with exoticism, wanted to preserve the nomads for anthropologists, Berberophile ethnographers and Orientalist scholars exasperated by the 20th century, for whom an island of men untouched by pollution or progress had to be found, so they could inhale the delicious perfume of antiquity from time to time.”

Since military control of the Tuareg was never feasible because of the problems of desert combat, the French granted the Tuareg a great deal of autonomy. They were exempted from mandatory military service and didn’t pay taxes. The colonial masters effectively allowed the practice of slavery to continue among the Tuareg.

For this reason, sub-Saharan Malians in the South resented the privileged position that the Tuareg were afforded by the colonial state. According to the historian Baz Lecocq, most of the Tuareg view French colonialism as a better alternative to administration by the central Malian government since independence.

The Tuareg are the dominant ethnic group in the desert and in Kidal, but are a minority even in the two biggest Northern cities of Mali, Timbuktu and Gao. Although they make up less than 10 percent of the Malian population, the nomads have had a disproportionate impact on the fortunes of the Malian state since its founding in 1960. At three key junctures, they were decisive in the fate of the state as a whole.

Mali might not have been founded in the way it was if the Tuareg hadn’t entered into a deal with the Union Soudanaise-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (US-RDA), an African-socialist political party made up mostly of sub-Saharan Malians.

The US-RDA, after securing an alliance with the Tuareg, negotiated the terms of the French withdrawal. Battling a national independence movement in Algeria, the French decided to pursue a different strategy in French Sudan. They peacefully turned over the reins of power to the US-RDA, hoping to co-opt the new leadership, instead of fighting them. And indeed, there has been a very close relationship between France and the Malian government since independence.

The second time that the Tuareg affected the fate of Mali was during their second uprising in 1990. It was partly the crisis caused by the Tuareg uprising that created space for a democratic movement in the capital to overthrow the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré, which ruled Mali from 1968 to 1991. From this point forward, Mali was broadly recognized as a democracy, limited though it was.

Then Amadou Toumani Touré, the once-popular leader who replaced Traoré, was overthrown in a military coup in March 2012. Again, it was a Tuareg uprising, begun in January of that year, which triggered the eventual coup. Amadou Haya Sanogo, a low-level officer trained in the U.S., whipped up hatred of Tuareg among other ethnic groups as his justification for the coup.

Sub-Saharan resentment of the Tuareg runs high. They are often scapegoated for problems in the North, among people who cite their history with slavery and preferential treatment under the French. Sanogo justified the coup by arguing that the government in Bamako needed to crack down harder on the rebels.

Within months of the coup, irregular militia units were organized in the North around other ethnic groups to fight against “the Islamists” and Ansar Dine. It is likely that these militias made little distinction between the Tuareg of Ansar Dine, who have aligned themselves with Islamists like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Tuareg who see themselves as fighting a non-religious political battle against national oppression and for economic aid.

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TO CATEGORIZE a group of nomads as a “nation” may or may not be appropriate. It is an especially complicated question in post-colonial Africa, where colonial meddling in territorial boundaries forever changed power relations between indigenous groups.

Nevertheless, the Tuareg share a language and a history, and see themselves as a coherent group. They are unquestionably oppressed by the Malian state. Between 1964 and 1967, they were subjected to a fierce campaign of forced sedentarization, away from their traditional nomadic lifestyle. In the tradition of the colonial masters, the Malian state continued to appoint Tuareg chiefs and leaders, overturning democratic choices made by Tuareg clans. The use of Tamasheq was forbidden in schools.

During the Tuareg rebellions of 1962-63 and 1990-94, the Malian army meted out brutal collective punishment. It was accused of poisoning wells and mass killings of both civilians and livestock. The Malian state declared certain desert areas “forbidden zones” and threatened to shoot anyone in those areas–a particularly damning policy against a people who depend on grazing livestock.

The Tuareg have always claimed a right to self-determination in the Azawad, the desert region of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. If part of this right rests on the claim that they have historically dominated the area, though, then that claim is complicated by the question of slavery.

The Tuareg practiced certain forms of slavery–very different, it should be noted, than chattel slavery in the New World–until Malian independence. Noble Tuareg families kept house slaves (“iklan”) and demanded tribute from “slave” agricultural villages. Historically, they had also been involved in trafficking slaves across North Africa. One element that spurred the Tuareg to rebel in 1962 was their desire to control their social hierarchies (and slaves) without intervention by the state in Bamako–which, unlike the French, undertook a serious effort to end unfree labor.

Inside Mali, one popular explanation for the violence in the North is that the Tuareg fighters had been mercenaries fighting for the Libyan regime and were returning heavily armed after the fall of Qaddafi. The Northern insurgents aren’t ideological, goes this argument, but are former clients of Qaddafi who are interested in generating revenue now that they are out of a job.

This claim is denied by the MNLA, which stated in an article on its website:

We confirm and underline that the combatants who returned from Libya fought [together] with the NTC (National Transitional Council) forces more than they did with Qaddafi’s forces. Our senior military commander Mohammed Ag Najm, was certainly a Libyan officer of Malian origin, serving under the Qaddafi regime like all Libyan officers. Colonel Mohammed Ag Najm expressed his disagreement with the Libyan leader very early on, at the beginning of the insurrection in Libya, and this disagreement was confirmed by his resignation from the Libyan army and his enrollment alongside his own people in this present struggle for the liberation of the Azawad.

Undoubtedly, though, some Tuareg did fight for Qaddafi. The members of Tinariwen, for example, met in military training camps in Libya in the early 1980s. Qaddafi did hire Tuareg as mercenaries, and at various points, for his own strategic and political reasons, the Libyan dictator patronized the Tuareg cause.

This fact alone, though, doesn’t make the Tuareg claim to self-determination illegitimate. As they were robbed of their traditional way of earning a livelihood by both environmental change and state policies, there were few ways for the Tuareg to survive. Their demands for autonomy are legitimate, and their struggle clearly continues after the death of Qaddafi.

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THERE ARE at least four forces fighting in northern Mali.

Beginning in November 2011, a series of high-profile kidnappings of Westerners took place in northern Mali. These kidnappings were either carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or by forces affiliated with the Algerian secret service. (Anthropologist and United Nations consultant Jeremy Keenan believes Algerian forces have quite likely participated in high-profile kidnappings in the Sahara since 2003.)

Then in January 2012, probably emboldened by a new flow of arms to the region after Qaddafi’s downfall, Tuareg fighers began a series of skirmishes with the Malian military. Their chief aim was seemingly to wrest economic concessions from the state.

Into the fray jumped the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). These two jihadist groups have been joined by Ansar Dine, which is made up of ethnically Tuareg people, but should not be called a “Tuareg” group–it has its origins in Southeast Asia. After recruiting the prominent Tuareg leader Iyad ag Ghaly following the decline of the political Tuareg movement, Ansar Dine gained a significant Tuareg following. But its aims aren’t about overcoming the historic oppression of the Tuareg people, but rather a larger agenda of gaining dominance for Salafist Islam.

The total number of fighters between the three Islamist groups is probably about 2,000 people. The MNLA, the largest political Tuareg group, is now staunchly in opposition to these groups.

The Tuareg, like any other “nation,” is not a uniform group. Since the first uprising in 1962, it has been divided into factions–some want to take the claim of “self-determination” to its logical conclusion of political secession by any means necessary, and others want some type of autonomy, gained through negotiations with Malian state.

The latter forces won out. The MNLA that is dominant today claims the mantle of the Mouvement Frente Unite de l’Azawad, one of the most important groups that negotiated peace with the Malian government in 1996.

In 1996, the Bourem Pact ended the second Tuareg uprising. The Malian state, with the support of the international community, both states and NGOs, devoted some $9 million for a Disarm, Demobilize, Reintegrate (DDR) program that provided cash for weapons to the rebels, credits for small businesses and increased funding in infrastructure. Schools and health care centers were built, and an additional $150 million was pledged for reconstruction. The city of Kidal got electricity for the first time in 1996.

In return for their agreement to lay down arms, Tuareg administrators gained greater powers of self-governance. In addition to the DDR program and investment in infrastructure, several thousand Tuareg fighters chose to integrate into the Malian army. In exchange for giving up the armed resistance, the Malian army took them in as soldiers and paid them a regular salary.

With this history no doubt in mind, the MNLA today is fighting, in practical terms, for more economic aid and an end to state repression. In an obscure part of its website and in French, there is a demand for “sovereignty” and “self-determination.” But in a document called “The renewal of the Armed Struggle in the Azawad,” intended for an international audience, the MNLA emphasizes more pragmatic and practical demands: dialogue with the Malian state, an end to military killings and the intervention of the “international community.”

It is this “pragmatism” which has led the MNLA to accept French military intervention in northern Mali. According to Canadian socialist Roger Annis, the MNLA “entered into talks with the Mali regime in December for autonomy in the northern region. A January 13 statement on the group’s website acquiesces to the French intervention, but says it should not allow troops of the Mali army to pass beyond the border demarcation line declared in April of last year.”

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THE TUAREG question is an international one. More Tuareg live in neighboring Niger than in Mali, and there, too, they have organized a movement against state repression–their most recent uprising ended in 2009.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou said, “The threats in Mali constitute a domestic security problem for Niger”–and sent 500 soldiers to the international peacekeeping force in Mali, imploring the international force to disarm the MNLA. The Niger government signed a deal with the U.S. to host a base for surveillance drones.

Niger, like Mali in the period before the latest crisis, had adopted a strategy of trying to assimilate the Tuareg, integrate them into the state (a Tuareg was appointed Prime Minister in 2011) and grant limited economic concessions. Large uranium mines in Niger represent huge potential profits for French companies, as well as geopolitical power. Thus, France and Niger’s ruling elite both want stability.

Despite incredible mineral wealth, Niger’s gross domestic product per capita is around $374, according the World Bank. Mali’s is around $669, despite huge gold reserves.

So while it is right in a sense to talk about a “nationalist insurgency,” it is important to note that Tuareg poverty is, more than anything else, the driving impulse for a people who have learned that armed struggle works in wresting economic concessions from the state.

This is important to recognize because Western governments and the UN have spent a lot of time “rejecting” the Tuareg’s right to self-determination. In July 2012, UN resolution 2056 stated, “reiterating its categorical rejection of statements made by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) regarding the so-called ‘independence’ of northern Mali, and further reiterating that it considers such announcements null and void.”

By pretending that the Tuareg are simply focused on the creation of a separate state, Western governments can ignore their more immediate demands. They can ignore the real crisis–that 400,000 northern Malians have been displaced from their homes.

Roger Annis contributed to this article.

Stop Land-Grabbing Now!

Nyeleni, November 19, 2011

We, women and men peasants, pastoralists, indigenous peoples and their allies, who gathered together in Nyeleni from 17-19 November 2011, are determined to defend food sovereignty, the commons and the rights of small scale food providers to natural resources. We supported the Kolongo Appeal from peasant organizations in Mali, who have taken the lead in organising local resistance to the take-over of peasants’ lands in Africa. We came to Nyeleni in response to the Dakar Appeal, which calls for a global alliance against land-grabbing.

In the past three days, peasants, pastoralists and indigenous peoples have come together from across the world for the first time to share with each other their experiences and struggles against land-grabbing. In Mali, the Government has committed to give away 800 thousand hectares of land to business investors. These are lands of communities that have belonged to them for generations, even centuries, while the Malian State has only existed since the 1960-s. This situation is mirrored in many other countries where customary rights are not recognised. Taking away the lands of communities is a violation of both their customary and historical rights.

Secure access to and control over land and natural resources are inextricably linked to the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several regional and international human rights conventions, such as the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, food, health, culture, property and participation. We note with grave concern that states are not meeting their obligations in this regard and putting the interests of business interests above the rights of peoples.

Land-grabbing is a global phenomenon led by local, national and transnational elites and investors, and governments with the aim of controlling the world’s most precious resources. The global financial, food and climate crises have triggered a rush among investors and wealthy governments to acquire and capture land and natural resources, since these are the only “safe havens” left that guarantee secure financial returns. Pension and other investment funds have become powerful actors in land-grabbing, while wars continue to be waged to seize control over natural wealth. The World Bank and regional development banks are facilitating land grabs by promoting corporate-friendly policies and laws, facilitating capital and guarantees for corporate investors, and fostering an extractive, destructive economic development model. The World Bank, IFAD, FAO and UNCTAD have proposed seven principles that legitimise farmland grabbing by corporate and state investors. Led by some of the world’s largest transnational corporations, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aims to transform smallhold agriculture into industrial agriculture and integrate smallhold farmers to global value chains, greatly increasing their vulnerability to land-loss.

Land-grabbing goes beyond traditional North-South imperialist structures; transnational corporations can be based in the United States, Europe, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, among others. It is also a crisis in both rural and urban areas. Land is being grabbed in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe for industrial agriculture, mining, infrastructure projects, dams, tourism, conservation parks, industry, urban expansion and military purposes. Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities are being expelled from their territories by armed forces, increasing their vulnerability and in some cases even leading to slavery. Market based, false solutions to climate change are creating more ways to alienate local communities from their lands and natural resources.

Despite the fact that women produce most of the world’s food, and are responsible for family and community well being, existing patriarchal structures continue to dispossess women from the lands that they cultivate and their rights to resources. Since most peasant women do not have secure, legally recognised land rights, they are particularly vulnerable to evictions.

The fight against land-grabbing is a fight against capitalism, neoliberalism and a destructive economic model. Through testimonies from our sisters and brothers in Burkina Faso, Columbia, Guatemala, Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand and Uganda, we learned how land-grabbing threatens small scale, family based farming, nature, the environment and food sovereignty. Land grabbing displaces and dislocates communities, destroys local economies and the social-cultural fabric, and jeopardizes the identities of communities, be they farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, workers, dalits or indigenous peoples. Those who stand up for their rights are beaten, jailed and killed. There is no way to mitigate the impacts of this economic model and the power structures that promote it. Our lands are not for sale or lease.

But we are not defeated. Through organisation, mobilisation and community cohesiveness, we have been able to stop land-grabbing in many places. Furthermore, our societies are recognising that small-scale, family based agriculture and food production is the most socially, economically and environmentally sustainable model of using resources.

Recalling the Dakar Appeal, we reiterate our commitment to resist land-grabbing by all means possible, to support all those who fight land-grabs, and to put pressure on national governments and international institutions to fulfill their obligations to defend and uphold the rights of peoples. Specifically, we commit to:

Organise rural and urban communities against land-grabs in every form.

Strengthen the capacities of our communities and movements to reclaim and defend our rights, lands and resources.

Win and secure the rights of women in our communities to land and natural resources.

Create public awareness about how land grabbing is creating crises for all society.

Build alliances across different sectors, constituencies, regions, and mobilise our societies to stop land-grabbing

Strengthen our movements to achieve and promote food sovereignty and genuine agrarian reform

In order to meet the above commitments, we will develop the following actions:

  • Report back to our communities the deliberations and commitments of this Conference.
  • Institutionalise April 17 as the day of global mobilisation against land-grabbing; also identify additional appropriate dates that can be used for such mobilisations to defend land and the commons.
  • Develop our political arguments to expose and discredit the economic model that spurs land-grabbing, and the various actors and initiatives that promote and legitimise it.
  • Build our own databases about land-grabbing by documenting cases, and gathering the needed information and evidence about processes, actors, impacts, etc.
  • Ensure that communities have the information they need about laws, rights, companies, contracts, etc., so that they can resist more effectively the business investors and governments who try to take their lands and natural resources.
  • Set up early warning systems to alert communities to risks and threats.
  • Establish a Peoples’ Observatory on land-grabbing to facilitate and centralise data gathering, communications, planning actions, advocacy, research and analysis, etc.
  • Strengthen our communities through political and technical training, and restore our pride in being food producers and providers.
  • Secure land and resource rights for women by conscientising our communities and movements, targeted re-distribution of land for women, and other actions make laws and policies responsive to the particular needs of women.
  • Build strong organisational networks and alliances at various levels–local, regional and international–building on the Dakar Appeal and with small-scale food producers/providers at the centre of these alliances.
  • Build alliances with members of pension schemes in order to prevent pension fund managers from investing in projects that result in land grabbing.

Make our leaders abide by the rules set by our communities and compel them to be accountable to us, and our communities and organisations.

  • Develop our own systems of legal aid and liaise with legal and human rights experts.
  • Condemn all forms of violence and criminalisation of our struggles and our mobilizations in defense of our rights.
  • Work for the immediate release of all those jailed as a result of their struggles for their lands and territories, and urgently develop campaigns of solidarity with all those facing conflicts.
  • Build strategic alliances with press and media, so that they report accurately our messages and realities; counter the prejudices spread by the mainstream media about the land struggles in Zimbabwe.
  • Develop and use local media to organise members of our and other communities, and share with them information about land-grabbing.
  • Take our messages and demands to parliaments, governments and international institutions.
  • Identify and target local, national and international spaces for actions, mobilizations and building broad-based societal resistance to land-grabbing.
  • Plan actions that target corporations, (including financial corporations), the World Bank and other multilateral development banks that benefit from, drive and promote land and natural resource grabs.
  • Expand and strengthen our actions to achieve and promote food sovereignty and agrarian reform.
  • Support peoples’ enclosures of their resources through land occupations, occupations of the offices of corporate investors, protests and other actions to reclaim their commons.
  • Demands that our governments fulfill their human rights obligations, immediately stop land and natural resource transfers to business investors, cancel contracts already made, and protect rural and urban communities from ongoing and future land-grabs.

We call all organizations committed to these principles and actions to join our Global Alliance against Land-Grabbing, which we solemnly launch today here in Nyeleni.

Globalise the struggle! Globalise hope!

Kel Tinariwen IV/IV


Since 2001, the founders and elders of Tinariwen have been supported and energised by a new younger generation including bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad, rhythm guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida aka ‘Intidao’, vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters. They were just children when the rebellion ravaged the north of Mali and Niger. They grew up on Tinariwen’s songs. Their presence in the group brings Tinariwen in line with so many long-lasting music and theatre groups in Africa and elsewhere, who, by integrating successive generations of artists into their ranks, become self-perpetuating.

In December of 2008 the old and the young gathered in the sleepy desert village of Tessalit to record Tinariwen’s fourth album. It seemed like the ideal place; quiet, off the beaten track, home to Hassan and Ibrahim, blessed with a plentiful water supply and a friendly familiar populace. The group had expressed a strong desire to return to their roots and recapture the raw desert sound of their early recordings. Lo’Jo’s French sound engineer, Jean-Paul Romann, who had worked with Justin Adams on ‘The Radio Tisdas Sessions’ eight years previously, was recruited to produce the album. He arrived with a studio in a suitcase, which was set up in a rented adobe house in the middle of the village, and powered by a chugging generator. The sessions proceeding slowly, surely, in pace with the rhythm of l

ife in that remote corner of Africa. There were free concerts for the local populace in the village square, and recording sessions far out in the bush. There were solitary nights around the fire, under the stars, and parties here and there in the village. It was all very strange, very familiar, just like Tinariwen themselves.
‘Imidiwan’ is one of those big Tamashek words, to which no single English word can ever do justice. Just like ‘Assouf’, the name which the Touareg themselves often give Tinariwen’s guitar style. ‘Assouf’ means the blues, loneliness, heartache, longing, homesickness, the darkness beyond the campfire. ‘Imidiwan’ means friends, companions, soul-brothers, fellow travellers. The juxtaposition of these two words is particularly striking. Maybe Tinariwen are coming in from the cold and recognising all those soul-friends, both living and departed, who have made their incredible journey bearable, whilst warming their hands over the camp fire and looking up at the night sky thick with stars.

Andy Morgan, May 2009.


Kel Tinariwen II/IV

In 1980, Colonel Ghadaffi put out a decree inviting all young Touareg men, who were living illegally in Libya, to come and receive a full military training at a designated camp in the southern desert. It was an opportunistic move. The Touareg had long held a reputation as brilliant bushmen and desert fighters. Ghadaffi dreamed of forming a Saharan regiment, made of the best young Touareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger and elsewhere.

Seeing it as a heaven-sent chance to learn how to be soldiers and take back their homeland by force, Ibrahim and most of his friends answered the call immediately. Their training was very tough, and lasted only nine months. Four years later, in 1985, they were invited back into a new camp near Tripoli. This time it was run by the leaders of the Touareg rebel movement, the MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad). Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Diarra and Hassan were joined by a whole new group of aspiring musicians, including Keddou Ag Ossade aka ‘Hiwaj’, Mohammed Ag Itlale aka ‘Japonais’, Sweiloum, Abouhadid and the young Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. They formed a collective and built their own make-shift rehearsal studios, equipping it with basic gear bought with the money from a communal chest into which all recruits paid contributions. Their job was to write songs about the rebellion, about the aspirations of the Touareg for political freedom, for education and development, and then to record these songs without payment for whoever turned up at their door with an empty cassette. It was a propaganda machine for a people without any other forms of media whatsoever. The cassettes were taken back to camps and villages throughout the Sahara, copied, and then copied again and again and again. It was a cassette-to-cassette grapevine and the sound quality was as atrocious as the message was powerful.

Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Japonais, Diarra, Hassan and their friends never saw themselves as one-dimensional propagandists however. They were musicians and poets. Their songs spoke of deep personal struggles and of their love of their desert home, as much as they raised the flag for the rebel movement. In 1989, frustrated by the lack of progress and by broken promises, the members of Tinariwen escaped from the Libyan camp and headed south into Mali. Ibrahim found himself back in Tessalit, the village of his birth, for the first time in 26 years. And then, in June 1990, the rebellion began.


Kel Tinariwen I/IV


In the early 1960s, Mali threw off the yoke of French colonial rule and became an independent country, ruled by a new African elite from the capital Bamako. A thousand miles away in the northern desert regions, the nomadic Touareg or Kel Tamashek (‘The Tamashek speaking people’) had trouble recognising the legitimacy of their new rulers or accepting their socialist laws and taxes, their alien ways and demands. In 1963 there was a Touareg uprising in a large remote part of the desert called The Adrar des

Iforas, around the small outpost of Kidal with its old French Foreign Legion fort. It was brutally suppressed by the Malian army. The period still haunts the local population like a nightmare. Of the many stories of suffering and incidents of callousness that survive in the collective memory, there is one that is crucial to our story. It concerns a mason and trader by the name of Alhabib Ag Sidi who was arrested in front of his family in the village of Tessalit, taken to the barracks in Kidal and executed for aiding the rebels. The army then went and destroyed Alhabib’s herd of camels, cattle and goats. His young four-year old son Ibrahim witnessed this wanton act of destruction before travelling north into exile in Algeria with his family and their one remaining cow. By 1964 the uprising had been crushed, and the Adrar des Iforas was turned into a no-go zone, ruled by the Army.

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib grew up in refugee camps near Bordj Moktar or in the deserts around the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset. He hated school and preferred running wild in the bush. One day he saw a film at a makeshift desert village cinema. It was a western and it featured a cowboy playing a guitar. The instrument made Ibrahim dream. He built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick

and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Touareg melodies on it, and modern Arabic pop tunes. After a while, he became pretty good. He was a solitary kid anyway, who kept himself to himself and was known as ‘Abaraybone’ or ‘raggamuffin child’ by the other kids and adults.

At the age of 9 Ibrahim ran away from home in a cement truck, to earn some money and see the world. He grew up wandering around Algeria and Libya doing odd jobs – carpenter, builder, tailor, gardener. It was a precarious existence; made bearable by the companionship of m

any other young Touareg men who were living the same marginal life in exile. The northern desert regions of Mali had been struck by a catastrophic drought in 1973-4, which had almost wiped out the animal herds and the traditional nomadic way of life with it. Algeria and Libya was awash with errant exiled Touareg youth, jobless, paperless, surviving by any means necessary. They would gather together in groups and sleep rough on the outskirts of villages and towns, sharing food, cigarettes, songs and stories. The police would harass them mercilessly, shouting “Hey you! Les chomeurs! (‘unemployed’ in French).” In the age-old tradition of the underclass, this insult was turned into a badge of honou

r, and these young men became known as the ‘ishumar’ generation.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ibrahim began to meet other Touareg of his age who shared his passion for music of all kinds, from traditional Touareg poetry and song to the radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala, from Algerian pop rai to western rock and pop artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimmy Hendrix, Boney M and Bob Marley. His most important early musical partners were Inteyeden Ag Ablil, his brother Liya, aka ‘Diarra’, Ag Ablil, and Hassan Ag Touhami aka ‘The Lion of the Desert’. This group of friends got together in Tamanrasset, and began to play at parties and weddings. They acquired their first real acoustic guitar in 1979, and their reputation grew. They were new and radical inasmuch as they wrote their own poems and songs – not the old Touareg verse of heroic deeds and fair maidens – but new lyrics about homesickness, longing, exile and political awakening. In ord

er to keep out of trouble with the law, Ibrahim, Inteyeden and their friends would often just disappear off into the desert for a night or two, to drink tea, make music and sleep under the stars. People began to call them ‘Kel Tinariwen’, which translates literally as ‘The People of the Deserts’ or roughly and more accurately as ‘The Desert Boys’.


September 2020

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