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Assessment for Tuareg in Mali

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Tuareg in Mali, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 2 December 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Mali Facts
Area:    1,240,000 sq. km.
Capital:    Bamako
Total Population:    10,106,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Tuareg of Mali, despite their recent history of rebellion in the early to mid-1990s, are unlikely to engage in large-scale violence in the near future. While Tuaregs are territorially concentrated, they exhibit low levels of political organization and only moderate levels of group cohesion. Government repression has significantly lessened post-rebellion, although the government remains unwilling or unable to implement necessary development and educational projects to alleviate Tuareg marginalization and poverty. However, the government has moved to lessen some grievances. Additionally, Mali is undergoing a democratic transition, which has provided more openings for conventional and nonviolent political activity, also lessening incentives for rebellion.

Chances of Tuareg protest are moderate. The partial nature of Mali's democratic transition would encourage protest, as would the Tuaregs' marginalized position politically, economically and culturally. However, probably due to a lack of group organization, protest in recent years has been limited to very small or inexistent verbal protests.

Tuareg continue to be at risk for social and economic problems. Tensions with sedentary peoples remain. With the continuation of droughts in the north of Mali, their nomadic existence will remain precarious. The Malian economy is growing and multiparty democracy has successfully been implemented within the state, yet the place of the Tuareg in Malian society promises to be difficult to establish. The Tuareg face difficulties whether they wish to maintain their nomadic lifestyle or become more integrated into the social fabric of modern life in Mali.

However, the important role of mediator assumed by the Tuaregs in the 2003 abduction of European tourists by Islamist rebels show that Tuaregs are recognized as an entity, and that this group can be a valuable player in the region.

Analytic Summary

The Tuareg are a nomadic people, a segment of the Berber culture, who traditionally range areas of the Sahara in Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya. Those living in Mali are concentrated in the northeastern part of the country, in the Kidal region (GROUPCON = 3). Tuareg nomads have wandered the Sahara since before the arrival of the Arabs in the eighth century. Their constant struggle to exist in one of the world's harshest environments has bred a passionate devotion to the desert and a strong sense of identity and culture. Before colonialism, the Tuaregs ruled much of northern Mali after deposing the Songhai rulers of the then major trading city of Timbuktu (AUTLOST = 2). During the same period of the 18th and 19th centuries, Tuaregs enslaved black Africans as their servants, laying the foundations for the poor relations which exist between the two populations to this day.

Mali was French Sudan, part of French West Africa. In 1958, it became the Sudan Republic, a self-governing part of the French community. It later joined Senegal to form the Federation of Mali and won independence in 1960. On September 22, 1960, the Sudan Republic changed its name to the Republic of Mali, and Mobido Keita became its first president. After Keita was ousted in a military coup in 1968, Moussa Traore (a member of the dominant Mande ethnic group) took up the post of Head of the Ministry for National Liberation (head of the state).

Under colonialism and in post-colonial Mali, the Tuareg became increasingly marginalized and dispossessed. They were hostile to French colonial rule, having been coerced into forced labor, conscripted as soldiers, and dispossessed of grazing lands. They fought a bloody war against the French in 1917, but were suppressed and left without adequate grazing land to remain self-sufficient. The demarcation of French West Africa prior to Malian independence fragmented the Tuareg, situating them in multiple states.

The Tuareg's condition did not improve with Malian independence, as they suffered attempts by the central government to consolidate control. The Tuareg responded with violent resistance (REB60X = 6), which was suppressed. They also suffered from natural disaster. Tuaregs were drastically affected by the desertification of the Sahel during the drought of 1968-74, with the resulting diminished sources of goods and income from trading. Many were forced to migrate to cities, where they were culturally and economically alienated. Completely impoverished, many lived in refugee camps outside of major cities in Niger and Mali. Others migrated to Algeria and Libya.

In the 1980s the governments of Mali and Niger promised resettlement projects if the Tuaregs would return from Algeria and Libya. Those projects never materialized, and the Tuareg found instead a hostile political climate throughout the region. When they spoke out about their dissatisfaction, they were met with repression at the hands of state authorities. The governments of both Mali and Niger refused to assist the drought-stricken Tuareg regions, while they expropriated humanitarian assistance funds designated for the Tuaregs by external donors, failed to inform the international community of the gravity of the situation, and in general ignored Tuareg needs, while directing most development funds to projects affecting non-Tuareg populations. These inequitable policies fueled the rebellions and resistance movements that developed in both countries in the early 1990s (PROT90X = 4; REB90X=6).

At the heart of the 1990 Tuareg uprising in Mali and Niger was the protection of Tuareg culture and the nomadic way of life which sustains that culture. Thousands of Tuaregs had their lives shattered by the 1973 and 1984-85 droughts and famines, which decimated their goat herds and forced them to become refugees throughout north and west Africa. Many young Tuareg fled north and joined guerrilla groups and the Libyan army, and many elderly fled south to beg in the larger cities. They began to return to Mali in 1990 from Libya and Algeria, and demanded greater autonomy, development projects which would ease the damage wrought by the famine, and an end to their exclusion from local political power. Some returning Tuareg had served in the Libyan army, and brought guns and rocket launchers home with them. They found themselves in trouble with the authorities and attempts to disarm them led to violence and arrests.

In May 1990, a Tuareg band attacked a police post at Tchintabaradene in northern Niger, killing policemen and stealing their weapons. To restore order, the government sent in young and inexperienced soldiers, drawn mainly from the black Djerma and Songhai tribes who live around the capital. When the soldiers were unsuccessful in their search for the suspects, they went on a rampage, killing hundreds of Tuareg civilians. Tuareg discontent spread quickly to Mali. In late June 1990, armed Tuareg attacked a police station at Minake, leaving 14 people, including the local administrator and his wife, dead. As in Niger, black soldiers sent to restore order left tales of torture, rape and murder in their wake. In July a state of emergency was declared in the north. The rebels never articulated a consistent set of concrete demands, other than the impractical goal of creating a Tuareg state.

In 1992, the government and Tuareg rebels signed a peace pact which did little to end the conflict. Attempts to integrate Tuaregs into the armed forces have largely failed. Also in that year, Alpha Oumar Konare was elected as the new president of Mali. By 1994, tensions were once again high and clashes between Tuareg and security forces were frequent. Two paramilitary groups also organized against the Tuareg in 1994. The Tuareg revolt peaked in 1994, and by the end of 1995, all factions involved in the conflict had come together in a peace process. The following years saw the return of the majority of refugees who had fled to Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. By mid-1999 the region was calm (REB98X = 1), though some Tuareg grievances remained unresolved. While some sporadic violence has occurred through 2000 (REB00 = 1), it is mostly criminal banditry (although some actions, such as the kidnapping of polling officials, are political). No incidents were reported for 2001-2003 (REB01-03 = 0). Additionally, no protest was reported during the same time period (PROT01-03 = 0).

The underlying grievances of the Tuareg are economic and cultural. Tuaregs are economically marginalized and desire increased economic opportunities and improved working conditions (ECOGR301-03, ECOGR401-03 = 2). The Tuareg also want to preserve their group culture and language (CULGR296, CULGR396, CULGR496 = 3). Linked to these economic and cultural grievances are desires for increased political rights of decision-making (POLGR201-03 = 1).

With the disarming of the Tuareg resistance groups, Tuareg are largely unrepresented by political groups (GOJPA03 = 0). While Tuaregs have a strong group identity culturally, the loss of political organization has resulted in fragmentation and a return to traditional clan-based units (COHESX80 = 5; COHESX9 = 3).


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