Are the armed Tuareg uprisings that have sprung up since the 1960s in Azawad (Mali), the Aïr, the Azawagh (Niger) or the Ajjer (Algeria) really surprising, incidental, unforeseeable? Certainly not. They are part of the long resistance of the Tuaregs to colonial empires.
“O world disaster, what desolation
my nation that rises up in the turmoil
that rides the bullet toward Medina
abandoning us in the land of submission
where I curl up in fear
of the column sent by the commandant
who musters all his infantry…
–poem by Bila, around 1900
The Tuaregs are divided today among Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya and Algeria. After their defeat against the guns of the colonial troops in the 19th century—Ottoman, French and Italian—who decimated the old military and political elite of the Tuaregs as well as a large part of the population, ruining the land and placing it under a harsh military control—which the Tuaregs call tiwta, the “disaster”—forms of resistance emerged involving profound transformations of society on the military, political, ideological and social levels.
This new type of resistance took shape around 1900. It laid the groundwork for the general insurrection of the Tuaregs in 1916 headed by Kawsen who had called it the “Spiraling March” because it used strategies of evasion adapted to unequal forces. The heroic war sung in the Tuareg epic poetry was replaced by guerilla warfare, the ambush, the fighters’ mobility, but also exile and the search for modern technical and military knowledge. The final defeat of the rebels and the hanging of Kawsen in 1919 was followed by a pitiless repression that, far from wiping out the “spiraling march”, made its spirit stronger in the Tuareg imagination.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the creation of the states of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). The Tuaregs refused to be “the fifth wheel on the artificial framework of new States,” but their challenges were crushed. So, another phase of fringe resistance was built up: the teshumara. This name, formed from the French word “chômeur” [unemployed], reflected the situation of exclusion and marginalization of the Tuareg who could no longer live there and had to go into exile once again, to construct other ways of being, to find new partners, to acquire the knowledge that would allow them to recycle their weakness, defeat and the strangled horizons into tools for a future day “to mend the deserts” and “reconstruct the land.”
Resistance, first of all, consisted in being satisfied with not adopting the logic of the conquerors, despite adversity and defeat, and not being impressed by their armada. In short, to keep swarming under the steamroller. This period was marked by an intense artistic creativity that renewed the traditional poetry and music of the Tuareg world, accentuating and imposing life on the margin as a reference value.
It is in this context that in 1980 many young men answered the call of Muammar Gaddafi who was lacking cannon fodder. Bearing the burden of independence and old revolts bathed in blood, they got back on the road to exile. They left, like their parents before them, in search of ways to confront a world that gave them no role to play. Their motto: “Trade your blood for knowledge,” meaning military skill. They joined the Libyan barracks not for money nor for the illusion of supporting the cause; they knew that Gadaffi was steeped in pan-Arab and anti-Berber nationalism and would never help the Tuaregs liberate their lands. But they needed to get tough in the name of their land that they were hoping to free one day, as well as expressing their poetry of the 1980s.
The itinerary of these men, recently returned from Libya, is like their ancestors who at the beginning of the century fought for the order of Senussi against the colonial armies in the north of present day Chad, in Sudan, in eastern Libya and in Fezzan, finally to return home sixteen years later armed with rifles and cannons destined to “spit out of their land” the French occupiers.
Although different currents of rebellion choose either to take up arms or to remain in clandestine silence, aware of their weakness, all of them feed on this long experience of resistance and suffering: that of not being able to be what they want to be on the land of their ancestors.
For a long time the Tuaregs have followed their path and it is a solitary path. Their difficult march is, of course, hobbled by the contortions of realpolitik, by the manipulation of some leaders of the rebellion for the profit of various interest groups, against the background of global competition for access to the mining resources that arouse the greed of powers that are already obese but never sated. The “spiraling march” gets bogged down in radioactivity, uranium dust, toxic fumes, groundwater and air polluted by the extraction of minerals. And yet, it moves on.