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Azawad Rising: A Brief History of the Tuareg Resistance

By Brendan S.

Two Tuareg warriors, 1906.

The Tuareg, an ethnic confederation of Amazigh (Berber) tribes, are believed to have originated in Fezzan region of modern-day Libya thousands of years ago. The origin of the word “Tuareg” is debated, some speculate it a variant of the Classical Arabic word “Tuwariq,” meaning “abandoned by God.” This title emerged from Arab colonizers who considered the Tuareg infidels for initially resisting conversion to Islam.

During the Arab conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th Century, the Tuareg were pushed southwest. They have since called Azawad, or “land of transhumance” their home, a land stretching across the heart of the Sahara and reaching into the Sahel. It transcends the contemporary borders of Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali; nation-state lines crafted by Western powers to bear an invisible yet unending colonial stranglehold on the Tuareg. The Tuareg are a nomadic people who, unlike many of their neighbors, place women in positions of power, and trace their descent matrilineally. Tin Hinan, a 4th century queen, is revered as the Tuareg’s matriarch.

Living at the center of trans-Saharan trade routes, the Tuareg have been a prime target of geopolitical exploitation for millennia. While some tribes cooperated with colonial powers in the Saharan slave trade, most have resisted colonization from the Romans to the French Empire. As the Scramble for Africa crept into Azawad in the 19th century, colonial powers sought to strangle Tuareg existence harder than ever before, to erase their identity and obliterate their livelihood. The Tuareg found unity in resistance.

Securing its grasp on the Sahara to compete with the British Empire in the Scramble for Africa, France became the most dangerous colonizer to the Tuareg. Tensions came to a boiling point in the period of 1879-81, when France sent expeditions into northern Azawad (Algerian-occupied) to map out a trans-Saharan railway. The first major confrontation with French colonizers occurred in 1881, when hundreds of Kel Ahaggar Tuareg accompanied by Arab tribes ambushed an expedition led by French officer Paul Flatters in Bir el-Garama. Flatters and most other Frenchmen were swiftly liquidated, and those who were able to retreat into the desert resorted to cannibalism. Of the 93 men who participated in the expedition, roughly a dozen returned. Because of the failed expedition, trans-Saharan railway plans were abandoned. The ambush sent a strong message to the French government under President Jules Grévy: the Tuareg cannot be colonized, and all colonizers will be exterminated.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the Tuareg continued to persistently resist French occupation. Failing to implement colonial policies, the French administration was forced to recognize the authority of local chiefs and attempt to administer indirectly through them.

Around 1909, a new era of Tuareg resistance started to unfold. Supported by the Libyan Senussi Order in their resistance to the French, tribes rallied under the Kel Owey Tuareg noble Ag Mohammed Wau Teguidda Kaocen, who had gained the respect of many Tuaregs in his raids on French forces. Revolts sprang up across Azawad with a renewed effort to drive out the French colonizers, but with little success.

Tuareg rebel leader Ag Mohammed Wau Teguidda Kaocen of the Kel Owey confederation.

As France became distracted by the First World War, the Tuareg saw a new opportunity to strike hard. In December 1916, with help from the Senussi Order, Kaocen organized a large revolt around the Aïr Mountains of eastern Azawad (Nigerien-occupied), defeating a number of French columns and successfully recapturing a significant portion of Tuareg land while besieging the city of Agadez. The blow was so heavy that the French administration declared a state of emergency and called on Britain for assistance. Kaocen held the region for over three months, but was driven north in March 1917 after French relief units were dispatched. Kaocen was hanged in 1919 by anti-Senussi Order locals in Murzuk, northeastern Azawad (Libyan-occupied). Today he is seen as a hero of the Tuareg.

In the 1950s, after over a century of colonization, France began the process of decolonization in Africa. New borders were drawn as the nation-states of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger declared independence from France around 1960, further breaking Tuareg land into colonial shards following Libya’s independence in 1951. The Tuareg were suffocated in a final French imperial rape, becoming ethnic minorities in their own homeland.

The hegemony was felt immediately, with the most brutal and relentless grasp of repression centered in Mali and Niger. First President of Mali Modibo Keita swiftly implemented land reforms which targeted Tuareg agriculture, leading to the first major post-France Tuareg uprising in 1962: the Alfellaga rebellion. For the first time in Tuareg history, it was not the colonizer that they resisted, but oppressive nation-state hegemonies formed after the withdrawal of the colonizer. The rebellion lasted into 1964, but was crushed when Mali forcefully installed a military administration over western Azawad (Mali). Meanwhile Tuaregs under Nigerien occupation were suspended in a hostile cloud of Songhai and Hausa hegemony, faced with severe persecution and consistent exclusion from decision-making.


Matters worsened as famine ensued during a series of droughts throughout the 1970s and 80s. International aid sent for the Tuareg was confiscated and squandered by the Moussa Traoré regime in Mali as Tuaregs in Niger were likewise denied aid by the Seyni Kountché regime. With this persistent effort to wipe out Tuareg existence came a renewed flame of rebellion.

Tuareg fighters of the Front for the Liberation of Aïr and Azaouak (FLAA) during operations against Nigerien forces in Nigerien-occupied Azawad, 1990. (Jean-Luc Manaud)

In 1990, the Tuareg launched a new armed resistance against the nation-state hegemonies. As Niger and Mali continued their efforts in strangling the Tuareg into nonexistence, the Tuareg mobilized into militias: the Front for the Liberation of Aïr and Azaouak and the Front for the Liberation of Tamoust in eastern Azawad (Nigerien-occupied), and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in western Azawad (Malian-occupied). Fighting in eastern Azawad erupted across the Aïr Mountains as fighting in western Azawad was largely centered around the city of Gao, a critical thoroughfare of trans-Saharan trade.

Tuareg fighters of the Front for the Liberation of Aïr and Azaouak (FLAA) during operations against Nigerien forces in Nigerien-occupied Azawad, 1990. (Jean-Luc Manaud)

In 1995, after five years of guerrilla warfare, fighting officially ended with the signing of peace accords. The Tuareg had forced the Malian and Nigerien governments, under Alpha Konaré and Mahamane Ousmane respectively, to concede to various demands. The Tuareg of western Azawad (Mali) gained self-governance of Kidal region and a range of civil liberties which had been previously denied while Tuareg in eastern Azawad (Niger) were granted economic protection. However, as long as the repressive nation-state borders remained, the peace accords would be rendered unsustainable. After just over a decade of negative peace, the resistance would ignite yet again.

As the Tuareg stood chained to the whims of the nation-state, the few basic human rights won in the previous rebellion would prove to be only nominal. Natural resources continued to be stolen and livelihoods blocked by the state hegemonies of Mali and Niger, the peace accords becoming effectively useless. The Malian government used its military to steal resources directly from western Azawad and encroach into the autonomous Kidal region. The Nigerien government permitted French company Areva to forcefully expand its uranium mining in eastern Azawad, using the assets of its former colonizer to eliminate the Tuareg. Areva, to this day, contaminates the Tuareg’s water supply with radiation, causing livestock to die and unknown illnesses to pervade the Aïr Mountains Tuareg community. Endless waves of egregious human rights violations, all ignored by the international community in the name of preserving nation-state hegemony and neoliberalism. Despite these unending campaigns of cultural genocide, Tuareg identity remained immortal.

Tuareg fighters of the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC) in northern Kidal Region, Malian-occupied Azawad, 2006. (Patrick Robert)

In 2006, Tuaregs in western Azawad (Mali) formed the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC) to protect their autonomy in Kidal region while Tuaregs in eastern Azawad (Niger) formed the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) a year later. Fighting erupted in February 2007 as the MNJ began launching operations against Nigerien military outposts. By September, the ADC carried this momentum into western Azawad and began launching operations against the Malian Army. With the strength of the Malian Army, supported by American advising, equipment, and weapons, the ADC and other Tuareg militias were able to achieve little. Meanwhile in eastern Azawad, the MNJ was able to push the Nigerien military into a stalemate. Final peace deals were brokered in 2009, leading to the formation of splinter groups of the ADC and MNJ by Tuaregs who refused to accept occupation.

Tuareg fighters of the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC) in northern Kidal Region, Malian-occupied Azawad, 2006. (Patrick Robert)

Despite a rising threat of al-Qaeda and Islamist groups in Azawad, many Tuareg in western Azawad (Mali) would soon unite under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the next revolt, the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, and successfully form a de facto state for the first time in history.

In August 2011, Tuareg in northeastern Azawad (Libya) deserted Gaddafi’s army and poured into western Azawad with heavy weapons to renew resistance efforts. As political instability in Mali increased, motivation for Tuareg independence began to rise. In October, the MNLA was formed to unite the Tuareg in resistance against the Malian state. Seven months later in March 2012, an opportunity emerged. A military coup toppled President Amadou Touré, leading to an implosion of instability as the Malian Army retreated from western Azawad. The MNLA seized this opportunity and launched a campaign to liberate western Azawad. By April, all Tuareg land was liberated with little resistance from Malian forces. On April 6, Azawad declared independence from Mali as a de facto state.

However, Azawad faced an entity that had also risen in the vacuums left by the withdrawal of Malian forces: jihadism. What led to the demise of the independence of western Azawad in 2013 was not Mali, but jihadists. While battling al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine, the MNLA lost its footing as it became overpowered by jihadist forces comprised mostly of Arab, Fulani, Songhai, and disaffected Tuareg fighters. Mali called on its former colonizer for intervention, to which it answered by launching Operation Serval in January 2013. France was successful in ousting jihadists from the major cities, and Tuareg land was returned to the Malian state. In August 2014, the MNLA and other Tuareg militias signed the Ouagadagou Declaration, officially ending their armed struggle for western Azawad to cooperate with Mali against jihadists under the condition that Tuareg cultural and economic sovereignty would be respected. Two new Tuareg militias have since been formed to combat jihadism in western Azawad: the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad. Today they continue to cooperate with Mali and France to contain al-Qaeda and Daesh-affiliated groups.

Fighters of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad during operations against jihadist forces in Ménaka region, western Azawad, in 2018. (Souleymane Ag Anara)

Of the contemporary challenges the Tuareg face in accomplishing unity, Islamism and jihadism remain among the most prominent. For over a decade, the Tuareg have been forced to resist against this new form of colonizer that is simultaneously internal and external. Similar to their Sahrawi neighbors in Western Sahara, some Tuareg have become discouraged by the lack of progress in establishing sovereignty and have resorted to jihad to feel as though they are part of a greater, more successful struggle. Tuareg jihadist figure Iyad Ag Ghaly has been fundamental in establishing this radical foothold in the Tuareg community. He has rallied a group of disaffected Tuareg to abandon its people, abandon Azawad, and give up.

While jihadist forces in Azawad are largely comprised of non-Tuaregs, the presence of jihadism in the Tuareg community can undoubtedly be connected to the hegemonies imposed on the Tuareg following French colonization. It is rooted, at least partly, in the brutal and consistent denial of Tuareg existence. Tuareg jihadists have abandoned hope and adopted extremism in the wake of their livelihoods being crushed, identity corroded, and wellbeing destroyed by the occupying nation-states.

Despite living in a homeland ripped apart by colonial interests with water tarnished by colonial radiation, sustaining a culture perpetually subjected to systematic repression, and being forced to resist the metastasizing forces of jihadism, the vast majority of Tuareg have kept their culture unassimilated and uncolonized, and refuse to leave their homeland nor abandon their identity. 

Because of this, Tuareg existence remains immortal, and Azawad can only rise.


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