Kidal has been retaken, but peace is likely to prove elusive in Mali

Kidal(Mali), La maison des artisans/CREDIT: Taguelmoust
Facebook Twitter Email

In the north of Mali, history is repeating itself. The departure of the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, this summer has led to a scramble between the Malian government and Tuareg separatist groups for control of previous UN bases in northern Mali. With the support of the Wagner Group (now rebranded by Russia as the “Africa Corps”), the junta in Mali has dissolved the 2015 peace agreement that the UN mission had guaranteed and declared a new war to retake territories under de-facto rebel control since the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion. This November, the Malian army, alongside Russian mercenaries, declared that it had retaken the key stronghold of Kidal, the largest town under rebel control, which the army had been expelled from since 2014.

The military junta in Mali, which took power with promises of restoring Malian sovereignty, has been cheered across the country and region for its success in retaking rebel territory. Many citizens see the victory in Kidal as proof that Russia is a superior security partner to France and the UN. Such a reading, however, deliberately obscures the causes of conflict in Mali. In reality, Mali’s history shows that there can be no purely military solution to Tuareg rebellions in Mali. The military’s recent strategy may yield short-term political gains, but it cannot bring peace.

The politics of difference

Since its independence, Mali has never lived in meaningful peace with the Tuaregs. An ethnic minority concentrated in northern Mali, Tuaregs rejected their initial inclusion in the Malian state and launched rebellions in 1963, 1990, 2007, and 2012, and many small skirmishes in between, reaffirming their desire for independence from Mali. While peace deals between Tuareg rebels and the Malian state, like the ones signed in 1995 and 2015, have created hope for many, mutual distrust and a lack of political will for implementation has caused no peace to last.  “Since 1963 until today…the problems are never resolved and are always raised. We start the same rebellion again and again,” a Tuareg rebel leader remarked in 2014.

These rebellions reflect the complicated state-society dynamics between the Tuaregs and the rest of Mali. Before independence, Tuaregs, who originate from nomadic Berber clans in the Sahara, developed a racial consciousness that saw themselves as racially superior to African Malians. Before the arrival of the French, Tuareg intellectuals identified as “white” in comparison to their mostly “black” neighbors. French colonial administrators adopted and reified these racial classifications, treating the Tuareg as superior whites in comparison to inferior black Malians, exempting them from forced labor and allowing them to continue enslaving darker-skinned ethnic groups.  

These Tuareg elites resisted all French attempts to include them in a future independent state of Mali. As Tuareg chief Muhammed ‘Ali wrote in a 1955 letter, “I have heard that the blacks of Mali have demanded independence [but] I do not understand how [we] can accept from France [to] be incorporated with the idolatrous blacks.”

At independence, some non-Tuareg Malians held a similar animus against the Tuareg, whom many saw as racists, enslavers, and “internal colonizers.” Mali’s first leader, President Modibo Keïta, described Tuaregs as an “internal enemy” whose nomadic lifestyle, resistance to the central government, and practice of slavery posed an obstacle to modernization, development, and territorial unity. As Mali’s first Governor of Gao, a majority Tuareg area in the North, put it in 1962, “[Tuareg] society, as it is left to us by the colonial regime, undoubtedly poses us problems in light of the objectives of our socio-political program.” Accordingly, President Keita marginalized and repressed Tuareg society through policies that forced sedentarization, banned the Tuareg Tamasheq language in schools, disempowered Tuareg chiefs, excluded Tuaregs from military and political posts, and forbade nomadic associations.

The seeds of future conflict

These policies of marginalization led to the 1963 Tuareg rebellion that called for independence from Mali. The rebellion was met with a disproportionate military response that crushed the rebellion and put the North under a military administration ruled by martial law until 1987. The military’s retaliation in 1963 included poisoning wells and brutal massacres of Tuareg civilians under the command of Captain Diarra, described as the “butcher of Kidal.”

This response aimed to impose “psychological warfare” on Tuaregs, including parading the leaders of the 1963 uprising through the streets of Kidal, stripped, unveiled, and spat on by soldiers. A pamphlet dropped by the army in Kidal in the aftermath of rebel defeat read: “You are cut off from your families / You are cut off from your people / You are cut off from the whole world.” A member of the 1963 rebellion described this humiliation as “like killing someone’s soul.”

The military brutality imposed by the Malian state has long motivated Tuaregs to take to violence, inspiring their future rebellions in 1990, 2006, and 2012. While military gains have yielded short-term victories, exiled Tuaregs have regrouped, re-armed, and vowed to avenge their losses. As a former Malian minister told me, “The Tuaregs do not forget. The Malian government is now dealing with the grandchildren of the people that they massacred in 1963.” Indeed, the tales of military repression in 1963, and the military’s abuses since, have been passed through generations of Tuaregs and are embedded in Tuareg popular culture.

Such state-sanctioned violence and displacement have united diverse Tuareg clans together with a sense of collective victimhood transcending the traditional hierarchies embedded within Tuareg society, mobilizing rebels towards violence. Indeed, a Tuareg rebel leader opined in 2014 that “the Malian army has behaved exactly as it has always behaved since 1963 and so we continue.” This history of mistrust leads some Tuaregs to believe that they can only achieve recognition and protection through violence. Indeed, Lecocq and Klute find that some Tuareg intellectuals refer to rebellions as “demokalashi”—democracy through Kalashnikov rifles.

Benefitting from violence

As the public celebrations in Bamako that followed the retaking of Kidal make clear, the military often benefits from the violent repression of Tuareg rebels, even when it cannot address the political and social roots of the violence. Indeed, polling by the German think tank FES in May 2023 found that nine in ten Malians supported their Russian security partners and a similar margin had confidence in the military junta.

The ethnically exclusive nature of Tuareg armed groups, combined with the historical background of Tuareg enslavement of black Malians in the North, sows resentment against Tuareg rebels that amplifies support for military action. As Bruce Whitehouse puts it, “Due to this [historical] legacy, some non-Tuareg Malians just cannot perceive ‘the Tuareg’ as victims of oppression. They perceive them, instead, as racists who refuse to accept black majority rule.” As a member of a government-backed Songhai militia told a local newspaper in 2012, “We will not let the Tuaregs make us their slaves once again.”

Indeed, polling data demonstrates that most Malians harbor negative views of Tuaregs and support exclusively military solutions against Tuareg rebels. Afrobarometer polling from 2014 indicates that just 40 percent of Malians would tolerate having a Tuareg neighbor and just 29 percent would tolerate having a Tuareg spouse, reflecting this build-up of anti-Tuareg sentiment. FES polling data from 2013, when the last Tuareg rebellion was at its peak, found that 89% of Malians supported the army, and 68% said it should “never” enter peace negotiations with the rebels.

The result of this political equilibrium means violence begets violence. Tuaregs, excluded and marginalized by the Malian state, are motivated to fight to assert their identity and call for self-determination. The state, conversely, is motivated by domestic political incentives to respond with indiscriminate violence to re-assert Malian sovereignty. The resulting human rights abuses, however, amplify Tuareg grievances, motivate future rebellions, and foment mutual distrust that makes peace elusive.

The past of the present

This past is very much present in Mali, as the retaking of Kidal has only kicked off the next phase of this cyclical conflict. In the aftermath of its success in Kidal, Russian and Malian soldiers have been accused of conducting ethnically-targeted massacres, destroying nomadic camps, poisoning Tuareg wells, and raping and looting amidst Tuareg communities. Meanwhile, Tuareg rebels, some of whom have been pushed into Mauritania and Algeria, have vowed to regroup and launch their rebellion anew. The military solution can only work for so long, as it only adds to grievances that fuel an ideology of violence.

The coups in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, and the subsequent spread of Russian military engagement in West and Central Africa, are underlaid by real dissatisfaction in the region with existing states and their Western security partners that have failed to stop the gains of non-state actors, who have eroded state control in much of the periphery. However, while the sovereigntist sentiment shared by populations across the Sahel, as co-opted by coup leaders, cannot be dismissed, it does not mean that the juntas or their Russian security partners have the solution either. 

While the juntas in the Sahel may extract short-term political gain from their heavy-handed military tactics, they are unlikely to translate these military gains into the work of state-building that is necessary to address the roots of conflict, making their staying power uncertain. Research demonstrates that recruitment by non-state armed actors across the Sahel, including jihadist groups, is most significantly motivated not by ideology but rather by state-backed violence and human rights abuses. Indeed, 2023 was the Sahel’s most violent year on record, with militant violence increasing 20% year-over-year.

As the Malian Tuareg band Tinariwen reflects in their 2006 song Toumast (“The People): “Is the revolution like those trees, whose branches will grow if we water them? These men have been living with oppression since the day of their birth. They cannot make their trees grow with their water.” Indeed, while Tuareg revolutions continue, their outcomes are not so revolutionary.

As Mali’s history demonstrates, disrupting this cycle of conflict cannot be achieved by partnering with mercenaries who only amplify the collective trauma that fuels future violence. Instead, it will require addressing the causes of violence—investing in the rule of law and development in the periphery, meaningfully responding to ethnic and regional grievances about political and economic exclusion, and addressing the psychology of conflict through the hard work of justice, reconciliation, and mutual understanding.

Benjamin Oestericher is an African Studies student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has been a Research Assistant at the US Institute of Peace and Aga Khan University (Nairobi), as well as an intern for Mercy Corps’ Peace and Governance program and the US Department of State’s Africa Bureau.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading