Racial Conflict in Mali

IN A POPULAR BLOG entitled Africa Is A Country, Gregory Mann, Associate Professor at Columbia University, recently repeated a familiar narrative depicting the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in racial terms. It referred to ‘white Tuaregs’ betrayed by French colonisers (‘other Whites’) who ‘had left them to be ruled by the Blacks’ and who are once more waging war against a black Malian state. ‘The politics is rancid,’ opined Mann, an historian of francophone West Africa.1

Media accounts commonly allude to the grievances underlying Mali's ‘Tuareg problem’ in racial terms. Southern blacks who control the capital Bamako feel aggrieved by northern whites for their historically ruthless slave-raids and nomadic lifestyle. Northern whites resent having to beg for development aid from southern blacks they perceive to be inferior or foreign. Even the outside parties both sides rely on for help suggest bias of one sort or another. Tuaregs look to Algeria and Libya in North Africa, while Bamako receives support from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union.

There is a danger in uncritical acceptance of such assumptions about the Tuareg rebellion. ‘We should not understand this as a product of essentially ethnic factors,’ says anthropologist Dr. Naffet Keita, the first southern Malian to defend a thesis on the Tuaregs. The Ifoghas, he outlines, were a subjugated Tuareg tribe first empowered by the French, which allied with them against the more warlike, anti-colonial Tuareg of Menaka. The Ifoghass have headed Tuareg rebellions since Malian Independence, with the state indirectly empowering them during peace accords by buying their submission with key posts in Bamako and the North. Having gained choice appointments over the course of the rebellions, Keita says, ‘the Ifoghas have started to assert their supremacy over other Tuareg communities.’ Many Tuareg factions do not support the current rebellion, which has touched off a refugee crisis of epic proportions (320,000 displaced, according to UN figures). Ifoghas leaders head up the rebels as well as the Salafist group that is violently imposing Sharia law in the occupied North, which they claim to have liberated.

Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, the head of the Malian anti-slavery NGO Temedt, sees the struggle between slaves and masters - then and now - in class rather than ethnic terms. ‘We did a study in Mali to show that slavery is not unique to the North, to [whiter] Tuaregs and to Moors - this study showed that slavery persists in the North and in the South. In Bamako, Mopti, Kaye and Segou, we found cases [of black slave-owners]."

There is no doubt that the conflict manifests ethnic and racial symptoms. Many lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs fled Bamako after their homes were singled out for looting, while darker-skinned populations including former slaves in the North fled or were chased out by Tuareg rebels in the fighting over the past few months.  People are sensitive to ethnic difference and precolonial legacies of subordination of black Africans by other black Africans, commonly made explicit and joked over in everyday life in the capital. It is not unusual, for example, for one man to say in jest, upon meeting another whose surname suggests past subjugation,  ‘You're my slave!’

The racial interpretation of the Tuareg rebellion propagates primordialist stereotypes of Africans, and obscures unique historical dimensions of the conflict's origins. It muddies the waters where clarity is needed in the search for lasting solutions. The ideal of a unified, ethnically diverse and indivisible Mali holds special appeal for populations in both North and South. I have heard illiterate nomads voice reluctance to draw new national borders in an age made distinct by the speeding obsolence of frontiers. One anti-rebellion Tuareg businessman, awed by the size of China's market, remarked: ‘Mali already is so economically insignificant it can scarcely be said to represent a market. What happens when we start dividing it up?’END.


1. Gregory Mann, 'The Racial Politics of Tuareg Nationalism,' Africa Is a Country (7 April 2012). URL: http://africasacountry.com/2012/04/07/sweet-home-azawad/


About the Author: Hannah Armstrong is a Sahel-based Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (www.icwa.org). A recent graduate of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies with an M.A. Distinction in International Studies and Diplomacy, she previously worked as a freelance foreign correspondent, reporting on politics, economic development, and security from Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, and Haiti. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, and Monocle, among others. She can be found on Twitter at @HannahHaniya.


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