The Tuaregs' Rebellions in Mali and Niger and the U.S. Global War on Terror

Article excerpt

Scholars have advanced the idea of environmental scarcity to explain the Tuaregs' rebellions in West Africa. However, most governments in the Sahel tend to view the Tuaregs' rebellions as acts of terrorism so they can benefit from US assistance against its global war on terror. Using two case studies, Mali and Niger, this paper contends that the Tuaregs' rebellions are the result of not only grievances from political exclusion and the neglect of the Sahelian governments to develop the Tuaregs' zones, but also the result of fixed colonial borders that have negatively affected Tuaregs' cultural values and livelihood. The Malian and Nigérien governments should find means to resolve these rebellions quickly because Islamic and terrorist groups are taking an active interest in the Sahel, providing social services to a large destitute population that these governments have neglected.


In November 2002, the Bush Administration established the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI) as part of its global war on terror (GWT). The PSI intended specifically to enhance border capabilities of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger by preventing transnational terrorists from setting up safe havens in the Sahel. However, the PSI was constrained by limited funding and focus. In June 2005, the US government replaced the PSI with the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI).1 Unlike the PSI, the TSCTI introduced a more comprehensive approach to regional security by emphasizing economic development and effective democratic governance in the region.2 The idea of development fits well with the people in the Sahel who are among the poorest in the world. Their livelihood highly depends on rain to survive. However, the rainy season has never been dependable, varying historically in length, with a number of severe and even murderous, multi -year droughts throughout centuries.3 More importantly, national decisions to limit people's mobility within fixed colonial borders and encourage growing cash crops have made good farmland scarce and degraded fertile soils. As a consequence, producing food surpluses even in favorable years has become difficult.4

Moreover, most Sahelian countries had been ruled by self-appointed autocrats who used foreign aid and economic rents from exports of primary commodities to stay in power. As a result, these countries have witnessed a number of conflicts since they became independentin the early 1960s. These conflicts are racial (between Tuaregs and Black Africans), ethnic (among different groups), socioeconomic (between pastoralists and agriculturalists), political (Tuaregs against their governments), and historical (between former slave owners or Tuaregs against former slaves). The dominance of US military foreign policy to fight its GWT may exacerbate these conflicts, especially the Tuaregs' rebellions against the governments of Mali and Niger, as African leaders in the region use this war to further marginalize antagonistic groups by accusing them of being terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Thus, the two governments have accepted US military assistance to protect their borders and, in turn, to fight the Tuaregs' rebellions.

The purpose of this paper is to understand the causes of the Tuaregs' rebellions in Mali and Niger in the context of extant literature on environmental scarcity, politics of exclusion, and regional security in the Sahel and the possible implications for the US GWT. These rebellions started in May 1990 as a result of a brawl among Tuaregs in Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger, when local gendarmes arrested a large number of them.5 Viewed as an arbitrary arrest, other Tuaregs attacked the town's police station. In pursuing the attackers, the army killed several hundred Tuareg civilians. In mid- June 1990, the Malian government responded to these events by arresting young Nigerien Tuareg refugees residing in Méneka. On 29 June 1990, less than one hundred Malian Tuaregs attacked the police station of Ménaka and freed the Nigerien Tuaregs threatened with extradition to Niger. …