Drought, Rebellion and Social Change in Northern Mali

For over six hundred years, the Kel Tamacheq - also known as the Touareg - have grazed their herds across the vast desert regions around and far beyond the northern bend of the Niger River in Mali.

Over the past two decades, a combination of environmentally devasting droughts, changing economic patterns and civil war have left the Tamacheq impoverished and disenfranchised. Determined to retain their rich tradition yet required to adapt to changing socio-cultural and environmental realities, these people are engaged in an ongoing debate regarding what to keep and what to change. As a small and isolated ethnic group in a non-strategic corner of the world, their struggles have received little international attention.

The Tamacheq number close to a million, in regions of Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya where agriculture has only marginal value. Believed to be descendants of the north African Berbers, they display racially diverse characteristics ranging from semitic features and light skin to black African features with dark skin.

Recent political upheavals in Mali including a remarkably successful transition from dictatorship to democracy - have caused extraordinary hardship for the Malian Tamacheq. Within Mali, the Tamacheq are concentrated in the northern districts of Timbuctou, Gao and Kidal. Situated on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, its environment is arid, often receiving less than 10 inches of rainfall each year. Once considered one of the most prosperous livestock regions of West Africa, its pastoral (nomadic herding) economy is complemented by rainfed and irrigated agriculture. However, rain has been unreliable during the past three decades. Underground reserves and the Niger River have dipped nearly beyond reach. The devastating droughts of 1973 - 74 and 1984 - 85 seriously reduced both herding and farming and have forced the Tamacheq to permanently later their way of life.

The Tamacheq are the predominant nomadic ethnic group in the desert region of arid grass lands scattered with shrubs, small trees, dunes and barren rocky plains. Their territory is split by the fertile valley of the Niger, inhabited by the Sonraj and other sedentary farmers who protect this productive zone. They rarely venture far into the desert zone and interface with farmers are stable, historic tensions have been exacerbated by drought and desertification.

Tamacheq prominence in the region began at the outset of the 14th century when trade routes to the lucrative salt, gold, ivory and slave markets in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East sprang up across Tamacheq territory. Since no oceans route between West African and Europe was open, Tamacheq control of these trade routes brought them substantial income and effectively complemented their livestock subsistence. Renowned for their mastery of the desert, camels and the sword, they alternately raided and protected caravans and villages to supplement their income. Their diverse economy protected them from the vicissitudes of drought and famine.

By the early 20th century, however, the French had harnessed the Tamacheq under their colonial jurisdiction. As a result, the Tamacheq forfeited their rights to traffic collection and protection services for trans-Sharan camel caravans. Trucks began to replace camels as the vehicle of preference for crossing the desert, and in any case ocean routes had diverted most of the trade to the coast. Laws against raiding and slavery were also strictly enforced.

After independence and the establishment of numerous modern states in the early 1960's, the Tamacheq continued to lose economic strength and power. Across the continent, governments imposed restrictions on trade with neighboring countries to protect national economic interest. This additional level of bureaucracy and import duties dealt a final blow to an already faltering camel caravan trade network.

Droughts and the decreasing value of livestock and salt-their last remaining export commodity-have weakened a once strong and diverse Tamacheq economy. Without sources of income to supplement herding, the Tamacheq have been increasingly vulnerable to drought and famine.


Development programs involving the Tamacheq from the 1940's into the 1970's failed miserably because they worked against the traditional pastoral production systems. For example, the installation of new wells disrupted migration routes by attracting enormous herds to these sites. The herds stayed too long in one place, over grazing and destroying pastures. The northward encroachment of agricultural lands had a similar effect, by reducing the land available for grazing. Because the projects did not take into account traditional experience and wisdom, herders became alienated. Funding agencies - Malian and international - became discouraged and reluctant to support future projects in the North. They viewed the northern range lands as unproductive-unlike the fertile river valley-and the people underserving of assistance.

The 1984 - 85 drought devastated the entire region, unlike spotty earlier droughts which allowed herders to travel beyond traditional migratory routes and final unafflicted areas. The open range turned completely barren as the desert advanced from the North. Without viable pasture, herders were forced to sell their remaining animal. Prices dropped ten-fold. Urban residents, generally affluent Sonrai merchants or salaries civil servants, took advantage of the deflated market by buying up the nomads' herds at rock bottom prices. The well-to-do citydwellers could afford to keep their herds alive by paying cash for the scarce supplies of fodder and water obtained along the river.

Having lost almost everything, some displaced Tamacheq migrated to cities and towns, while others looking for work left for neighboring Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, Libya, and Burikina Faso. Although emergency food and medical relief were delivered to displaced Tamacheq once within major population centers, those remaining in the pastoral lands received very little. Bureaucrats believed that nomadic camps were inadequate as sites for food distribution, since monitoring was a problem. This presented nomadic Tamacheq with a dilemma. In cities one could obtain food yet disease, unemployment and unsanitary living conditions led to depression and sometimes death. Within the traditional rangelands, subsistence activities could not be pursued without food assistance.

By 1986 relief agencies began to shift attention to longer term projects encouraging sustainable development in pastoral communities. However, this process was fragmented and ineffective. Families separated by the drought had caused deterioration of the clan-based hierarchy, the only significant community organizing mechanism. As a result the people were unable to communicate effectively with the assistance agencies and government services. All this added to the president challenge presented by the deteriorating natural environment.

Initially many Tamacheq resident the concept of change and nostalgically hopes for a return to their traditional nomadic-pastoralist way of life. Others were more pragmatic, seeing changes as an opportunity to develop a revitalized economy and revamp some of the morally bankrupt aspect of their cultural tradition (thieving, warfare, slavery and racist attitudes). Gradually the Tamacheq came to accept that they had lost forever the economic security against drought which they had enjoyed for centuries.


With absolutely no direction and little preliminary assistance from outside source, the Tamacheq began to create small settlements. They hoped to support their nomadic way of life with a modern, sedentary infrastructure, which would offer diverse economic opportunities yet not oblige the Tamacheq to become sedentary full time. Several clan would settle around permanent water points with adjacent wadi (seasonal ponds). These clans constructed above homes, planted gardens, and cultivated crops - beginning a transition to a semi-sedentary subsistence. Eventually small villages resulted, resembling a sedentary village but designed to serve as an expanded base-camp for nomadic families. While some family members traveled with the herds (if any animals remained), others stayed to farm the land.

The most immediate function of settlements was to distribute grain. One above building surrounded by tents and huts was enough to qualify it as a "village" in the eyes of relief agencies. Distributing food assistance in rural areas reduced the exodus to urban centers, which were ravaged by cholera and malaria. Although also weak and malnourished at the settlements, residents were motivated by house building, farming and community organizing efforts.

The older generation of Tamacheq leaders played a very small role in the planning or implementation of these assistance efforts. Drought had accelerated the deterioration of the clan-based hierarchy, and new leadership patterns were rapidly emerging. Federation and clan chiefs became increasingly reliant on younger and formally educated Tamacheq men who possessed the French language skill and modern savvy required to facilitate a strong working relationship with the government and NGO community.

Traditionally clan chiefs and members of the noble caste had considerable authority over the other castes (vassals, slaves craftsmen and spiritual leaders). These social distinctions changed under French colonial rule when caste distinction, particularly slavery, was forbidden. The Malina government retained the law upon independence in 1960. However, these social distinctions were not significantly altered until the 1970s and 80's with the economic devastation brought on by drought. Far superior at manual labor and foraging, the former slave caste managed better than nobles. In the newly forming settlements, clans of different historic caste have found it necessary to finally accept each other on equal terms.


Since 1985, international NGO's and bilateral and organizations have played a significant role in development projects, working with indigenous. NGO's such as L'Association Tassaght. According to M. Abou Ag Assabit, its executive director, "Organizations like ours have been established to give some support to these nomadic communities that are in a state of transition. Several years of drought have really affected and changed the life of many Tamcheq communities in Mali. Our agricultural activities have been insignificant and our herds practically eliminated. Most herders who were well off and led a fairly good life (before the droughts), have now become cynical. To improve their lives, they had to diversify their means of subsistence. They began to build homes, garden and engage more actively in small commerce."

Subsistence activities have also diversified from a near exclusive reliance on herding to include farming, construction, commerce, and infrastructure development (community organization, education, primary health care and natural resource management). Divisions along enthic lines have also been breaking down in their interest of developing a better functioning regional economy.

Increasingly, Malian NGO's serve beneficiaries directly as the implementing agency while foreigners assist with funding, advice and professional development services, to NGO staff. The United States Agency for International Development would only disseminate funds where local NGO's would serve as the implementing agency. In Gao, L'Association Tassaght receives project funding and institutional support from OXFAM UK. With its closet office 600 miles away in Bamako, OXFAM and other `partner' organizations permit Tassaght a large degree of autonomy.

However, all these development initiatives since late in 1990, has been delayed by rebellion, which has been sabotaging earlier efforts. There has thus been a constant tension between short-term tactics-focusing on rebellion as a means for self-development, cultural dignity, and economic rebirth-and development as a longer-term strategy to reach the same goals. The rebels, however, are not solely to be blamed for their violent reactions which ensued from years of human rights violations in Mali.


In 1989, economic hardship and anti-immigrant policies in Libya and Algeria sent thousands of Malian Tamacheq home. Upon returning, they found some progress but no prosperity. In the past, many Tamacheq left home because they saw little hope for fundamental change through the settlements. Rebel leaders harnessed this discontent, arguing that only through rebellion would conditions improve.

In 1990 a well-planned rebel offensive was launched in northern Mali against the 23-year Malian dictator, Moussa Traoré. The ultimate goal of the more radical Tamacheq rebels in Mali, Libya, and Algeria was secession and the creation of a new Saharan state. A parallel attack was launched in neighboring Niger, where Tamacheq in the north are also controlled by a less than sympathetic southern government.

The roots of this rebellion go back to 1963, when Tamacheq secessionists rebelled against the socialist Malian government. The government responded with force, and the military committed severe human rights violations, including public executions, torture and the brutal rape and abduction of women. From independence until 1990, the oppressive military presence stifled economic opportunity and blocked significant public and foreign assistance. Although this early rebellion was suppressed, its cause was never addressed, thereby further mobilizing the Tamacheq justice and regional autonomy.

The primary targets of rebel attacks were military and police outposts in rural areas. Far more familiar with the desert terrain, rebels easily eluded their adversaries. Unable to apprehend the rebels, the military selected an easier target - civilian Tamacheq based in the settlements. Although some residents were sympathetic to rebel ambitions, the vast majority had no involvement beyond family ties. Nevertheless, many were questioned, beaten and arrested without formal charges. Some were executed without trial. The attitude that "all Tamacheq are rebels" was common in the military. This stereotype, combined with attacks against civilians, fueled ethnic and racial divisivenees. Western press coverage also helped shape the social atmosphere by pitting the "black" Sonrai against "white" Tamacheq.

Unarmed and outnumbered, many urban and rural Tamaheq fled their homes to hide in the bush. Over 100,000 fled to neighboring countries, where camps were established to accommodate unwanted refugees. Having abandoned the settlements and in hiding for more than two yeas, they suffered serve losses. In spite of the favorable rains in 1991 and 1992, military raids made farming and herding impossible. Subsistence became based on foraging and night time visits to the cities in search of assistance.

Peace accords signed in 1991 between rebel leaders and the governments of Mali, Libya and Algeria called for the demilitarization of northern Mali, freeing of prisoners, channeling more development resources to the North, and the integration of Tamacheq rebels into the military, forming mixed military patrols.

Later the same year Traoré was overthrown, not by Tamacheq rebels but by mounting national populist opposition to his oppression in the region. A year later, Traoré was tried for his "crimes of blood" and his widespread political repression, suggesting that a new wave of justice has started in Mali.

The coups has forced long overdue recognition of the inequities permitted for decades in the North. The new democratically elected government is doing much to reserve policies of discrimination against the Tamacheq. The election of President Konaré in 1992 is testimony to Malians' desire to introduce a democratic system, to address the urgent "problème du nord," and to support development efforts in the region.

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