Manuscripts for Peace in Mali


“Tragedy is due to divergence and because of lack of tolerance … Glory to he who creates greatness from difference and makes peace and reconciliation,” —Timbuktu manuscript entry by El Hadj Oumar Tall (1797)

Malian democracy now has the potential to lead West Africa, and even all of Africa, in the creation of the pluri-ethnic state. In Mali, cultural diversity is celebrated as an asset rather than opposed as a threat to monolithic national identity. Government officials, traditional leaders, and NGOs hold a strong conviction that the historic Timbuktu manuscripts from the 12th through 19th centuries could further cultivate a distinctive Malian development paradigm—one rooted in this ancient culture of rapprochement. Scholars during this period, commonly referred to as Ambassadors of Peace, used the written word extensively to guide leaders of Malian empires that once spanned vast areas of West Africa. The writings, influenced by traditional African thought and the Islamic faith, are written in Arabic and languages indigenous to the region. They are relevant today for their treaties on tolerance and peaceful means to resolve conflicts. The manuscripts’ unifying power is a product of the ethnic diversity of historic and contemporary Timbuktu scholars who embrace a collective heritage that includes the Songhay, Tamashek (Tuareg), Fulani, and Moors.

The Timbuktu Heritage Institute, an international nongovernmental organization with bases in Mali and the United States, is working to seize a unique opportunity presented by these threatened manuscripts. Its mission is to save the manuscripts, promote their peacemaking legacy, and foster sustainable development in a region trying to lift itself out of poverty. Its conservation and research efforts emphasize scholars’ private collections, which hold the most valued manuscripts pertaining to peaceful governance. The Timbuktu Heritage strategy builds on several years of research, coalition building, and strategizing with local, national, and international partners.

Tolerance for differences is a long-standing Malian tradition with generations of Timbuktu scholars providing the guiding vision. This legacy of peaceful governance distinguishes Mali from many other historic African empires, as well as modern nation-states. Though Mali also experienced periods of oppressive rule during which the guidance and writings of scholars were oppressed, the unity among scholars of diverse ethnicities never diminished. To this day, traditional scholars who have inherited this intellectual and faith-inspired tradition remain united behind the peaceful message. “It will be a tragedy if our generation cannot preserve our heritage for future generations,” said Abderahman Ben Assuyuti, Imam of Jingaray Ber Mosque, in Timbuktu in 2002. In 1992 the Malian government, inspired in part by the scholars of Timbuktu, identified cultural heritage as a central theme to guide development initiatives. This unusual national policy ensured that cultural heritage preservation and revival initiatives were more prominent in the development process. New and existing government ministries in Mali have devoted resources to support this approach.

In an effort to heal ethnic tensions still simmering from the civil unrest of the 1990s, government leaders must affirm the lessons of the past. Recognition and celebration of a shared peaceful legacy will help resolve differences, forgive past offenses, and cultivate greater compassion. But there is also a need to recognize that a major root cause of conflict and insecurity is north-south economic disparities. Prospects for a lasting peace are diminished by persistent human suffering associated with extreme poverty and recurrent famine.

To enjoy widespread support and success, manuscripts-related projects must complement or even drive sustainable economic development in the northern regions. Given current global tensions, evidence of applied tolerant Islamic theology—past and present—is attracting the interest of governments including the United States and Arab states.

At its height, the University of Timbuktu enrolled 25,000 students and spanned many cities, 180 Qur’anic schools, and ambulant camps in the desert. Conserving and reviving this African cultural legacy will reestablish Timbuktu as an important African intellectual and commercial center and dispel myths of an illiterate past. “I believe the cultural legacy of Timbuktu represents the missing link for Africa,” said Noel Brown, president of Friends of the United Nations and a Timbuktu Heritage Advisory Board member. “We need to engage in efforts to restore the libraries of Timbuktu as they have with the library of Alexandria.”

Timbuktu Heritage has achieved tangible progress in coalition building, conservation and research with traditional libraries, and international public awareness. These accomplishments are just a start; the expectations and potential are much greater. Timbuktu Heritage is now working with its advisers and partners to obtain the financial resources to protect, better understand, and specifically foster the diplomatic potential of the manuscripts’ peacemaking legacy.
Issa Mohamed is president and Larry Childs is vice president of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute.
References and further reading
Poulton, R. & Youssouf, I. (1998). A Peace of Timbuktu. New York & Geneva: United Nations.

A Brief History of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute

Raised in the vicinity of Timbuktu, Timbuktu Heritage President and Founder Issa Mohamed is a Malian Tamashek businessman and historian who devoted the past four years to the organization’s research and establishment. Timbuktu Heritage is now anchored by the participation and support of traditional indigenous scholars of Timbuktu, who are known as Ambassadors of Peace. In 2002 Mohamed earned mandates from local, regional, and national Malian government officials to conserve the manuscripts and cultural heritage of Timbuktu.

In the United States, he has recruited a professional management team and promoted the revival of Timbuktu among leaders in academia, cultural associations, Amazigh scholarship, international development, the United Nations, the business sector, and faith communities. Cultural Survival hosts the Timbuktu Heritage East Coast office. For more information or to get involved visit their website: or email
Civil Conflict in Northern Mali

During the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, young Tamashek (Tuareg) men saw little hope for survival using traditional subsistence means. Many left Mali to work in other African nations, but in 1989 Libyan and Algerian anti-immigrant policies sent thousands of Tamashek home, where they were frustrated to find conditions had not changed.

Tamashek leaders who opposed the oppressive policies of the 23-year dictatorial regime of Moussa Traore harnessed this discontent. They believed that only an armed uprising could make the military government provide resources and regional autonomy. In 1990 an offensive was launched in northern Mali against rural military and police outposts. Challenged to apprehend the opposition, the military sometimes selected an easier target—civilian Tamashek in nomadic encampments. Although some residents were sympathetic to opposition ambitions, the majority were not involved. Unarmed and outnumbered, many fled to hide in the bush or in neighboring countries.

In 1991 Moussa Traoré was overthrown by a popular revolution in the capital city of Bamako and elsewhere. The overthrow was largely provoked by the Tamashek uprising and the subsequent weakening of the army. A successful transition to democracy followed and forced overdue recognition of the inequities against peoples in the north. Peace accords were signed between opposition forces and the new Malian government in 1992 but not implemented until 1996 when peace-making culminated at “The Flame of Peace.” At this event thousands of ex-combatant weapons were burned. The extraordinary success of the Malian reconciliation process has been attributed to the willingness and ability of the elected government to engage civil society groups, the integration of thousands of ex-rebel combatants into the Malian military, and decentralization of government authority. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Mali should serve as a peacemaking model throughout the world. Peoples in the region celebrate these accomplishments, but feel greater government and international commitment to economic development in the north is pivotal to lasting peace.

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