The conflict that erupted in Mali in early 2012 brought to the surface a long history of rebellions and autonomy demands by the Tuareg. But the Tuareg in neighbouring Niger appear to have more stable ties with the government there. Does Niger’s experience hold any lessons for Bamako?
The Tuareg’s post-colonial history in both Mali and Niger is marked by a series of uprisings over perceived neglect and marginalization by the central government, as well as grievances over failures to fully implement peace agreements.
Three years after Mali’s 1960 independence from France, the Tuareg launched a rebellion that was crushed by the army, but more uprisings followed in the 1990s, and in 2006, 2008 and 2012, despite the signing of a key peace agreement in 1992. Mali’s latest crisis began with a coup executed by disgruntled troops who blamed the government for failing to handle a fresh Tuareg insurgency.
Niger was similarly rattled by Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and in 2007. Niger signed a peace accord with the Tuareg in 1995.
But while the Tuareg demands for political and social inclusion and for physical and economic development are broadly similar in both Mali and Niger, the geographic, demographic and political circumstances are quite different.
Determined to keep peace
“The government in Niger is certainly making much more of an effort to at least appear conciliatory. You [also] have a more concerted effort by the northern Niger Tuareg to try to negotiate,” said Andrew Lebovich, Sahel consultant and researcher with the Dakar-based Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
Mohamed Ag Ewangaye, a director at Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP), says that although the peace accords are far from being fully implemented and the conditions that fuelled past conflict still exist, the Tuareg in Niger are determined to achieve peace.
“The causes of the revolt remain. The enforcement of the peace agreements is far from successful,” Ewangaye, himself a Tuareg, told IRIN.
“If we were to always get into the details regarding the government’s attitude… if we were to always get involved in recriminations, there would be no peace. You must at one point stop to give peace a chance and reconstruct bit by bit because it is a long-term endeavour,” Ewangaye said.
Unlike the Tuareg in Mali, who are concentrated in the north, those in Niger are spread across the territory, a factor that has helped blunt irredentism.
“The Tuareg in Niger are not confined in a single region, so there can be no secessionist demands like in Mali,” said Ewangaye.
“Tuareg culture permeates more [of] the Nigerien society. Tuareg are spread out over most of Niger, which you don’t have in Mali. All of Niger is like northern Mali in the way the population is distributed,” noted Lebovich.
Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s also had very different effects: the rebellion in Mali pitted the Tuareg against other communities and complicated efforts to reach peace, while in Niger the conflict ended up fractionalizing the Tuareg, said Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.
Peace agreements not implemented
Nonetheless, long-term stability among the Tuareg populations in both Mali and Niger has been undermined by the partial implementation of peace agreements and, recently, by the presence of radical Al Qaeda-linked groups in the region. (The presence of these groups has altered governments’ security policies and dealings with the Tuareg movements, some of which have been accused of ties with Al Qaeda, observers say.)
“The peace agreements were pretty similar in both Mali and Niger: economic development, military reforms, and integration and decentralization. But they didn't work well and there was a resumption of violence in 2007 in Niger and in 2006 in Mali,” said Guichaoua.
But Mali and Niger had different responses after these rebellions ended.
In northern Mali, a security programme called PSPSDN (Programme spécial pour la paix, la sécurité et le développement du Nord Mali) was launched in 2011, based on the idea that security would spur development. But because the army was loathed in the region, the programme simply stirred anger.
“Bamako has performed worse [than Niger] because it explicitly adopted a security agenda and forgot the [development] measures of Pacte National [the 1992 peace treaty],” said Guichaoua.
On the other hand, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou has appointed members of the Tuareg community, such as politician Brigi Rafini, to key government positions in a bid to assuage feelings of neglect. “That is a short-term strategy. The long-term is to revive the three-pronged [peace agreement] policy,” he explained.
“In the two countries, the [peace] policies were not fully implemented, but in Mali it was pushed aside by a security agenda embodied in the PSPSDN, and in the case of Niger there were no structural changes either but a sort of savvier approach to the resolve the crisis,” Guichaoua told IRIN.
Changing method of struggle
Tuareg leaders in Mali and Niger have also had very different influences on their respective countries.
After agreeing to end hostilities in the late 2000s for instance, Malian Tuareg rebel commander Ibrahim Bahanga did not give up arms. But in Niger, Tuareg leaders more or less accepted the deals brokered by Libya’s then-leader, Muammar Gaddafi, which included disarmament, said Guichoua.
HACP’s Ewangaye said the struggle of the Nigerien Tuareg has continued but the means have changed.
“The armed struggle was one stage of protesting against the state of affairs. The peace accord is another step to begin a new national reconstruction. The reasons for the uprising still exist, but the method of struggle has changed,” he said.