Reflections: Tamanrasset Agreement

From June 1990 to January 1991, the ARLA (Armée Révolutionaire de Libération de l’Azawad) fought the Malian Armed Forces. In 1963-64 Mali was detached from a colonial enterprise. Man-made borders proved to be a great issue and this was only exacerbated with power centralized in the south. Southern Algerian localities like Bordj Badji Mokhtar and Tamanrasset became a host for refugees fleeing both war and drought. In Tamanrasset, a peace agreement was signed on January 6, 1991 by Chief of Army Staff Ousmane Coulibaly and lyad ag Ghali, Secretary General of the Azawad popular movement and Arab Islamic Front, under the mediation of the Algerian government. 

An examination of this rebellion and subsequent peace accord must be placed in a broader geopolitical context and a state analysis is sufficient to explore both the causes and aftermath of this agreement. The Tuareg conflict as it pertains to the Tamanrasset Agreement in retrospect concerns the states of Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Niger. Mali’s lack of effective government and stable population has not stripped them of their territorial claims largely because of Algeria’s role in affirming its legitimacy as a state, despite its ambiguous position throughout the years.

The constructivist theory is useful considering it begs several questions on the nature of a state itself. The sovereignty of Mali has been challenged throughout this ongoing rebellion. Identities of actors are also deeply pertinent – Tuareg nationalism fermented in Mali after a failed attempt at federalism. However, it is imperative to consider economic disenfranchisement as a precursor to identity politics in this conflict between Mali and its northern populations, as well as the limitations of Tuareg nationalism itself. National interests are ever-changing and evolving, in response to domestic factors and international ideas.

The Tamanrasset Agreement was a promise by Mali to devolve power to the northern regions. However, as Baz Lecocq says in Disputed Desert, “The Tamanrasset Agreement was ‘only’ a cease-fire, which had been violated by both sides before the ink had dried.” Bruce S. Hall in A History of Race in Muslim West Africa mentions the Songhay milita that was formed after the Tamanrasset Agreement whose goals “were to defend the black population of the Niger valley from Tuareg and Arab rebel attacks.” Azawad as a state is imagined on the basis of shared historical and cultural particularity because of Mali’s poor execution of developing an inclusive national consciousness. Mali constructed its national myth by privileging Mande and Bambara culture to the detriment of Tuareg culture. Hall also recognizes that the rebel movement itself was divided into fractions who were willing to envision life in Mali and others who categorically refused it. Lecocq writes, “Once again, the Tuaregs had to come to terms with state interests in order to continue to advance.” Mali as a functional unit, expected to assume the responsibility of unification, was not successful in this regard. However, different branches of liberation groups were not on the same page either. Nationalism as cultural artifacts, as Benedict Anderson describes in Imagined Communities, “became ‘modular,’ capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations.” The different relationships Tuaregs formed to their nation-state at birth (Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso) as well as, for some, the nation-state they found themselves refuged in, affirm this. 

When Gaddafi created his legion of Tuareg fighters, promising them valuable resources in exchange, Algeria turned back non-Algerian Tuaregs (the Kel Adagh who populated an entire district in the Hoggar region of Algeria) to cut off this transnational passageway. In 1973, 1975 and 1986, round-ups were carried out in Algerian refugee quarters and refugees were deported back without mercy. These expulsions can be seen in the light of the ongoing conflicts between Tuaregs in Algeria, which threatened the security in Tamanrasset and other Algerian cities (Lecocq, 246). Very severe surveillance was exercised by the police on the comings and goings of young Tuaregs between Algeria and Libya. Leading up to the Tamanrasset Agreement, a race to get the backing of the Algerian state took place. Zeyd ag Attaher, Tuareg militant who launched the first rebellion, requested to speak to the Algerian President at the time, Ahmed Ben Bella. “The request was granted, but Malian diplomacy had been ahead of Zeyd. On 28 September 1963 the Malian Chief of Staff, Abdoulaye Soumaré, had visited Algiers to speak with the authorities about the uprising” (Lecocq, 180). Soumaré convinced the Algerian authorities to arrest Zeyd or other rebels when they presented themselves and at their arrival in Bechar, Zeyd and his companion Ilyas ag Ayyouba were in fact taken in. States share a variety of goals and values, and for Algeria that was state security and integrity. Inheriting Mali’s problem was especially not in their plans in the beginning stages of independent statecraft. Fast forward to the Tamanrasset Agreement, including the following provisions:

  • A cessation of military operations and all armed action in the entire territory of Mali and principally in the 6th and 7th regions.  
  • A commitment by all parties to ban all acts of violence, including armed elements coming from outside.  
  • Progressive reduction of the Malian Armed Forces in the 6th and the 7th regions.  
  • Freedom of movement of the unarmed forces of the MPLA and the Arab Islamic Front in the northern regions.  
  • Disengagement of the Malian Armed Forces from civil administration and suppression of certain military posts in the northern regions. 
  • Avoidance of zones of pasture land and densely populated zones in the 6th and the 7th regions. 
  • Confinement of the Malian Armed Forces to the role of defense of the integrity of the territory at the frontiers.  
  • Integration of ex-combatants or rebel forces into the Malian Armed Forces.

A shared understanding of national identity evolves throughout time, altering state preferences and state behavior, however even after this accord, the Malian state remained static, feeding further into dreams of an Azawad nation free from its shackles. Hall writes, “The rebellion was started by a small group of no more than a few dozen men who hoped to raise the profile of Tuareg discontent at having been included in postcolonial Mali. They hoped that Algeria or France would intervene on their behalf. But the international help never materialized.” What makes Algeria’s involvement different from France, and which brings us back to the state as a central point of interrogation, is that the borders in the Saharan regions of north-west Africa were contested for a long stretch of time in the first place. Both Algeria and Mali were concerned with drawing their borders. After the Tamanrasset Agreement, President Taoure was removed from power after a coup d’etat on March 26, 1991. Edogh Abghehonou says the second Tuareg rebellion wasn’t the only event that led to the fall of this regime. He writes in Enduring Crises in Mali: Exploring the Ethnic Tuareg’s Quest for Statehood in Mali Since Independence, “It was the accumulation of many factors, including, but are not limited to, the lack of resources to enforce the Tamanrasset Accords, and a strong desire of the Malian people to abort the military dictatorship in Mali and try something new, a democracy” (273).

The government superficially integrated cultural diversity as one of the founding principles of the democracy. Tuaregs who migrated to Algeria populated refugee camps at the border towns of Timiawen and Bordj Badji Mokhtar, where an estimated 12,000 Kel Tamasheq sought help. After the 1963 rebellion, an estimated 25% of the population of the Adagh had migrated to Algeria. Growth in the number of settlers in Tamanrasset (barely 30% of the total population in 1946 and nearly 65% in 1969) contrasts with the stagnation in the number of Tuareg nomads. Power refers to the ability to control outcomes, producing results that would not have occurred naturally. It would not have been without the state for this movement en masse to occur. Because of this, decentralization was finally a subject of popular political debate in the later end of the decade. While the Tamanrasset Agreement was seen as a failure, first democratic municipal elections took place in 1999, about 8 years later. “After decades of rule by the south and its military, these elections in fact transferred power to local northern candidates, in particular the Songhai and Tuaregs,”  writes Hannah Armstrong in Crisis in Mali: Root Causes and Long-Term Solutions. Its effectiveness is debated. States have power with respect to actors within the state, and the persistent independence movement may go to show that Mali was too late in superimposing government officials. The subjective antiquity of Malian nationalism causes friction with the objective modernity of nations, and this was only received with a new kind of nationalism among its marginalized groups. This makes it difficult for Mali to check off the second and third criteria of state status outlined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. The philosophical poverty in nationalism does not prevent it from gaining political power.

Tuareg nationalism among Malian Tuaregs has already crystallized across the nation-states they find themselves estranged in. After all, “Political thinking along clan lines eventually led to the near collapse of the movement in the ‘Tamanrasset War’ of 1985” (Lecocq, 193). A state’s power potential depends on the resources it has at its disposal. Marc Weller writes in Asymmetric Autonomy and the Settlement of Ethnic Conflicts, “While the rebels demanded more development money and the replacement of southern administrators with local representatives, Traore responded by promising some local autonomy for the three northern regions with substantial Tuareg populations: Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal” (106). Despite this ongoing tug-of-war, the most important resource in this conflict is intangible. The idea of an Azawad nation-state has been raised too frequently for Mali to maintain its hand over its northern region. It cannot be ignored, however, that Mali may be stalling because of the cracks in the liberation movement itself. “Whatever the facts may have been, the story is now interpreted in the context of the ongoing struggles for power and dominancy within the movement of various currents, and especially between various tewsiten. Despite all ideals, discourse and rhetoric on ‘one country, one goal, one people’, unity was far from a daily reality. Among the ishumar as among their less revolutionary inclined kindred, tewsit infa temust: Tribe prevailed over nation” (Lecocq, 246). Today, many Tuaregs indigenous to Algeria who live side by side with Tuareg refugees from Mali may not relate to their plight, being comfortable on their own land. Likewise, Niger’s Tuareg independence movement was suppressed in time for its Tuareg population to be, for the moment, willing to subscribe to the state. Libya as a whole struggles to define itself, and does not pose problems to its Tuareg population that are unique beyond the issue of closed borders and nomadic life. Malian Tuaregs continue to demand their autonomy in the aforementioned localities, which makes their experience singular and yet their struggle inclusive all at once.

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