A MAGHREBI TINDERBOX

As North Africa teeters on the brink of chaos with a Tuareg conquest in northern Mali,

In this month’s magazine, Ed Blanche reports on the growing Jihadist threat in the region. Here we look at the Tuareg , the fabled desert warriors who have just proved victorious in northern Mali, where as a spinoff from the 2011 conflict in Libya a new civil war is brewing.

The Tuareg are fabled desert warriors known as “the blue men” because of the distinctive colour of their robes and the nila vegetable dye they smear on their bodies.

The Tuareg, a pastoral Berber people who for thousands of years controlled the caravan routes carrying spices, gold and dates across the Sahara, were once the lords of the desert.

“It’s better to have a Tuareg with you than a GPS device”, is a US army special forces saying.

But their way of life has been indelibly altered in less than a century, as they grappled with the colonial imposition of borders, urbanisation, desertification and claims on their territory by surrounding states. They have taken to smuggling cigarettes, narcotics, arms, and hostages, across the desert wastes, become bandits or mercenary fighters.

Tuareg rebels, who fought for Muammar Gadaffi, have proclaimed the nation of Azouad, a territory in northern Mali that’s about one to one and a half times the size of France. The nomadic tribes number about one million people and form the overwhelming majority in the three northern provinces of Mali.

The Tuareg overran this long-disputed land after a lightening campaign that began in January with the seizure of the town of Tinzawatene on Mali’s northern border with Algeria. Many of the Tuareg had fought as mercenaries for Colonel Gadaffi during the civil war in Libya that finally bought down the mercurial dictator in October 2011.

Up to 1,000 of the battle hardened Tuareg fighters, heavily armed with weapons plundered form Gaddafi’s many armouries, headed home in columns of armed pick up trucks to reignite a struggle for independence that dates back to the 1950’s. They are led by Bilal ag Acherif, a Tuareg colonel in Gaddafi’s African legion.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azouad (MNLA) claimed the democratically elected Malian government in the capital, Bamako, has attempted to wipe out the Tuareg over the years, including starving them during the region’s many droughts.