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From Friends to Enemies: Negotiating nationalism, tribal identities, and kinship in the fratricidal war of the Malian Tuareg

Des amis aux ennemis : Négocier le nationalisme, les identités tribales et les relations de parenté dans la guerre fratricide des Touaregs du Mali
Georg Klute
p. 163-175


Cet article traite de la façon dont la rébellion touarègue a utilisé la notion d’amitié. Les Touaregs qui vivaient en exil se désignaient les uns les autres comme « amis », moyen politique de renforcer l’unité d’une utopique nation touarègue encore à venir. Les choses changèrent radicalement au début des années 1990, lorsque ce qu’il est convenu d’appeler la rébellion touarègue éclata, après le retour au Mali et au Niger des Touaregs exilés en Algérie et en Libye. Aux liens d’amitié qui avaient traversé les frontières interethniques et intra-ethniques, se substitua alors l’affirmation d’identités ethniques et mêmes tribales. Dans le contexte de conflits violents comme la rébellion touarègue, les liens d’amitiés unissant certains membres de groupes devenus hostiles ont du mal à se maintenir. L’article entend montrer que l’amitié n’est pas seulement une notion relationnelle, mais aussi une notion politique. De la même manière que la parenté, la consanguinité, ou la revendication d’une ascendance commune, elle peut servir à légitimer la construction de liens politiques, d’alliances ou de relations hostiles.

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فهرس الكلمات المفتاحية:

صداقة, تمرد, منفى, قرابة, النيجر, مالي
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1When the Tuareg upheavals in northern Mali and in northern Niger began in the 1990s, they aimed at building up autonomous regions or even a state that would embrace all members of the « Tuareg nation » (temust or tumast). The ideology of a common « Tuareg nation » (or temust), however, had only slowly developed during several decades in Libyan and Algerian exile where Tuareg of various origins had been perceived by their hosts as members of a homogenous ethnic group. This ascription from the outside had been (partly) taken over by Tuareg and translated into the political project of temust (the « Tuareg nation »), represented as a unit of people sharing common descent, speaking the same language, and, above all, equals in dignity and morals. All quarrels between the Tuareg themselves, i.e. former conflicts between regional and tribal groups, or differences between various classes of the traditional hierarchical society, were to disappear and make room for a national identity in a future Tuareg state. This state should reach ideally even beyond the boundaries inherited from the post-colonial state (Klute, 1995, p. 55-56). Despite its discourse of national unity, however, the rebel movement soon split up into several factions which opposed one another politically at first, and later also militarily.

2I have shown elsewhere (Klute, 1995) that the divisions between the various factions do not only reflect diverging political orientations, but that they also refer to friendly or hostile relationships between tribes or confederations of tribes. These relationships though are not very old ; their present form goes back to the colonial conquest at the beginning of the 20th century.

3This article deals mainly with the changing nature of relationships between various Tuareg rebel movements during the so-called « Tuareg rebellion ». Though I will concentrate on the relations between two Malian rebel movements during a fratricidal war that took place in northern Mali in 1994, I will refer to the whole area affected by the Tuareg upheavals in the 1990s, i.e. large parts of the southern Sahara and the northern Sahel, reaching from the Mediterranean shores, the Libyan, Algerian and Chadian Sahara, to the northern parts of Niger and Mali. In order to make my arguments more understandable, I will not only deal with events connected directly to the fratricidal war between two Tuareg rebel movements in 1994, but also with the period between 1980, when the first « revolutionary » organisation of exiled Tuareg was founded in Libya, and the year 1996 when the Tuareg upheaval in Mali ended.

4The following observations are based on field studies conducted between 1990 and 1998 in southern Algeria, northern Mali, northern Niger, and France. Besides « classical » methods of data-collection in anthropological fieldwork, such as observations and interviews, my reflections are also, and mainly, based on biographical studies. These studies helped to follow trajectories of people, including the varying relationships they had to one another and in particular to asset the changing nature of these relationships given in legitimatory discourses.

  • 1 The data contains the following entries: name, father’s/mothers’ name, age, class (incl. remarks), (...)

5Biographical data are essentially of two kinds : on the one hand biographies narrated by migrants, either while in exile (southern Algeria) or back home (northern Mali and northern Niger) ; on the other hand a quantitative survey executed between October and December 1996 in the region of Kidal in northern Mali. Here, I collected biographical data of 241 persons (of a population of then roughly 35,000 people) with the help of questionnaires that comprised several entries each1. The most influential men (and women) of the region, i.e. those whom my informants considered to form the local elite, were selected and questioned : on the one hand, the enquiry addressed tribal chiefs and tribal notables, and, on the other hand, it took into consideration « intellectuals », i.e. people with High School degrees (or more). The data is organised in a data bank (access) in such a way that all entries can be linked. The organisation of the data allows following various relation-building processes between different persons and political, tribal, or descent groups, from the very beginning of the upheaval’s organisation, during the Libyan and Algerian exile in 1980, to the end of the conflict in Mali in the year 1996.

6As I will explain, friendship played an important role particularly among Tuareg migrants during the years of exile that preceded the military upheaval in 1990. Here, friendship fulfilled two functions : firstly, it served as an ideological tool that was supposed to strengthen the unity of an imagined utopian Tuareg nation. Secondly, relationships stemming from friendship had the potential to cut across tribal or kin identity and solidarity. Political orientations, indeed, followed the same transversal logic.

7Identities were negotiated and reshaped again in the course of and after the military upheavals, which took place over the 1990s. My main thesis is that the logic of descent eventually prevailed over any other logic of relation-building. This holds true in particular for the year 1994 when two Tuareg rebel movements in northern Mali fought a fratricidal war.

The Ideology of Friendship

  • 2 See Leupen (1978) and Chaker (1988). Leupen contains 1415 entries, Chaker 673.

8Despite the impressive volume of scientific, and, even more so, popular literature about the Tuareg, not a single work explicitly deals with friendship. Scientific bibliographies at our disposal do not have any entry that concerns « friendship » (or related terms), either in the titles or in the key words2. Relationships among Tuareg, or between Tuareg and other people, are mostly described and analysed in terms of kinship, intertribal, interethnic, and political relations, or as ritualised relationships linking for example business partners or hosts and guests. Aspects of personal, dyadic relationships are hardly mentioned as if considered less important than political, military, or economic aspects.

  • 3 The following section draws on Klute (1991, 1994, 2001) and Boesen and Klute (2004).

9As I said above, friendship terms started to replace kinship appellations among Tuareg migrants from 1980 onwards. Before I come to the reasons which caused this change in emic representations of appropriate appellations, let me give a brief description of what I call the « modern migration movements » of the Tuareg3.

10The history of modern migrations of the Tuareg dates back to the last years of colonial rule in the 1950s. Hundreds of Tuareg from Mali and Niger migrated to southern Algeria where they were employed in the oil-industry, or became mercenaries in the French colonial army. From the middle of the 1950s onwards, the French recruited more and more Tuareg in order to cope with the growing anti-colonial National Resistance Movement (Front de libération nationale, FLN) in Algeria.

11In the following years, the number of Tuareg migrants in Algeria increased. In 1963/64, groups of Tuareg in northern Mali revolted against the Malian government. As they were small in number, and poorly armed, the Malian army had no difficulty in suppressing the upheaval rather easily, despite the fact that the Tuareg had a much better knowledge of the terrain and that they were superior individual fighters. Hundreds of Tuareg, including women and children, fled the suppression campaigns of the Malian Army. A decade later, when a heavy drought decimated the herds of many Tuareg nomads in northern Mali and Niger, a new wave of thousands of refugees arrived in Algeria, and from there, continued also to Libya. A similar drought occurred in the 1980s ; again, thousands of Tuareg from Mali and Niger fled to the neighbouring countries in the north.

12Sentiments of common origin and common destiny developed in the milieu of Tuareg migrants in Algeria and Libya. This was partly due to the fact that their Algerian and Libyan hosts treated these migrant workers and their families quite badly as Tuareg from abroad, without differentiating between regional groups, tribal identities, or social strata. Tuareg migrants started to address one another as « friend » (amidi ; pl. imidiwan), and not as « cross-cousin », etc., as they used to do before. As their Algerian and Libyan hosts thought the (exiled) Tuareg to form a homogenous ethnic group, the exiled Tuareg, too, started to imagine themselves as an ethnic group, united by common traits.

13There is virtually no scientific work, based on fieldwork and direct observation, which covers this period of Tuareg exile in Algeria and Libya preceding the beginning of the so-called « Tuareg rebellion » in 1990. All publications concerning this period are based on data collected retrospectively. As « revolutionary » movements and violent wars are very dynamic processes indeed, statements of social actors can undergo dramatic changes in short periods of time. What was said yesterday can be omitted or forgotten today. This is particularly true if one takes into account that the Tuareg still live in a predominantly oral culture, where all statements are actually shaped by circumstance and, as in this case, by the balance of power prevailing at that moment.

14In order to overcome these methodological difficulties, I have used the migrants’ poetry as a historical source. I have chosen poetry as a historical source for two reasons : firstly, because poetic texts are, so to say, more resistant to changes than prosaic ones ; secondly, because the Tuareg migrant poets recorded their works on audio-cassettes, and in this way, prevented all later modifications. On the whole, I have collected some hundred poems (or songs) ; from this collection, I have selected a corpus of about fifty pieces according to the following criteria : audibility, possibility to date the creation, possibility to identify the author and circumstances of the piece’s creation. This corpus covers the period from 1978 to 1996. The careful interpretation of the migrants’ poetry, combined with other data, has actually contributed to the reconstruction and analysis of the Tuareg upheaval in Niger and Mali.

15With regard to emic appellations, the analysis of the migrants’ poetry reveals several interesting points :
(1) In my collection of several hundreds pieces of Tuareg migrant poetry, no tribal name and no appellation of a social stratum is ever mentioned, whereas geographical terms do appear.
I interpret this omission as a clear indication of the authors’ desire to overcome social or tribal differences within Tuareg society. Each and every Tuareg should be the same in a future, though still utopian, nation-state, regardless of his/her tribal or social belongings.
(2) The second interesting point is that in the corpus of the fifty or so poems I collected, and which I can date exactly, a clear distinction is made between the appellation of the Tuareg who migrated, and those who stayed
« at home ». Whereas the Tuareg who stayed at home are addressed, with only few exceptions, in kinship terms, Tuareg migrants are not addressed in kinship terms ; instead, the poets mostly just call them « friends » (imidiwan).

16Again, neutral appellations such as « friends » have to be interpreted as ideological attempts at homogenising rather heterogeneous communities of Tuareg migrants in Algerian or Libyan exile. The fact that Tuareg who stayed at home are addressed, with much affection, in kinship terms is a first hint at the political project of the Tuareg migrants : to give up exile, to return home and to fight for political and cultural autonomy.

17On the other hand, life in exile seemed to have favoured friendships and the development of intimate, personal relationships that cut across habitual social or tribal divisions : appellations such as « friends » clearly had concrete and material foundations.

18The first revolutionary organisation of Tuareg migrants was founded in Al Khums (Libyan transcription) near Tripoli at the end of August 1980 with the semi-official support of Libya ; it was called Front populaire de libération du Sahara arabe central (FPLSAC : Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arabic Central Sahara). This organisation included Tuareg from Mali as well as from Niger. The same year, Ghaddafi opened the first military camp for Tuareg in order to give the Tuareg military training and to recruit them into his famous Islamic legion.

19Apparently, life in these camps very much favoured the building up of personal relationships. Friendship bonds were created between Tuareg from Mali and from Niger, between slaves and nobles, and even between different tribal confederacies which were long since considered sworn enemies at home in Mali or Niger. Personal relationships grew even stronger, when Tuareg mercenaries became comrades in arms. Hundreds of Tuareg migrants fought as Libyan mercenaries in various campaigns in Lebanon or Chad, sent there by the Libyan leader for his ambitious political goals.

20In retrospect, the local narrative in northern Mali underlined the coherence of the revolutionary movement that was based on friendship bonds only at that time, by saying that even close kin could become personal enemies in Libyan or Algerian exile, and, moreover, could start hating each other – the local expression of the phenomenon that migration and exile were experienced as transitional situations, changing even traditional representations of what personal relationships should be based upon (see also Meier, 2004).

21At that time migrants started to call all Tuareg Kal Lamiger – a poetic neoplasm composed of the Tuareg word Kal (« people of » ) and the terms « Mali » and « Niger ». This new composition symbolised the wish to overcome all the various divisions among the Tuareg – even state boundaries – in order to erect a common Tuareg nation-state. As late as 1992, when I did fieldwork in southern Algeria, it was impossible to ask for tribal names or the social status of persons because this was considered as detrimental to the national cause.

22The first division of the united resistance movement of exiled Tuareg took place in 1987. One day after the death of Seyni Kountché, Niger’s dictator and General-President, the Malian Tuareg, and only the Malian Tuareg, founded a new clandestine resistance movement in Libyan exile. At the same time, the Tuareg of Niger completely withdrew from the project that promoted a common nation-state of all Tuareg. The Niger Tuareg hoped for democratic change in their home country after Seyni Kountché’s death. They, therefore, voted against the plan of a military and necessarily violent upheaval and opted for a peaceful political struggle. After that, there was no longer a common military or political project of the Tuareg from Mali and Niger, despite the fact that contact between Malian and Niger rebel movements continued to exist, and despite the fact that some rebels fought on an individual basis, and occasionally, on the other side of the border.

From Friends to Enemies

23At the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, around 20,000 Tuareg migrants were sent back from neighbouring Algeria and Libya to Mali and Niger. Among them and their followers were a few hundred who had been mercenaries for a number of years in Libya’s Islamic Legion ; some had even fought in campaigns for the Libyan Leader, as I mentioned earlier. These people had organised clandestine associations of Tuareg migrants in exile. The migrants’ return to their home countries marked the beginning of the so-called « Tuareg rebellion ».

24The military upheaval in Mali had three phases. The first phase was marked by a successful struggle against the Malian army, which ended with the Treaties of Tamanrasset in January 1991.

  • 4 « Azawad » is the name given to the region to the north of Timbuktu. It has become synonymous with (...)

25It began when the Malian army threw returnees from Algeria and Libya into refugee camps. Since the Malian secret service knew of the existence of the Tuareg migrants’ secret organisations, it took advantage of the situation in the camps to arrest some of their inhabitants. At the end of June 1990, a group of armed rebels attacked the town of Menaka in north-eastern Mali and freed those who had been arrested. This successful military operation was the signal for further military attacks. The rebels, who had organised themselves as the Mouvement populaire pour la libération de l’Azawad (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MPLA)4, achieved surprising military success against the Malian Army in the second half of 1990. During this phase no more than about two hundred experienced guerrillas executed all the military operations. The rebels forced Mali to deploy at least two thirds of the Malian army, i.e. four thousand out of six thousand men, in the north. The rebels countered this with a typical guerrilla campaign. The civilian population were the main victims of the army’s search and destroy missions which they employed to capture the mobile rebels. The harsh behaviour of the army, in turn, caused the population to take the rebels’ side, and increasing numbers joined the MPLA (see also Klute and von Trotha, 2004).

26In this situation the Tuareg rebels benefited from the changed global political situation at the beginning of the 1990s and the serious crisis of the military regime in Mali, which was due to fall in March 1991. In order to rid itself of one of the conflicts, the Mali government signed a peace treaty under the mediation of Algeria in January 1991. In the « Treaties of Tamanrasset », as the peace agreement was known from then on, the signatories agreed to grant special status to the north of Mali, plus to economic concessions, which was practically equivalent to autonomy for the Tuareg in that part of the country.

27During the first phase of the military upheaval, the poets of the rebels continued to address those Tuareg who had not joined the armed rebellion yet, in kinship terms. Apparently, affective appellations, such as kinship terms, were supposed to convince those Tuareg who had stayed at home to join the armed struggle and to become members of the imagined, though still utopian, Tuareg nation-state. The rebels, on the other hand, were still called « friends », « my friends », etc., but more and more martial appellations were used too, such as « wild beasts », « fighters », or « martyrs ».

28Implementing the Tamanrasset Treaties proved almost hopeless. Furthermore, the successful fight against Mali had unleashed neotribal, social, and political dynamics among the Tuareg which would become the driving forces for the second phase of the rebellion : the splintering of the rebel movement. Under the mediation of France and Mauritania the peace agreements of the Pacte national in April 1992 ended the second phase of the rebellion.

29In spite of the agreement of Tamanrasset, some rebel groups continued their attacks in the spring of 1991. Soon afterwards, the united rebel movement split into first two, and later three, politico-military movements which acted independently both militarily and politically. Apart from the original movement MPLA (which now had changed its name to Mouvement pour la Libération de l’Azawad, MPA), the first division organised itself as Front Populaire pour la Libération de l’Azawad (FPLA), and the second one as Armée Révolutionnaire pour la Libération de l’Azawad (ARLA). In an earlier publication, I have shown that the lines of division between today’s rebel movements correspond to former divisions between Tuareg groups in what became to be later known as Mali (Klute, 1995). As already mentioned, however, these divisions are not very old. They go back to the time of colonial conquest at the beginning of the twentieth century. In face of the French colonial army, Tuareg groups essentially had three options : to resist (which most groups opted for), to collaborate, or to wait and see what the French conquerors were like and how they would act.

30What is of importance here, is the fact that the leaders of the three movements had known one another personally for a long time : they had been in Libyan exile, they had lived in the same military camps, they had received the same military training, and they had fought in the same military campaigns in Syria, Lebanon, and Chad. Equally important as their shared experience in exile, however, is the fact that they were of about the same age. This also holds true for most members of the three armed militias. Friends of the same age group had become political enemies and, as I will show later, military enemies as well.

31There was not only an internal differentiation within the rebel movement, but also a differentiation among the opponents of the rebels. In reaction to Tuareg raids against settlements along the Niger River, a militia of the « black » Songhay was mobilised against the « white » Malians in a Chasse aux Blancs. With the support of certain elements in the army, it carried out pogroms against Malian Tuareg and Moors. These pogroms resulted in many Tuareg and Moors fleeing en masse, first to Mauritania, but also to Burkina Faso, Niger or Algeria ; the number of war refugees reached 100,000.

32However, the political situation in Mali changed radically after the fall of the military regime of Moussa Traoré in March 1991. After many months of talks, mediators from France and Mauritania helped the warring parties conclude the Pacte national in April 1992. In this treaty the new transitory government of Mali was able, politically speaking, to get its way in many respects : the idea of federalism was dropped, together with the idea of an Azawad region, which was again replaced by the term « the North of Mali » (Nord du Mali). The Malian government also agreed to incorporate a great number of rebels into its armed forces and public service.

  • 5 The international aid organisations were (and are still today) favoured targets because of their fo (...)

33The strongest rebel movement at the time, FPLA, though, refused to sign the pact. Accordingly, the situation in Mali showed little change. The dissidents continued their attacks. In addition, armed bands of former members of actually all three movements, operating beyond the control of the large organisations they had belonged to, increased their actions. The young men acted on their own accord and preferred to rob travellers and transports of any kind, especially those of the international aid organisations5. The few overland roads and important tracks were only passable under military escort.

34Nevertheless, there was still hope of peace. In the second half of 1992, the French helped the Malian government to form the first military units from army and former rebel personnel which they called « mixed patrols ». The « mixed patrols » deployed in the north were to guarantee public safety. By the beginning of 1993, the regular Malian army had absorbed more than six hundred rebels. Official plans provided for a further 3,000 fighters. State administration was slowly gaining ground in the northern regions again. International donor organisations made significant financial means available for the reconstruction of the war-torn region and the promotion of peace. The newly elected democratic President Konaré convinced the northern population of his peaceful intentions. In the summer of 1993, all rebel movements signed the National Pact.

35This did not bring about peace, however. Instead, the war entered its third and bloodiest phase. Its major characteristics were a renewed and ongoing dissolution of administrative structures of the central government in the northern region, and ethnic strife between « white » and « black » Malians, particularly in 1994.

  • 6 FIAA was the only one among the rebel movements in Mali to bear an identity tag in its name. The te (...)

36In May 1994 the foundation of the Ganda Koy movement was announced. Ganda Koy was a militia, in which former Songhay members of the army came together to fight the Tuareg and to openly propagate the expulsion of Arab and Tuareg nomads. After a unit of the regular army, consisting of integrated former rebels, was ambushed by the Ganda Koy, three of the four rebel movements, FPLA, ARLA and the Front islamique arabe de l’Azawad, FIAA6, left the National Pact and started their attacks again. Once again, tens of thousands fled as the rebel attacks started a new cycle of reprisals and pogroms.

37Particularly during the phase of ethnic strife of the Tuareg rebellion, interethnic as well as intra-ethnic friendship became very problematic indeed. Personal interethnic relationships of various kinds, including interethnic friendship, of course did exist in pre-war times. In the context of the armed conflict, however, it became difficult to openly declare friendship with members of other ethnic groups. One informant put this as follows :

  • 7 Iswadan ag Saghid, Kidal, November 1996, my translation.

« [...] And these pogroms have been blind. They did not save anybody. They were directed against an ethnic group, against the Tuareg, against the Moors. Good relationships were of no use. Marriage was of no use. Mixing was of no use. And what happened? Everybody was forced : either you are on this side or the other. Neutrality did not exist any more ; one could not be neutral. You had to choose sides, and some choices were inevitable. There were people who did not have any choice, because, if you are light-skinned, even if you wanted to choose the side of the government, you could not. [...] This has forced everybody to one side »7.

38The few cases of people I recorded, who refused « to choose sides », were not actually sanctioned by killing, as in many other contemporary small wars, but by avoidance, and, more importantly, through the disapproval of women. In fact, some Tuareg women actually left their husbands to follow rebel lovers, if they felt that their spouses adopted an in-between-position. Interethnic friends could not – at least in the Malian case – prevent violence or help in conflict resolutions, as the elder literature supposes (e.g. Mühlmann, 1940). Particularly during the phase of ethnic strife in 1994, factors of exclusion were so strong that it became dangerous to openly declare interethnic friendship (see also Horstmann and Schlee, 2001).

39Almost at the same time, at the beginning of 1994, the second conflict broke out. This was the fratricidal war between the two Tuareg rebel movements of MPA (former MPLA) and ARLA. Both movements had their military base in the region of Kidal in northern Mali, where both movements also recruited the majority of their fighters. The first movement had a very small social basis, though. At the beginning of the war, its members consisted almost exclusively of women and men from one of the leading and most respected tribal groups in the region, the Ifoghas tribes. The second movement, by contrast, was a heterogeneous coalition of all those who wanted to end the dominance of the Ifoghas as the region’s leading tribal group ; it recruited members among all non-Ifoghas groups, of free and vassal strata alike.

40At the very beginning of this fratricidal war, ARLA committed two strategic errors, which in retrospect decided the outcome of the war, though fights still continued for another ten months after. The first error was an ambush, at the end of February 1994, in which the second in command of the MPA movement was killed while in pursuit of bandits. Colonel Bilal Saloum was one of those officers who had been highly decorated by the Libyans for their service in the Islamic Legion in Libya and Chad. He was, in accordance with the agreement of the National Pact, a colonel in the Malian army and was a member of the Supervisory Commission of the Agreements of the National Pact. In the beginning of 1994, with the so-called « mixed brigades », he hunted down bandits, who included fighters of the ARLA movement. The latter, however, believed the sole purpose of these supposed « bandit hunts » was to crush their movement, so that the colonel’s brigade, hence the MPA, would be the only militia in the north of Mali. Nevertheless, the fact that the colonel was of slave origin was of crucial importance. What appeared to be a heavy loss was in fact a great opportunity, for it allowed the MPA to make up its numerical disadvantage and to enrol Tuareg of slave origins into its ranks.

41To convince former slaves, two main arguments were used : the first argument was protection and the second one friendship.

42ARLA was asked to hand over the murderers immediately and to compensate the family of the victim. Besides offering to protect the « weak » of society, the argument of friendship was also put forward. It was said that the leader of the MPA, (of Ifoghas and « noble » origin) and his second in command, Bilal Saloum (of slave origin) had been intimate and close friends. This friendship was of greater moral value than the republican, egalitarian and anti-noble discourse ARLA upheld. Pursuing the colonel’s murderer, the Ifoghas of the MPA argued, proved two things : the Ifoghas were ready to protect the « weak » of society against violence ; and, secondly, friendship was of greater value than social origin. Both arguments convinced the region’s former slaves to join the Ifoghas’ movement, the MPA, in great numbers.

  • 8 This tribal chief was Intallah ag Attaher, highly respected by many in the region for his sense of (...)

43The second major error was kidnapping the head of the Ifoghas tribes who called the tune in the MPA. The kidnappers threatened to kill their victim and all « feudal oppressors ». Incidentally, the very day the kidnapping took place, a group of 60 fighters from the ARLA movement was trapped in an ambush and would be released only in exchange for the kidnapped tribal chief8. This move inflicted three wounds on ARLA from which it never recovered. One was military, the other was moral and social, and the third one was political. The ARLA movement revealed its military inferiority when its victory turned into a humiliating defeat ; its boldness turned out to be an ill-considered act of impudence which, instead of challenging the claim to leadership of the Ifoghas, simply confirmed it. After it had alienated all former slaves by the murder of the second commander in chief, Bilal Saloum, it now lost the support of most of the non-Ifoghas tribes of the region. Nearly all groups turned away from ARLA allying themselves with the MPA, for the MPA movement had proved that it was capable of giving their members that which is at the heart of « good leadership » : protection of the weak, law, and order.

44My biographical data of the local elite in the Kidal region shows that the stratum divide during the fratricidal war in 1994 was very clear : not a single person from the stratum of former slaves had joined ARLA, by now exclusively composed of so called vassal tribes (Imrad) ; instead, most (80 %) were members of MPA, the Ifoghas’ militia. The same holds true regarding the stratum of free and noble tribes. Of course, no one from the leading Ifoghas tribes had joined ARLA, now considered the vassal movement. Nearly all members of other tribes had left ARLA after the kidnapping of the Ifoghas tribes’ head, as I have mentioned above. Most had joined the MPA movement ; some had left the armed fight altogether. From the middle of 1994 onwards, only people of vassal origin were members of ARLA.

  • 9 In May 2006, several hundred Malian soldiers of Tuareg origin occupied some garrisons of the Malian (...)

45At the end of 1994, civilian populations of northern Mali were becoming so war-weary that « traditional » leaders and speakers of the rebel movements initiated reconciliatory meetings between various ethnic groups of northern Mali. These meetings and talks culminated in a solemn peace ceremony in March 1996 in Timbuktu, La flamme de la paix, which sealed a peace that however fragile, has lasted about a decade9. The peace agreements of the National Pact of 1992 were taken up again and made allowance for Ganda Koy, the Songhay militia, which then joined the pact. The second Tuareg rebellion in post-colonial Mali had ended.

The Prevailing of the Descent Logic

46At the end of 1994, the situation at the end of both wars – against Mali and between both rebel movements – was as follows : the only militia in the Kidal region is the MPA, the militia of the Ifoghas. The Ifoghas have won the war ; they still have weapons, even if not officially. They have forbidden all fighters of the ARLA movement to enter the region for five years. They threaten to immediately shoot any armed person they come across. Moreover, stolen goods must be returned.

47A military victory, however, does not mean that the war wounds are healed and that sentiments of hate and vengeance are forgotten. The return of the Ifoghas’ uncontested power is not the result of mere opportunism on the part of the defeated vassals. The Ifoghas won their position by clever moves of reconciliation which aimed at the reintegration of the vassals into the local society. Some of these measures are of particular interest for our discussion : the first measure used was a marriage, and the second one was the rewriting of local history.

48News of the marriage caused quite a stir in the region. It was no less than the marriage of the military leader of the MPA movement, Iyad ag Rhali. The bride was the former wife of the man who used to be the groom’s best friend and comrade in arms, but, above all, she was from a vassal tribe, and all three, the bride and the two men, shared a common, long-standing past. They were together in Libyan exile where the two men were recruited by the Islamic Legion. If one was Ifoghas and the other one vassal, it did not prevent them from fighting together with the Legion in Lebanon and preparing the upheaval in Mali. At the beginning of 1990 the two men secretly returned to Niger ; they fought together in the very first Tuareg attack in Mali. Both men were friends and excellent and courageous fighters. So the eventual break between the friends was particularly dramatic at the beginning of the war between « brothers » : close friends had become arch enemies.

49Everyone in the region was sure about the political nature of this union. There were those who simply declared the bride to be the spoils of war – the vassals could not even keep their women. Others looked on the marriage as a sign of reconciliation. The union with the former wife of the vassals’ best fighter meant that the vassals belonged once again to the local community. On the other hand, the marriage also clearly demonstrated that friendship no longer served as a solid foundation upon which to build political relations or to achieve political objectives. Instead, friendship had been replaced by kinship bonds.

  • 10 For a discussion of the use of the region’s Islamic history as legitimising resource, see Klute (20 (...)

50The second measure of reconciliation aimed at establishing a basis for the local community’s new political integration. For this purpose, the nobles made use of the strong legitimising resources of history10. They simply set about rewriting local history. By doing so, they tried to make up a new tradition : the tradition of a fundamental unity due to consanguinity and the care of the strong for the weak.

51The strategy was as follows: the Ifoghas delegated Mohammed Lamine ag Mohammed Fall to re-establish the affiliation of the vassals, through their genealogy, with the community of the region. Mohammed could be described as a propaganda minister and was just the man for the job. He is a fluent, multilingual speaker and has learned the art to persuade his audience during his exile in Libya. There, his job was to persuade the Tuareg in Libyan exile to join the Islamic Legion. In the tradition of an Arab scholar, he reconstructed the genealogy of each group and each family in the region, and recorded it in school notebooks. He believes, with a few exceptions, to be able to trace all families back to five forefathers who were related to one another. For him, this is a new historical outlook explaining the relations between all groups in the region. The most important aspect is : the existence of vassals is a myth. There are no vassals in the region. All Tuareg are interrelated according to this reconstruction of history. In a society in which kinship is one of the foremost principles, this conclusion is of crucial importance : the label « vassal » is not a primordial, but a secondary, less significant social distinction ; it has established itself in those groups who, over the years, have become weak both politically and militarily and who had been forced to submit to the supremacy of strong families.

52With his school notebooks and genealogical evidence in hand, Mohammed made a tour of the region in order to convince the vassals of their true origins. A summary of the message is as follows: the vassals may exercise no violence against the Ifoghas. The Ifoghas are related to the vassals, and people are not violent towards members of their own family.

  • 11 The Ifoghas’ belief in their rule is in agreement with Weber’s (1964, p. 157-158) dictum that an im (...)

53It is still too early to say whether the old ruling ideology of a basic cohesion between the rulers and the ruled, here expressed in terms of kinship and consanguinity, will convince the ruled, the vassals. Above all, the more important side of the question remains open: whether the vassals can accept their fate as « poor relatives » and patiently submit to the Ifoghas’ rule again. In any event, it seems that the dominant Ifoghas tribes are satisfied that the vassals, i.e. the poor, are once again a part of the local community, and that the Ifoghas have no doubts as to the reality and legitimacy of their rule11.


54From the very beginning, friendship was an important issue for the Tuareg resistance movement. Alongside the terms of national, regional, tribal, or strata identities, friendship was also much discussed, negotiated and renegotiated during the time of exile of Malian and Niger Tuareg migrants. In order to overcome regional, tribal, or social divisions of « traditional » Tuareg society, members of clandestine Tuareg resistance movements avoided habitual appellations which were supposed to evoke tribal, social, or regional identities ; instead, they addressed one another as « friend », because friendship bonds were thought to strengthen the unity of an imagined, but still utopian Tuareg nation.

55After thousands of migrants were sent home at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, some groups of Tuareg in northern Mali started a military upheaval which became to be known as the « Tuareg rebellion ». Though the rebels were surprisingly successful, the united movement soon split up into various factions, opposing one another politically, and later also militarily. In particular, during a phase of ethnic strife in 1994, when the Songhay militia Ganda Koy called for ethnic cleansing of all « white » Malians, northern Mali was forced into an ethnic divide. Though interethnic friendship had existed in pre-war-times, ethnic identity now became the dominant logic of political relation-building.

56The same year, a fratricidal war between the two Tuareg resistance movements of MPA and ARLA broke out in northern Mali. I have shown that these internal conflicts and intra-ethnic divisions replaced friendship bonds that had cut across « traditional » ties, by tribal and social identities.

57The winning side of the fratricidal war in northern Mali, the dominant tribes of Ifoghas Tuareg, undertook measures of reconciliation in order to reintegrate the defeated into the local community. What is of particular interest here is the fact that attempts at overcoming former (tribal or social) divisions were not based on friendship, as during Tuareg exile, but on kinship and consanguinity.

58Friendship is not only a relational term, friendship is a political term as well. In much the same way as kinship, consanguinity, or descent, it may be used to legitimise political relation-building, alliances or hostile relationships.

59In the context of violent conflicts, I would argue that friendship bonds which cut across identities of the respective warring parties are rather difficult to maintain. In the case of the Tuareg rebellion at least, social actors built relationships on what seemed more stable and more trustworthy than mere friendship.

60But still friendship remains important among Malian Tuareg, though in a somehow liminal way. In the very same year that the Tuareg rebellion ended, one of the rebel-poets composed a song which became a local hit. The song undermines, so to say, the kinship ideology of the ruling groups by praising again the values of an (idealised) friendship :

Better you stay in this world
But stay at its shores
For there is no centre
Which destruction will not come
The world has just three other days
So love your friend because of his love
For there is no centre
Which destruction will not come.

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—, 1994, « Flucht, Karawane, Razzia. Formen der Arbeitsmigration bei den Tuareg », in Laubscher Mathias and Turner Bertram (eds.), Systematische Ethnologie. Völkerkundetagung 1991, München, München, Edition anacon, p. 197-216.

—, 1995, « Hostilités et alliances. Archéologie de la dissidence dans le mouvement rebelle des Touareg au Mali », Cahiers d’Études africaines, 137, XXXV (1), p. 55-71.

—, 2001, Die Rebellionen der Tuareg in Mali und Niger, University of Siegen, Department of Sociology, unpublished Habilitation Thesis.

—, 2003, « L’islamisation du Sahara (re)mise en scène. Les idéologies légitimatrices dans la guerre fratricide des Touareg maliens », in Marfaing Laurence and Wippel Stephen (dir.), Les relations transsahariennes à l’époque contemporaine. Un espace en constante mutation, Paris, Karthala, p. 361-378.

—, 2009, « The technique of modern chariots : about speed and mobility in contemporary small wars in the Sahara », in Gewald Jan Bart et al. (dir.), The Speed of Change. Motor Vehicles and People in Africa, 1890-2000, Leiden, Brill, p. 191-211.

Klute Georg and Trotha Trutz von, 2004, « Roads to Peace. From small war to parastatal peace in the north of Mali », in Foblets Marie-Claire and von Trotha Trutz (eds.), Healing the Wounds. Essays on the reconstruction of societies after war, Oxford, Oñati Institute for the Sociology of Law (Oñati International Series in Law and Society), p. 109-143.

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Weber Max, 1964 [1922], « Die Typen der Herrschaft », in Weber Max, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, vol. 1., Köln, Berlin, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, p. 157-222.

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1 The data contains the following entries: name, father’s/mothers’ name, age, class (incl. remarks), lineage, lineage/mother, lineage/father, regions of origin, region, country, social origin, school qualification, professional qualification, professional career, professional occupation, member of Tuareg exile-movement: yes/no (place, time, circumstances, tasks, motivations, remarks), member of Tuareg rebel movements 1-4 (time, tasks, remarks), observations/interviews.

2 See Leupen (1978) and Chaker (1988). Leupen contains 1415 entries, Chaker 673.

3 The following section draws on Klute (1991, 1994, 2001) and Boesen and Klute (2004).

4 « Azawad » is the name given to the region to the north of Timbuktu. It has become synonymous with the whole region of northern Mali which is inhabited by the Tuareg and which they consider to be their territory.

5 The international aid organisations were (and are still today) favoured targets because of their four-wheel drive vehicles which were (and still are), on the whole, comparatively new. Under desert conditions, these vehicles are highly valued equipment. To carry out military or other armed actions they are trump cards which cannot be overestimated. With mounted machine guns they provide a highly effective combination of mobility and fire power, paralleling in this respect the classical chariot of the Bronze Age (see Klute, 2009).

6 FIAA was the only one among the rebel movements in Mali to bear an identity tag in its name. The terms « Islamic » and « Arabic » were obviously meant to attract foreign (Arab-Islamic-fundamentalist) support, apparently though without great success. Except in 1994 FIAA did not play a prominent role during the conflict, neither militarily nor politically.

7 Iswadan ag Saghid, Kidal, November 1996, my translation.

8 This tribal chief was Intallah ag Attaher, highly respected by many in the region for his sense of mediation and arbitration. At the time of the kidnapping, he was already 70 years old (my own triangulation).

9 In May 2006, several hundred Malian soldiers of Tuareg origin occupied some garrisons of the Malian army in the north of the country. The mutineers asked for the « fulfilment » of the 1996 peace agreements. A few days later, they left the garrisons after looting all weapons, ammunitions, vehicles, fuel and provisions they could carry on them. This mutiny was the starting point for a series of military confrontations, at times in cold-war-like form, at times with open violence, between groups of Tuareg in varying constellations and the Malian army, supported by Arab and Tuareg militia. These confrontations and protests only died out last year, in 2010. Published information about these events is not abundant. I have therefore relied on two kinds of sources: 1) personal communications by Tuareg from the region ; 2) the Kidal region’s excellent website [], which also reports news from western and Malian media (see also Bellagamba and Klute, 2008).

10 For a discussion of the use of the region’s Islamic history as legitimising resource, see Klute (2003).

11 The Ifoghas’ belief in their rule is in agreement with Weber’s (1964, p. 157-158) dictum that an important aspect of the belief of legitimacy is that the rulers themselves believe in the legitimacy of their rule.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Georg Klute, « From Friends to Enemies: Negotiating nationalism, tribal identities, and kinship in the fratricidal war of the Malian Tuareg »L’Année du Maghreb, VII | 2011, 163-175.

Référence électronique

Georg Klute, « From Friends to Enemies: Negotiating nationalism, tribal identities, and kinship in the fratricidal war of the Malian Tuareg »L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], VII | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2013, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Georg Klute

Professeur d'ethnologie de l'Afrique à l'université de Bayreuth.

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