Uncharted Territory: Understanding the Tuaregs

In association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Association of Researchers on the Middle East and Africa (ORDAF) organized an international conference in Istanbul on June 23, 2012 on the African Nomads known as the Tuaregs.

Although they are the ancient and principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa, the Tuaregs are known almost exclusively in the francophone world, largely due to the French political influence in the region — an influence that has, without doubt, continued to prevail in the post-colonialist era. As they are almost totally unknown in Turkey, despite the Ottoman legacy in the region, this institutional attempt to launch an interaction between the political and tribal leaders of Tuaregs and Turkey’s academics and politicians, therefore, marks a departure into uncharted territories for social sciences and political aspirations in the country. Behind this attempt lie two fundamental dynamics that have emerged in the post-Cold War era and contribute to the shaping of the region: (i) the increasing significance of the political role of Tuaregs in determining the future of North Africa and (ii) the assertive aspiration of the new political elite to raise Turkey to the status of regional power by relying on both the region’s Ottoman legacy and the geostrategic opportunity to maneuver in the post-Cold War world.

This article, in this respect, aims to clarify the political and social role of Tuaregs in North Africa and to analyze, in this specific case, Turkey’s political, economic, and cultural means and discourses of influence in realizing the goal of becoming a regional power in the given international dynamics and circumstances.

The Tuaregs, a Berber people, are estimated to number around 1.2 to 1.3 million and are scattered all over the Sahara thanks to their nomadic lifestyle. Although most of them live in the Saharan parts of Niger and Mali, relatively small groups of Tuaregs are also found in southeastern Algeria, southwestern Libya, northern Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria. Tuaregs, “the lions of the Sahara”, are commonly known as a rebellious people. Indeed, their appearance on the stage of modern history began with the Tuareg rebellion against the French colonial rule in northern Niger during 1916-17. Shortly after Mali achieved her independence from France in 1960, a much more decisive Tuareg insurgency erupted in the northern regions of the country from 1962 to 1964. In the post-Cold War period, Tuaregs in both Niger and Mali launched two more major rebellions with the aim of achieving autonomy during 1990-1995 and 2005-2007. Eventually, the Tuareg rebellion of 2012 against the Malian government – which has turned into a war of independence – in the Saharan desert region of Azawad ended in the unilateral declaration of the internationally unrecognized state of Azawad by the Tuareg armed organization in Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In this regard, many of the Tuareg participants of the conference – who came exclusively from Niger – underlined the urgent necessity of continuing the policies of decentralization for the Tuareg community in Niger. For instance, Mohamed Anacko, the president of the Regional Council of Agadez, argued that Tuaregs in Niger call for decentralization rather than separation and independence, in line with the peace accord of 1995. As the civil war was erupted and the state of Azawad was established (due to the lack of any policy of decentralization in Mali), the representatives of Tuaregs in Niger openly asked for Turkey’s support for decentralization in the region.

Regarding the social structure of Tuareg communities, Seydou Kaocen Maiga, a Tuareg journalist, argued that one could find democratic dynamics in the traditional Tuareg society, from gender equality to freedom of expression and self-government[1], Tuaregs are enthusiastic about being part of the newly established decentralized institutions of democratic governance, he said.

For centuries, Tuaregs have managed to survive in the hostile environment of the Sahara Desert. In response to the unpredictable and sporadic patterns of rainfall, Tuaregs have developed a nomadic lifestyle based on livestock and agriculture in the oases of the desert, in addition to the caravan trade — which interconnects, thanks to Tuaregs, the northern and internal regions of Africa separated by the Sahara. These traditional means of existence, thus the very existence of Tuaregs, are under threat of extinction due to depletion of water, caused not only by rapid climate change, but also by massive uranium extraction in the region. With the discovery by French geologists back in 1956 of the abundance of the uranium, petroleum, and coal deposits in the regions populated by Tuaregs, the French industry has taken roots in North Africa to exploit these recourses.

As Khamed Abdoulaye, a Tuareg academician and journalist, noted at the conference, the problem is not just the exploitation of the underground resources of Niger for a handful of international companies, primarily the French firm Avera, instead of for the general welfare of the country[2], it is also the destructive results of the current mining industry for the indigenous peoples of the region. Not only does the mining industry produce radioactive waste that dangerously contaminates the ground water and results in cancer, stillbirths, and genetic defects in the native population, it also uses up huge quantities of water in a region where water is already scarce. Anacko openly called for public or private mining companies in Turkey interested in the economic resources of the region to get involved. He stipulated only one condition; presenting a contrasting model for the traditional French and newly established Chinese companies by respecting the environment and the indigenous peoples of Niger, along with providing humane working conditions for local workers.

In relation with the destructive results of mining industry, which continues as a “primitive accumulation of capital”, to use Marx’s terminology, two other major threats for the Tuareg community in Niger are the rising trends of drought and terrorism. Water equates directly with life for the peoples of the desert; the Tuaregs, in their struggle against drought, asked for assistance from Turkey to dig new, clean wells. Meanwhile, in terms of the continued growth of terrorist organizations in the region, the representatives of the Tuareg community emphasize the need for security[3] For instance, Anacko claimed that since many Tuaregs have now abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, they are open and ready to send their children to schools as a means of protecting their future from the rising fundamentalism in the region and of preserving the cultural values of their nomadic past. In the face of the standardizing trends of globalization, the oral laws and native language of Tuaregs (Tamasheq) are particularly vulnerable.[4] In short, in the words of Mohamed Houma, the mayor of Iferouane in Niger, Tuaregs are willing to be partners with Turkey in the political, economic, and cultural realms.

Now, the obvious and difficult question is whether Turkey is willing and capable enough to respond to the Tuaregs’ call, that is, do her current means and discourse on becoming a regional power include newly developed political aspirations in North Africa? Regarding the willingness of the political elite of Turkey, first of all, it is crucial to grasp the historical rupture that occurred in Turkey’s foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. Despite the political, economic, and cultural legacy of the Ottoman State in North Africa, Turkey’s interest in the African continent has begun only in the late 1990s.[5] As the former pro-status quo and one (Western) dimensional Turkish foreign policy was replaced by an active and multi-dimensional foreign policy agenda, Turkey’s interest in Africa, initiated with Foreign Ministry’s “Action Plan for Opening to Africa” in 1995, acquired a new phase with the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) coming to power in 2002. The party regularly displays its determination to use Turkey’s ability to maneuver in the post-Cold War period to make Ankara a regional power, using this assertive foreign policy and the external image of Turkey as leverage in establishing a new kind of nationalism and legitimacy in domestic politics.[6] Not only has Turkey become the strategic partner of the African Union and a member of the African Development Bank and the African Development Fund in 2008, but it has also played a leading role in numerous international initiatives on the African continent, from participating in UN peacekeeping operations to leading various economic, cultural, and humanitarian initiatives.[7] Indeed, Turkey’s trade volume with the countries of the Sub-Saharan region, according to the Foreign Ministry, grew by $4 billion from 2000 to 2010.[8]

Artemis Sümer, the vice director of the West Africa Office of the Foreign Ministry and one of the key speakers at the conference, clearly underlined Turkey’s increasing interest in the region. In addition to opening embassies, providing financial and humanitarian aids, and increasing trade volume in the region, Sümer noted that regional security is the first condition for the region’s, and that Turkey is currently playing a leading role in five of the six UN peacekeeping operations in the region. According to Enver Arpa, the director of the TIKA’s Africa Office, Turkey is implementing an agricultural development project in cooperation with 13 countries in Africa, providing vocational and technical education for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, and building wells and hospitals.

It is crucial to note that state institutions’ burden of formation, enrichment, and implementation of Turkey’s new active foreign policy is shared with various civil society organizations and private companies. ORDAF’s role in the conference was defined by Director Zekeriya Kursun as the production and sharing academic knowledge on the Middle East and Africa. In this respect, Ahmet Kavas, the vice president of ORDAF, presented the history of the Ottoman presence in the  region.[9] This emphasis on the Ottoman legacy — together with the identity of Islam as a common denominator and Westernized state and societal institutions as a role model — constitutes the discursive aspect of the new active foreign policy of Turkey. While Prof. Ali Özek argued that Turkey’s interest in the Middle East and Africa – which derives from a common Islamic past – is not colonialist, but humanitarian, Mohamed Ghabdouane, the mayor of Ingall, welcomes Turkey with enthusiasm: “We’ve found our family!” The success of Turkey in its goal of being a regional power, however, shall be determined not only by her discourses and means of influence, but also by the international competition in the region.

Reference: Özcan, Ahmet (2012). “Uncharted Territory: Understanding the Tuaregs”, Turkish ReviewVol. 2/5, September, pp. 116 – 119.


[1] Maiga argued that in the Tuareg communities, it is men, not women, who cover themselves and Tuareg women have strong status in the economic, political, and cultural governance of their communities. Therefore, Tuaregs, Maiga asserted, have developed an idiosyncratic type of moderate Islam. Moreover, the traditional structure of Tuareg society naturally relies on a decentralized and federal political structure that is composed of confederations of tribes.

[2] While Niger is known as a wealthy country in terms of her underground recourses, Mohamed Benhamaye, a young Tuareg participant of the conference, noted that 7 million people in Niger live with 1 dollar per day.

[3] The lack of security, Anacko argued, is also the main reason for the underdeveloped situation of desert tourism in the region.

[4] Note that Tuareg participants of the conference speak in French and most of them do not know their native language. Hamed Haidara, a deputy of the National Assembly of Niger, asserted that only 10% of the Tuareg population speaks Tamasheq.

[5] It is a historical record of shame in Turkey’s foreign policy that Turkey took her side with the colonial powers between 1950 – 60 at several sessions on the rights of self-determination of North Africa countries in the General Assembly of the United Nations while Greece was with the non-aligned countries of Africa and Asia. For Turkey’s attitude on Algeria’s independence, for instance, see: Baskın Oran (ed.), Türk Dıs Politikası (Turkish Foreign Policy), Istanbul: Iletisim Yay., Vol. 1, 2003, pp. 634 – 635.

[6] See: Kerem Öktem et al. (eds), Another Empire?: A Decade of Turkey’s Foreign Policy under the Justice and Development Party, Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2012. Also see: Ahmet Davutoglu, Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu (Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position), Istanbul: Küre Yay., 2005.

[7] In this new foreign policy framework, the case of Somalia holds a special status: See: Ahmet Ozcan, Insanlıgımız ve Jeo-Stratejik Gerçekler Isıgında Somali (Somalia: Our Humanity and Geo-Strategic Facts), Istanbul: ARI Movement, 2012.

[8] “Turkey – Africa Relations”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed on July 20, 2012, mfa.org

[9] See: Ahmet Kavas, Osmanlı-Afrika Iliskileri (Ottoman-Africa Relations), Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2011.

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