Thursday night, the northern Mali region of Kidal witnessed the first serious clashes between the Touaregs and so-called Islamist group Ansar Dine, a group under the influence of Al-Qaeda Maghreb. The event is critically important it that it confirms that the two groups, the Touaregs organized under the Touareg independence movement of the MNLA and the Al-Qaeda operatives in the region (Ansar Dine) have different agendas. As their key leaders have often stated, the Touaregs have not pledged allegiance to foreign Jihadist influences and will not do any time soon. That in itself is not only encouraging, but a major opportunity for those fighting the Jihadists and seeking to root them out. A fresh approach to the Sahel is needed and without an active participation of the Touaregs, the Sahel will remain a dangerous zone. Here’s why.

Touareg fighters | (c) MNLA

Touareg fighters | (c) MNLA

As predicted, the Sahel is in a state of chaos and a power vacuum is magnified by lack of leadership on all fronts. The crisis in the Sahel has expanded in particular following the violent toppling of Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, a man who had a substantial influence in the region. The Sahel has no economy to speak of, although the region undoubtedly abounds of natural resources global corporations cannot wait to grab. That goes from uranium, minerals and oil and gas, to fisheries along the Atlantic coast. But Sahel nations are too bankrupt to improve their economies. On the human level, the situation is no better. Racial tension in almost all nations from Mauritania to Mali and beyond, feed into the religious frenzy pitting Muslims, Christians, Animists and others against one another.

In this sorry state of affairs, it is no surprise that the divisions and crises affecting the Sahel are providing unique openings for all sorts of opportunists. First are the legal ones in form of highly organized and resourceful mining and oil companies, aided by their very own governments. Many Western firms that have been active for a long time in uranium, metals and oil and gas exploration and production have taken advantage of the weaknesses of the regimes in place, often even propelling and protecting them at time, or destroying them some other time based on their “shareholder interests.” This breed of capitalists are finding themselves facing unusual competition, in particular China which has proven to be able to turn a blind eye to the crises in the region and beyond. On the African theater, Capitalist entrepreneurs and Communist China make no difference. They are the two sides of the same coin, a coin used to perpetuate problems albeit with different styles but with the same goals.

Alongside these perfectly legal “economic” operators, value creators and captains of industry, are the shadowy criminal gangs that roam the Sahel. They are gangs because apparently, and on the surface, no government controls them. But they are also involved in less glamorous activities. Human smuggling, drug trafficking, arms dealing, illegal trans-border movement of commodities are among the actions that are making these gangs and their mafia bosses, wherever they are, thrive amid widespread misery. And, by the way, these bosses don’t have to be in the Sahel or anywhere in Africa. In the narcotics business, they are thousands of miles away in places like Colombia and elsewhere. From their headquarters and with their billions, these drug dealers remote-control the movement of their deadly cargos moving north and into Europe. And only occasionally do we hear about them. For example the airplanes full of drugs originating from Colombia that have crashed in the Sahel.

In addition to these criminals, who are in it for the money, there are also ideologically motivated gangs roaming around as well. Al-Qaeda’s North Africa franchise has been on everyone’s mind as the enemy number one to beat these days.  AQIM or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as it is known here has become central in furthering the destabilization of an already destabilized Sahel. AQIM is certainly a force to reckon with. Not because they have strong manpower or an effective strategy, but because no one can police the region effectively to neutralize them, therefore allowing them to strike in poorly controlled vast territories. Although AQIM is what the French like to refer to as “la bête noire,” they are not necessarily the biggest threat as a single force. In fact, AQIM is a divided organization with a faction seemingly more ideological than the other, each of which has its own leader. Although all of these factions are said to be reporting to the same man, ultimately what happens in one corner of the vast desert, stays in that corner. Eventually, these gangs have one thing in common and that is to engage in the lucrative kidnapping business.  Many locals and European travelers have particularly suffered on the hands of these groups, often with deadly consequences. The most ideological factions of AQIM seem to enjoy rather brutal endings of their kidnappings, with the killings of their victims publicized in the world media. Others seem to be willing to negotiate the terms of the ransoms, willing to even compromise on the ideological front as long as nations are willing to spend a few millions of dollars to save their citizens.

While it is possible that the AQIM risk is often overblown by the various governments and their intelligence services, the risk is no less real for the Sahel as long as no one has ownership of the security of the region.  And as of now, no one does. So the question we have asked ourselves is what strategy would we recommend as an approach to securing the Sahel?  The answer might surprise you.

The Touareg Card:

The State of Mali is the latest to showcase a series of dramas that originate from its deeply dysfunctional political system. As stated above, problems include poverty, racial tension, religious divisions and an incapable government with the now-deposed President known for cozying up to criminal elements, including an un-publicized peace treaty with AQIM. The country is battling what is clearly a civil war, one that may be the result of a government policy aimed at further impoverishing the country’s Touareg populations based in the north.

The Touareg uprising in Mali, which culminated with the recent takeover by Touareg rebels of towns like Gao and Timbuktu, is not an overnight event. Touareg grievances started decades ago as segregation, economic despair and social misery have been Bamako’s central policy toward them, planned or not. Yet, northern Mali has always been the Touaregs’ home. It is a vast territory that is part of larger territorial expanse that covers at least parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and other nations, and extending further into troubled nations like Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, etc. The Sahel and the Sahara desert have been home to the Touaregs for centuries, so much so that their knowledge of the terrain is unsurpassed. No other ethnic group can match their skills and capabilities when it comes to handling the Sahelian landscape. And because of this fact, pacifying the Sahel, securing it and taking it away from the likes of AQIM and criminal gangs will not happen without the Touaregs’ agreeing and taking an active part to it.

While it is difficult to obtain reliable statistics on the Touareg population, best estimates put them at some 6 million, with most of them concentrated in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina, or what represents the bulk of the Sahel.  The Touaregs of Niger amounted to nearly 1.8 million strong, based on a 1998 count. The Azawad of Mali were 1.5 million in 1991.  Algeria, which has its own Touaregs, counted them as less than a million but that was back in the late 1980s.  In all, it is conceivable that the Touaregs could exceed the 6 million mark.

With such a population in a vast deserted region, how can one expect to secure the Sahel without an active and direct Touareg involvement? Such as position would be tantamount to lunacy.

The issue is obviously more complex than what we see on the surface. Demand for a Touareg autonomy will not likely to resonate and be accepted easily by the region’s governments. They have shown over and over again that they would resort to armed conflict before they would allow such autonomy. But not all is lost as we look at the long term horizons. In this context, what is happening in Libya with many calling for Federalism, albeit with an uncertain outcome may be worth considering in the case of the Touaregs. After all, Libya itself has nearly 700,000 Touaregs and they are keenly taking part to the debate on autonomy that is taking place post Gaddafi.

In Libya, tribes have been insisting on the establishment of a federation of states that would be linked and unified by a central government but autonomous in many areas, probably including security.  The topic is front and center in the ongoing debate about the political future of Libya. But this very same idea should be applied elsewhere in Africa and certainly in the Sahel. In the case of the Sahel, the AQIM risk and the proliferation of criminal gangs can only be countered by the 6+ million-strong Touareg people in an environment where they feel they are in control and in charge of their own destiny and not by authorities housed in capitals thousands of miles away. By doing so, the Touaregs must feel empowered and incentivized to rid of all elements that could bring trouble to their homeland and people. In the process, one has to anticipate the negative reactions to this idea from the likes of Mali, Niger and probably all North African governments. But without resources and manpower to monitor and secure their own territories, these governments ought to seriously consider decentralizing governance for the sake of inclusiveness and efficiency.

Playing with the Touaregs is a difficult political and security exercise. The world’s powers, in particular the United States and Europe must be very careful not to alienate the Touaregs and so far, despite calls for the territorial integrity of Mali, these powers have refrained from vilifying the Touaregs. Doing so would bring a very dangerous outcome, one that would force the Touaregs to ally themselves with the wrong side. With a handful of men, AQIM managed to wreck havoc in the Sahel. Imagine what they can do if they form a real alliance with the millions of Touaregs.

The Touaregs are a proud people. They must be part of the solution and not considered as the problem. Only with their full participation will we see a secure Sahel. Not less.