Gaddafi and the Tuareg, the "Lords of the desert"

What is the basis of the Tuareg-Gaddafi alliance that is playing itself out in the end-game in Libya? And to what extent is our understanding coloured by how we like to think of this tribe of the Sahara, or perhaps how they have been used in other peoples’ narratives – including our own?
Hugh Brody
8 October 2011

Al Jazeera news item, September 23, 2011:

A Tuareg to camera: ‘ fighting for Gaddafi is like a son fighting for his father’ .  He warns that he and other Tuareg will be ‘ready to fight for him until the last drop of blood.’ 

Al Jazeera Live Blog,  September 28, 2011, (12.20 GMT):

I hour 53 minutes ago:  Muammar Gaddafi is believed to be hiding near the western Libyan town of Ghadamis….  Hisham Buhagiar, a senior military official of Libya's new leadership, told Reuters,  "One tribe, the Touareg, is still supporting him and he is believed to be in the Ghadamis area in the south.


Over the past weeks, the Tuareg (at times spelled Touareg) have appeared again and again as the most reliable allies of Gaddafi and his family, fighting against the Libyan revolution, giving their protection to him and his closest entourage as they hide deep in the Sahara, offering guides and escorts for those who have been making their way through remote corners of the desert to find sanctuary in Niger. The Tuareg know the desert as no one else can.  This is what we gather from the recent news stories in which they have been appearing.  A tribe of the Sahara, whose deep understanding of that fierce and mysterious landscape can offer a profound, ineffable secrecy and safety to Gaddafi himself. They are the indigenous people of a terrain in which no others could live, or even find their way – this is the quite reasonable implication of the recent news stories in which they have figured. 

So we find ourselves thinking, or are invited to think: the magic of the tribal world seems to be available to the deposed tyrant.  Those who follow the news but know very little of these mysterious tribesmen of the Sahara can find themselves wondering if the Tuareg are the simple, unquestioning beneficiaries of some kind of corrupt generosity, and thus deluded into saving the skins of the Gaddafis.  Wondering, too, if we can forgive them for this because they are the children of the desert, the wild people of a wild place.

The images that these snippets of news from the immense and arid border between Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger evoke, and the questions they prompt, grow from a familiar dichotomy:  the simple, primitive, traditional (these all become words for the same thing) are duped, or bribed, into giving their support to the sophisticated, civilized, modern (and these are words for the opposite thing). We can see in our minds’ eyes the nomads of the desert, with their camels and skin tents, living in an ancient harmony with their arid, rather terrifying environment. And see, also, the Gaddafi gang: despots and plunderers who are now having to take their leave of the complex luxuries and brutal politics of privilege and power in an oil-rich nation state.   The weather-beaten camel herders, used to a life close to the desert, living in the fascinating harmonies of indigenous peoples; the Arab potentates escaping in their convoys of 4 by 4s, armed to the teeth, hauling their looted millions with them. A compelling contrast. The tribal and the civilized. A version of the nature:culture dyad, perhaps, underpinned, as it often is, with a moral opposition: a natural and aboriginal entity that we are quick to think of as inherently good alongside that which is inherently wicked.

For those who care about the tribal, who support and take inspiration from indigenous culture and ways of life, this conjunction of the Tuareg and Gaddafi is profoundly troubling. There are different sources of upset, various lines of upset questioning. Have the trusting Tuareg been tricked, bribed or blackmailed into providing their support?  Or: is theirs such a naivety and lack of understanding of the wider world that Tuareg tribesmen and women just do not know when they are dealing with the devil?  Or is there something about the tribal world that makes it susceptible to this kind of exploitation and possible corruption?

Questions on the margin

These are questions that come from a particular and prevalent idea of the tribal, and indeed of Gaddafi.  The Tuareg may not be well known in Britain, and are little covered in the British media. In 1972, Granada TV broadcast a film in the Disappearing World series, made by Charlie Nairn with research and access provided by anthropologist Jeremy Keenan.  As with all of the Disappearing World films, this went out at prime time, midweek, and was previewed and reviewed (though the academic reviews were typically belated: a short savaging of the film appeared in The America Anthropologist in March, 1974).  Nairn’s film is centred on a group of Tuareg who were then living, with great difficulty, in the bleak landscape of the mountains of the Hoggar Range.  And the film urged the view that this life had become impossible – so the Tuareg were indeed disappearing.  An evocation of marginality, a clinging to life in hopeless defiance of the inevitable, is a tempting paradigm for any work about indigenous peoples.  It plays to the drama of extremes of environment as well as extremes of human endurance.  It also reiterates a commonplace about the tribal world: their knowledge, stamina and ritual life are astonishing expressions of what humanity can achieve. But there may well be a fatal, developmental destiny that is working towards their extinction.

The 1972 film was criticised for being too focused on a Tuareg community that happened to be struggling at that time in the unforgiving mountains, and not drawing attention to the many Tuareg who lived, farming as well as  herding, in more fertile settings across the region.  Much more recent footage of the people of the western Sahara came with the ‘Deserts’ episode of the BBC’s Human Planet series – again with the emphasis all on beautiful, exotic, extremes of hardship.

In fact, the region of the Tuareg – who speak a language that links them to the Berber of further north - is very large, reaching into the countries of the western Sahara: Algeria, Mali and Niger, as well as Libya. This wide geographical range is thus parallel to a complex set of social and political circumstances.  There are indeed Tuareg families and communities that live a life of mobile pastoralism, moving with their camels and goats across the far depths of the Sahara.  But there are also Tuareg living settled lives, within and as part of nation states and national politics.  So the link between the fugitive and bellicose Gaddafi and “the Tuareg” leaves open an ambiguity.  Tuareg leaders with whom the Gaddafis could have long and deep alliances will not necessarily be the mobile herders of the deep Sahara – though the people he and his cronies deal with as they defend their last holdouts or make their escape are likely to include the Tuareg who live deep in and know best the Sahara where Gaddafi has been thought to be hiding.

Gaddafi’s tent

Gaddafi has enjoyed playing the myth of the pastoralist nomad, insisting on his own fascinating if rather deranged portrayal of his place deep in that tribal stereotype – simple life in a tent, no definable political status in some utopia of equality, and no private wealth.  His enjoyment of this myth of himself when hosting leaders from the Europe and America has been evident. Inviting Tony Blair to share his simple tent for meetings to agree that Libya was no longer a rogue state was a fine example of this myth being used to considerable effect.  And Gaddafi’s recent, and perhaps last, protestations have played to the myth again: he tells the world that he has no official position, no office of any kind  – suggesting again that his is the simple life of the nomad, in his tent, servant of his people, hero of his egalitarian society.  In a video clip that the revolutionaries found after occupying the Gaddafi compound cum bunker in Tripoli, we can see Gaddafi in his tent, enjoying family time with a son, daughter-in-law and sweet looking grand-daughter.  The way he plays with the child is compelling, though the eye is drawn to the wariness on the face of the child, the watchfulness of Gaddafi’s son and daughter-in-law.  Looking beyond the people, though, it is possible to catch glimpses of the electric power points, heaters and other indications that this is not a tent of a nomad in the desert, but a comfortable, modern dwelling.  There have long been Mongolian families (also with a heritage of mobile pastoralism) living in fine Yurts just outside Ulan Batur, commuting to their jobs in town, because this provides comfort as well as a sense of identity.  In a similar way, Gaddafi has enjoyed a luxury tent of his own, with all modern comforts.  In it, he does his best to stoke up the myth of his nomad simplicity – his claim to be on the good, desert side of both the cultural and moral dyads.

The fight for autonomy

So who are the Tuareg with whom Gaddafi may long have been in close and complex political alliance?  Like those groups that choose to be known as First Nations in North America, the Tuareg have insisted that they are a people with a distinct history and territory, and therefore a right to their own lands or state.  Comprising up to 10% of the populations of the countries where they find themselves, the total Tuareg population in Niger is over one million, and around 900,000 in Mali.  Smaller numbers are in Algeria and Burkina Faso, while the Libyan Tuareg population may once have been small but has been increased in recent years by Gaddafi’s policy of opening Libyan borders to Tuareg refugees from other states.  This large, diverse set of populations, shares a strong sense of history and, at crucial times in recent decades, of destiny.  Fierce Tuareg independent movements, in effect insurrections, were launched in the 1990s in Niger and Mali.  These were not the first attempts by Tuareg to achieve autonomy, and to emancipate themselves from an oppressive, subordinate relationship to the nations that took shape in the Sahara.  Independence movements of various kinds are spread through the twentieth century; and there is evidence of Tuareg conflict with other groups going back to their earliest appearance in the region, some thirteen hundred years ago.  These are people well used to doing battle.  And some of this battle has involved Libya.  In the 1980s, Libyan Tuareg were involved in an armed liberation movement; in the 1990s Tuareg, supported by Libya, were involved in civil war in Mali.  And of special relevance here:  Gaddafi’s regime espoused the cause of Tuareg at least in so far as working to ensure that Tuareg in Mali and Niger were able to reach some kind of negotiated agreement and a temporary peace.

These recurrent, bitter and often violent conflicts have shaped Tuareg modern history. The Tuareg have not succeeded in securing their own nation, or even won security within the existing nations where they have suffered discrimination and dispossession.  But they did manage to sustain, and even to strengthen their economic base, especially in the 1980s and 90s, as the Sahara opened to outsiders, launching tourism.  By the beginning of the new century, the Tuareg were a tribal group with many national identities, at risk in some areas, suffering the impacts of drought and political oppression, and, in the remoter parts of the Sahara, along the Libyan-Niger border, having a degree of autonomy.  And with strong links to the Gaddafi regime – from which support had come in their struggles against the Niger and Mali governments, as well as some direct aid, thanks to Libyan oil money, to towns where Tuareg were living in extremes of poverty.

Then came 9/11

Then came 9/11 and the global war on terror.  This was to change life in the Sahara, and is the new, crucial background to the Tuareg-Gaddafi alliance. 

Jeremy Keenan, the anthropologist whose work lay behind the 1972 Disappearing World Tuareg film, has been setting out in fascinating deal, on the basis of long and intimate knowledge of the region, the way that the new politics has threatened to engulf and transform Tuareg life.  In his book The Dark Sahara and much other writing and broadcasting, Keenan has described the way Algeria managed to nurture a myth of Al Qaeda and Taliban incursions into the Sahara, encouraging the idea that once established there, Islamic terrorists would be better placed to launch their murderous attacks on Europe.  The advantage of this notion to Algeria lay in its leading to a strong military alliance with the USA – getting arms for its own struggle against internal opposition, and drawing the Americans into a militarization of the Sahara. Keenan shows how this resulted in the Tuareg being labeled as key supporters of Al Qaeda, making them enemies of everyone else and ensuring that they would have an even weaker basis for seeking any form of autonomy or redress for the wrongs they had suffered in Algeria, Niger or Mali.  And causing a collapse in the tourist economy in the region, on which many if not most Tuareg were dependent.  

This double assault meant that Tuareg families and whole communities found themselves impoverished and at the same time under new kinds of attack.  Keenan says that there is strong evidence that different kinds of agents provocateurs, initiated and supported by different governments, ensured that the Tuareg were drawn into conflict. Thus lies about the Tuareg could be deemed to be at the heart of the ‘terrorism’ of the Sahara. Thus aid and arms would flow from the USA and its apparently unlimited budgets for the war on terror, to Algeria, Niger, Mali…. the very nations that had for so long done battle against the aspirations and rights of the Tuareg.

This destructive process spiraled into increasing frustration, rage and violence.  Between 2004  and 2008, Tuareg were involved in a succession of riots and armed insurrections in Mali and Niger.  Keenan has stated that these were in large measure prompted and manipulated by both national governments and US agents. Keenan also insists, on the basis of a lifetime of working with Tuareg and being in the Sahara throughout the crucial period, that the Tuareg have had no organized links to Al Qaeda.  Yet the Tuareg were also having to cope with, and of course were protesting against, the way their resources were being alienated or down-graded by the new politics at work in their lands.  

Hundreds of Tuareg were killed in this period; large numbers of Tuareg animals were destroyed – many by the Niger military. The anti Al-Qaeda measures included great restriction of Tuareg mobility – causing further economic difficulties to families dependent on nomadic pastoralism. The total collapse of tourism alone meant that something like 70 million US dollars went out of the local, especially Tuareg, economies.

Some of the consequences of this new set of assaults on Tuareg life are not hard to imagine.  Stigmatized and treated as terrorist allies of Al Qaeda, supporters of imagined Taliban refugees from Afghanistan, implicated in dramatic kidnappings, drawn into putative civil wars, suffering new levels of poverty –  there were sure to be some who would take whatever opportunities the new circumstances offered, be it to make money or to express anger.  There was also a new level of demand for specialised skills: navigating, driving, finding hiding places –  tasks called for by that militarization and new intrusions onto the Sahara, and tasks at which the Tuareg could excel. 


It is not hard to see how the Gaddafi regime might have fitted into all this. The one thing Tripoli could offer was cash, as well as some appealing ideological and political rhetoric.  Buying allegiance has always been the basis of the Gaddafi internal politics; denouncing the Americans was a core of his public rhetoric.  Confusing as it may be that Gaddafi also bought allegiance within Niger and Burkina Faso, he built up a well funded link to Tuareg – offering many kinds of support to a people who were in dire need of friends and cash.

Libya’s involvement in the Tuareg struggles through the 80s and 90s, its shift to a pro-western, anti-Islamacist position after 9/11, the last ditch battle of the past weeks – through all this Gaddafi has been able to look to overlapping interests with the Tuareg.  In 2005, Libya offered residency to all Tuareg who were refugees from their wars with Niger and Mali. Thousands of Tuareg relocated to Libya, finding work in the oil and gas sector.  A year later, Gaddafi invited the Tuareg to be an important part of an anti-terrorist and anti-drug-smuggling coalition in the Sahara.

This has been a realpolitik on both sides, a drama played out over many acts and a vast terrain.  It has also been a matter of simple economic opportunity: as part of his dealings with Tuareg, Gaddafi’s regime offered young men $1,000 per month to join the Libyan army – pay of about twenty times their more normal earnings.  It is not surprising that many of those Tuareg Gaddafi has supported in their desperate struggles against the forces of history have come to help their long-term ally and benefactor in his own final scenes. On September 23, a news story appeared covering a warning that the Tuareg had apparently issued to Mali: “if you interfere with Gaddafi we will overthrow your government”.  They are also said to have added a declaration, reminding everyone that they are, “the lords of the desert”.  Here are the two aspects of the liaison, as it is now represented by the Tuareg.

Bitter ironies

There are ironies and paradoxes to all this, some of them bitter.  This is often the case with the circumstances of tribal peoples.  Exploited and dispossessed by those with national or imperial powers, coping with all kinds of environmental loss – from industrial development to climate change ­–  they have to find alliances where they can.  In the tortured misrepresentations and distorted realities of the global war against terror as it has played out in the Sahara, the Tuareg were threatened by renewed efforts on the part of old enemies as well as a whole new kind of enemy. Well used to fighting for their rights, familiar with warfare as well as the secret trails of the Sahara, they could at least look to Gaddafi and his cash; as far as they could see, no one else had taken care to protect their rights or listen to their protests against new and brutal attacks on them. No one else had taken any interest in offering them sanctuary or, most important of all, earnings.

Perhaps they have been manipulated by Libya, or deceived into believing that their real interests are close to Gaddafi’s heart.  So they fight on the wrong side? For the Tuareg, all sides have no doubt seemed to be indifferent to their losses.  They can hardly look to the NATO bombs or the revolutionaries liberating Libya for a new, unprecedented sympathy.  For the victims of state violence and international disregard, for peoples who have been exploited and misrepresented to serve the interests of whoever came along, there is sure to be both opportunism and the honouring of  the Gaddafis – the ones who have given them some kind of help in the past.

There is a passage at the end of a piece Jeremy Keenan wrote for Al Jazeera in which he gives an overview of the way the Tuareg became caught in the lies and distortions that the new geopolitics caused to spread into the Sahara: 

‘Marginalised by their governments; ignored by the international community and deprived by the Global War on Terror of their livelihoods, but still skilled fighters, the question now being asked is whether the Tuareg…will attempt to take matters into their own hands’

This was written before the Gaddafi regime was destroyed, but it speaks to the apparent enigma of the strange and disturbing alliance between him and the Tuareg at the margins of Libya and, now, at the centre of Gaddafi’s chances of coming out alive.

The tribal appears, almost by definition, to be at the very edges of our world -  marginal and increasingly irrelevant.  Looking closer, however, we again and again find that, in their remarkable way, Tribes reveal what is happening at the centre. 

Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price.  They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies.  The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg.  They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.

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