The Tuareg Nation

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

The Tuareg are the traditional desert nomads of the Sahara. This essay attempts to illuminate this mysterious warrior tribe, their traditions, their way of life in the world’s harshest environment and their problems as they transition into a modern culture. It also takes an inside look at elements of the Tuareg Rebellion, a week deep inside the Aire Mountains of Northern Niger with all three of the rebel factions.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Tuareg were the last of the West African peoples to be defeated by the French. Their lands were absorbed into parts of Niger, Mali, Algeria, and Libya. Those governments ignored their fractious Tuareg minorities, leaving them to wander the desert with their flocks of camels and goats. In recent decades, as climate change saw less and less rain fall during the wet season; Tuareg families struggled to sustain sizable herds. "Animals are everything to a Tuareg," an elderly nomad explained, "We drink their milk, we eat their meat, we use their skin, we trade them. When the animals die, the Tuareg dies."
With their herds declining and their lifestyles threatened, many Tuareg in Niger and Mali began asking why their government wasn't sharing the wealth derived from the rich uranium deposits that for decades have been mined from Tuareg grazing lands. During the 1990s a Tuareg militia, many of its members trained and armed by Qaddafi, fought the Niger army over the issue. A peace accord was signed, but little changed. In 2007 the government was negotiating contracts with France projected to make Niger the world's second largest uranium producer. More deals allowed foreign companies to explore the desert for other resources. With the nation mired in poverty and the government refusing to make meaningful investments in Tuareg-dominated areas, the nomads rebelled again. Meanwhile, drug smugglers and a North African offshoot of al Qaeda established themselves in the region. The Niger government conveniently accused the Tuareg of being involved in both.
For several years, the group now known as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has launched attacks in Algeria from remote bases inside Algeria and across the border in the northern desert of Mali. More recently, they have begun staging attacks in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, while steadily courting support from among Arabic-speaking, nomadic clans sprinkled throughout in the desert.
To fund their activities, AQIM has kidnapped Westerners (47 since 2003), netting an estimated $100 million in ransoms. Their coffers have been further bolstered by protection money from South American drug cartels, which smuggle cocaine through the desert to the Mediterranean coast and on to Europe where demand for the drug continues to grow. According to Interpol, some $2.2 billion worth of cocaine is funneled annually through the region.

At the center of this tumult are the Tuareg, the turbaned nomads who have inhabited this part of the Sahara for centuries. For much of the last three years, Tuareg groups in Mali and Niger waged violent rebellions against their respective governments, seeking a greater voice in how their lands and resources are administered. Though a peace deal was brokered earlier this year, the conflict has left much of the region impoverished and awash in weapons and unemployed former fighters. Observers in the region worry that many of these young men could fall under the sway of AQIM and the cartels.
The Tuareg have undeniable resources to offer, chiefly their skill in navigating the desert wasteland of the Sahara and their ability to eke out an existence in the harshness of the desert. One can be used to effectively combat al Qaeda in the region, the other can teach us how to better survive in a period of climate change and uncertainty. As the last of the Tuareg salt trains make their way across the desert, it is relevant to ask what else we may be losing as this unique nation moves out of the desert.