22 Mar 2012

How Gaddafi's legacy beyond the grave led to coup in Mali

The demise of Colonel Gaddafi was a stone cast into a pool – a huge wave rather than a ripple has hit Libya’s neighbour, Mali.

The demise of Colonel Gaddafi was a stone cast into a pool – a huge wave rather than a ripple has hit Libya’s neighbour, Mali. Since January, the nomadic Tuareg people have been fighting the central government in Bamako – yesterday, Malian soldiers staged a coup, seemingly because the government of Amadou Toumani Toure didn’t give them the means to counter the rebellion.

It’s not surprising that the Malian army is outgunned – the Tuareg were heavily armed by Colonel Gaddafi. Their uprising, and the potential destabilisation of the Sahel region, is his legacy.

The pastoralist Tuareg, who herd their camels and goats across the vast sea of sand of the Sahara in defiance of national borders, are spread across six countries – Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Morocco and Burkina Faso. In the 1970s, Gaddafi recruited thousands of Tuareg for his Islamic Legion, sending them to fight in countries where he was trying to extend his influence or unseat his enemies. Last year he gave them more weapons, so they would join him in the fight against the Libyan revolution which started last February. When he was ousted, they fled south, taking their weapons with them.

Tuareg culture is distinct and enduring. A tall people with fine features, the men swathe their heads in yards of cloth, their faces covered so that only their eyes show, protection against el ghibli, the harsh desert wind.  Their traditional robes are indigo blue, and they make an impressive sight driving camel caravans across the featureless pale sand. They resisted the French colonial authorities in the 19th century, and more recently fought post-independence governments who tried to control their migrations or make them settle.

The Tuareg have any number of legitimate complaints – they’re poor and marginalised in all the countries where they live, and successive droughts have driven them into shanty towns. They’re largely stateless, the Kurds of Africa, with no nation to call their own, and looked down upon in all the countries where they roam.

Since January, their rebellion has caused instability across northern Mali – 80,000 refugees have fled the area.

Adding to the confusion, Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb is operating in the same area, smuggling weapons and kidnapping western tourists. The coup in Mali may be just the start of it – Colonel Gaddafi may yet cause more chaos from beyond his anonymous grave in the desert.