“Things are really hard at the moment,” says my Touareg friend Ahmed over the phone from Kidal. He sounds dejected. “There’s no work. We’re watching the news and nobody is happy about it. If Gaddafi goes, then the Touareg will be in great danger.”
It now seems certain that up to 800 young Touareg have been lured north from Mali and Niger to go and fight as mercenaries for Gaddafi since the start of the Libyan uprising. This is unsurprising if you consider the dire poverty and joblessness in the southern Sahara. For some desperate youth, Gaddafi’s promise of petrodollars is very tempting.
Gaddafi has been buying the affections and fighting skills of the nomadic tribes of the Sahara for a long time. His vision of a borderless Islamic republic of the Sahara struck a chord with the Touareg, who have been fighting their own rebellion against the governments of Mali and Niger since independence back in 1960. Despite widespread suspicion that Gaddafi only ever helped the Touareg to further his own territorial schemes, many Touareg fear the consequences of his fall from power.
“The south of Libya is Touareg territory,” says Nina Walet Intallou, elected member for Kidal in Mali’s national advisory council. “They’re obliged to hold on to what is theirs because if Gaddafi goes, they fear what will happen to them. Many people in Libya detest the Touareg. So if Gaddafi’s enemies are given power, we may even face the complete disappearance of the Touareg as a people.” Other Touareg leaders cite the severe political and social strain that could result from the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the consequent return of thousands of Touareg to their homelands further south. After all, it was after many Touareg returned to Mali from training camps in Libya in 1989 that the second great Touareg rebellion broke out in 1990.
On the international stage, Gaddafi has often proclaimed his great affinity to the Touareg as a people. He is said to have inherited some Touareg blood from his mother. However, in a speech he gave in 1985, he famously claimed that mothers who taught their children Tamazight, the language of the Touareg, were injecting them with poison.
Akli Sheika, a Libyan Touareg living in exile in Britain, has done time in Gaddafi’s jails. “I consider Gaddafi to be the enemy number one of the Touareg people,” he says. “Most of the Touareg in Libya want Gaddafi to leave. Gaddafi is recruiting the Touareg by force and threatening them with violence if they don’t fight the protesters.” Akli claims that a number of Touareg officers have been shot in Az Zawiyah, where fighting has been particularly heavy recently, because they refused to shoot at the rebels.
It remains to be seen whether, as many Touareg in Mali and Niger believe, Gaddafi’s demise will spell disaster for the Touareg people, or, as many Libyan Touareg claim, it will spell freedom after four decades of oppression.