Azawad: A Problematic African Ethnic Territory

From the Series: Mali, March 2012

On April 6, 2012, a segment of Tuareg rebels in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu unilaterally declared their independence from Mali and announced the birth of a new nation called Azawad. This segment of rebels, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or by the French acronym MNLA), was subsequently displaced by Islamist groups, and then marginalized to remote desert areas by the Franco-Malian military offensive in early 2013. That said, the idea of an autonomous state called Azawad is an old one with support from inside and outside the country (e.g. Morgan 2012), and this is likely to be an issue in any peace and reconciliation process in Mali. This essay problematizes the concept of such a state.

The notion of ethnic based states is largely European in origin, having been a key criterion and organizing principle of several Eastern and Southern European states after World War I (Crampton 2006). The idea for Azawad is that it would encompass the main areas occupied by the Tuareg, a nomadic peoples spread across the drylands of West Africa between Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. A complicating factor is that ethnic territories have rarely existed in much of Africa. Rather, the African landscape, and this is especially true in Mali, is often wonderfully diverse with different groups pursuing distinct, and often complementary, livelihood strategies (Davis 1996; Sarro 2008). The problem is that countries created with an ethnic rationale typically result in one group being privileged over others.

The reality is that the Tuareg are an ethnic minority in much of the territory claimed as Azawad within Mali. This is especially true as one approaches the Niger River from the North and East, and then moves south and west of the river. Here, the Songhay, Fulani, Rimaïbé Bozo, Soninke and Moors are all present. Even within the Tuareg, there is a great deal of factionalization, including a large group of former Tuareg slaves known as the Bella who are often seen as ethnically distinct. Of all the regions or provinces in Mali, only the lightly populated Kidal (in the northeast corner of the country) could be seen as having a Tuareg majority.

A second major issue is the economic viability of a future state known as Azawad. While the borders of such a state vary widely, with some configurations including areas well south of the Niger River, nearly all Azawad maps do not encompass the major economic drivers of Mali, which are cotton farming and gold mining in the southern areas of the country (see map). Even cattle, an important source of export income regionally, are now largely located in the South. This southern base of the national herd has come into being over the last 40 years as cotton farmers and urbanites have invested surplus capital in such animals and previous droughts thinned or displaced the northern cattle population. It is true that Mali’s tourism trade was growing prior to the 2012 troubles, and that northern cities such a Timbuktu were important stops, but this tourism circuit was anchored in points further south such as Mopti, Djenné, Dogon country, Segou and Bamako. It is hard to imagine that Timbuktu, as a stand-alone tourist destination, would attract as many tourists as it had when it was part of a larger circuit. Despite the rumors, no economically exploitable mineral or fossil fuel resources exist in the north of the country. Finally, there is the international drug trade, in which narcotics from Latin America enter West Africanist coastal areas, and then are transported over land via the desert to Europe. While this is an interesting return to the trans-Saharan trade of bygone eras, it is unlikely to be a sustainable source of income given international efforts to contain narco-trafficking. All of these factors suggest that Azawad would struggle economically were it to become an independent state.

The third issue, and a key one propelling the idea of an Azawad state, is a history of grievance and marginalization. Since independence from France in 1960, the Malian state has had an uneasy relationship with its Tuareg population given governance by southern agriculturalists who often failed to prioritize the interests of this nomadic pastoral group. Particularly notable rebellions occurred in the early 1960s and early 1990s, followed by a substantial reconciliation during a series of negotiations in the mid to late 1990s. As a result, the Malian government promised larger amounts of aid for the northern regions, a new province (known as Kidal) was created to give the Tuareg greater representation, and several Tuareg ministers were appointed. Indeed, the government of Bamako could do more to reach out to northern provinces to better address a history of marginalization, but it is also unfair to claim that little to nothing has been done.

Mali needs to have a national conversation about a range of issues in the post war period, including the level of autonomy of the northern provinces. While the separatist Azawad cause definitely has its supporters inside and outside the country of Mali, they must also grapple with the very real constraints to such a state outlined in this essay.

William G. Moseley is Professor and Chair of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN USA. Email: mose[email protected]. He has worked on and off in Mali since 1987.


Crampton, J. 2006. “The Cartographic Calculation of Space: Race Mapping and the Balkans at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.” Social & Cultural Geography. 7(5): 731-752.

Davies, S. 1996. Adaptable Livelihoods: Coping With Food Insecurity in the Malian Sahel. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Morgan, A. 2012. “The Causes of the Uprising in Northern Mali.” Think Africa Press. Feb 6.

Sarro, R. 2008. “Map and Territory: The Politics of Place and Autochthony among Baga Sitem (and their Neighbours).” pp. 231-252. In: Knörr, J. and W.J. Filho (eds). The Powerful Presence of the Past: Integration and Conflict Along the Upper Guinea Coast. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.