The End of Tuareg Apartheid in the Sahel

From the Series: Mali, March 2012

For centuries, the Tuareg minority in Mali has applied violence or the threat of violence to get what they have wanted from their Black neighbors. French colonialism and independence did not change that. Successive Tuareg rebellions followed independence and each time, the Tuareg requested resources and recent governments have rewarded them. As one of the smallest minority groups, they received the most aid per capita and representation in parliament than any other ethnic group.

The Tuareg rebellion that started in January 2012 was the last straw that likely broke the camel’s back and put an end to Tuareg apartheid in the Sahel. The Tuareg constitute approximately 2% of the Northern Malian population, which in turn is only 10% of the Malian people. For some Tuareg rebels, their being white under a black government constitutes a basis for armed conflict. The current rebellion was different due to exactions that ensued and it served as a Trojan horse for bringing in Mali previously unknown forms of extremism from radical Muslim groups such AQIM, MUJAO, ANSAR DINE. The events the 2012 rebellion unleashed have awakened new consciousness that will change Tuareg-Black relationship forever.

Tuareg society is a highly complex hierarchy of noble warriors, free men, artisan castes and slaves. There never existed a Tuareg kingdom, but Tuareg managed everywhere to establish confederations and forms of Tuareg apartheid in which a minority of Tuareg brutally exploited a majority of Bella slaves. This rigid hierarchy made of an aristocratic warrior class, the imajeren, exploits other freeborn Tuareg, who in turn exploits vassal castes (imrad), the Bella slaves (iklan) being at the very bottom of this system. The only groups not subjected to this cruel exploitation are the Islamic cleric caste (Ineslemen). When the French colonial administration with their “Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité,” ideals attempted to end slavery and initiate the notion of equality in the early 20th century, the Tuareg reaction was that no fraternity could exist between lions, hyenas, jackals, cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. (Mariko 1984: 36).

Tuareg economy traditionally relied on animal husbandry, enslavement and pillage. The Bella slaves were always integrated in Tuareg socio-economic systems to the point that the system would collapse without these slaves, and with it Tuareg cultural identity. Aristocrats lived outside law, oppressed, exploited and pillaged from other Tuaregs of lower castes. The Bella men took care of farms and animals while their wives worked as maids to their owners. Tuareg nobility raped the women and daughters of lower castes with total impunity (Mariko 1984: 17-18, 29). This institution continued throughout the colonial period and to some extent until the present (Pasteur Ag Infa 2013). Even when slavery became illegal, the black person of any background remains a slave in Tuareg imagination.

Historically, Bella slaves always constituted the numerically dominant Tuareg ethnic population. In 1946 letter to the Governor of the French Sudan in Bamako, the French administrator of Timbuktu informed the governor that the Bella population constituted ¾ of the total population of the Gourma region in the French Sudan (modern Mali). Extrapolating this in 2013 makes the [Tuareg] owners of slaves a slim minority before a peaceful Bella majority (Ag Intazoumé 2013). In the past, when slavery was openly allowed, Bella majority did not count, but in today’s world, it should matter.

Pillage through violence or the threat of violence has traditionally been a Tuareg way of life. Réné Caillé in “Voyage à Tombouctou’’ reports that by the threat of violence with weapons the Tuareg made tributary all their Negro neighbors and stole from them in the most terrible ways (Volume II, pp. 199-200) “They come to Timbuktu to snatch from the people that what they call presents, and that could be more accurately called forced contributions.” (ibid:228). The Tuareg led 2012 rebellion pillaged around 18 billion CFA francs from Northern Malian banks (Daou 2013), and invaluable resources from private people and government facilities.

At independence many Tuareg groups became citizens of Black majority nations in the wider Sahelian region. Tuareg rebellions soon started with claims of autonomy or independence. Amidst government repressions of these movements in Mali the Tuareg have received more government attention than their neighbors (Songhay, Fulani, Arab, Bella, Sorko). Tuareg violent uprisings of the 1990s, 2000s were rewarded with the Malian government’s bending backwards to cajole them. From the killing of government civil servants to the abduction of civilians and regular military personnel to the kidnapping of Europeans for ransom, the more things changed, the more they remained the same for the Tuareg. Not anymore. A leader of the 1990s rebellion once said: "We (Tuareg) are the only representatives of the white race still dominated by blacks" (Marion 1991). This was right before the release of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent true end of Apartheid. As in South Africa, the time for a minority to make claims through the use of violence on the majority as in South Africa should be a thing of the past.

Kassim Koné is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at State University of New York - Cortland.


AG Intazoumé, Mossa. Interview with Abass F. Traoré, Sur La Ligne de Front, ORTM, February 21, 2013,

Caillé, Réné, quoted in Mossa AG Intazoumé “Communautés autochtones du Mali: La loi du plus fort ou celle du mieux organisé” Le Républicain, 12 septembre 2008.

Daou, B. 2013. “Crise politico-sécuritaire : Les banques maliennes ont perdu plus de 17 milliards 700 millions de Fcfa’’, Le Républicain, in Maliactu du 25 février 2013

Mariko, Keletigui. 1984. Les Touaregs Ouelleminden: les enfants des grandes tentes. Paris: Khartala..

Marion, Georges, (Le Monde 1-2 décembre 1991) in Yaya Togora « Le Mnla : Entre apartheid et esclavage », Le Flambeau, in Maliactu du 5 avril 2013.

Pasteur Nouh Ag Infa, interview in L'Agora du 14 jan 2013