Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE AFRO-ARAB BORDERLANDS – AMBIGUOUS RELATIONS IN THE SAHEL REGION OF AFRICA

BF BANKIE:

‘ There are sizeable Black African populations in south Libya, northern Chad and south Algeria – but less in the latter. I can hardly see any African-Arab Borderlands in 100-500-1000 years. The African people will be freed and taking a lead, turning the tables on the oppressors’. Garba Diallo –Mauritanian

‘Chad is a Black nation with a minority of Arabs in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Yes, southern Libya and Algeria are Black countries with millions of invisible oppressed Africans, but we do not hear their voices or see their faces’. Dr Jibril Abdelbagi - Darfuri

‘Despite the profoundness of the intercourse between Arab culture and Black, Bantu and Neolithic cultures, big or secondary, the relations between these two cultural worlds continues to be amongst the most unstable’. Prof Helmi Sharawy - Egyptian.


Those interested in African affairs would have noted the difficulties in following and understanding what goes on in the Afro-Arab Borderlands, hereinafter called the ‘Borderlands’, stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic, through Mali, Niger and Chad, to Sudan on the Red Sea. This is not accidental but a deliberate conspiracy to conceal from Black Africa the goings-on by Arabian and western interests in this are of ambiguous relations. Fluency in Arabic give some access to the truth. Otherwise physical habitation over time opens the area up to comprehensive understanding. This is an area where African interests have historically been purchased ‘for a song’. Because of our weaknesses we now find our helplessness makes us the laughing stock of the global community as regards the on-going slaughter of Africans in Darfur. Not one African state has been able to raise a finger in defence of the Darfuri. Yet Darfur was proceeded by the 39 years of fighting in South Sudan, called ‘Africa’s longest war’, which war witnessed the same genocide, use of rape as a weapon, aerial bombardments , Mujadeen/Muraleen as witnessed today in Darfur. Africans remained silent during this tragedy. Something which Southern Sudanese will never forget or forgive. This text exposes the truths of the Borderlands. It was largely the work of the Bush Administration, Coleen Power and the white charismatic Churches in the United States which placed the world spotlight on Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur, leading to the issue of the International Criminal Court Writ (ICC) against Sudan President Bashir in March.

Along the Mali-Niger Borderlands, before colonisation, the Touaregs, were the sole masters of their region throughout the Sahara Desert. The coming of the European coloniser deprived them of their essential means of survival. Since then, and particularly after the self government of Mali and Niger, the Touaregs have continually rebelled against the regimes in the new states created by France, but with a clear objective in mind : the creation of a Touareg state, separate and independent. Between 1963 and 1990, several disputes took a tragic turn between the central government in Mali as well as in Niger, the Touaregs, and the sedentary populations. To better understand the hidden objective of these various disputes and/or rebellions, and the Touareg’s attitutude toward the newly independent states, one needs to consider several factors and to bear in mind that Touaregs are being settled today in Darfur in the villages from which the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa have been expelled by the Khartoum government. The Touareg, a black people, are completely Arabised and Islamised, culturally, whereas the Darfuri retain their African identity. The Touareg are to all intents and purposes Arabs.

The liberation of the slaves

In 1905 the French aggravated the downfall of the Touaregs by ablolishing slavery, and formally liberating the Touareg’s slave, the Imrads and the Bellas. Subsequently, in 1909, instructions were given to the local French authorities in Gao, Mali, pertaining to the new status of the slaves and their social insertion. The instructions also demanded that both the owners and the slaves be treated equally from then on. For the Touaregs, any attempt by the local colonial authorities to implement these instructions meant the destruction of their society and they were not prepared for that. They were indeed hurt both in their wealth and in their prejudices. The French later realised that they could not free the slaves, either mentally or physically. Slavery was deeply embedded in the way of life of both parties – the masters and the slaves, as it is in Mauritania today( Poussibet 1979: 37-39 ).

In the late 1950s by the Act of Law 57-7-27 of 20th January 1957, published in its official journal, the French government attempted to create an entity to accommodate nomads called the Common Organisation of the Saharan Regions (OCRS ). The proclaimed objective of this project was to ‘ take all appropriate measures which could improve the living conditions of the populations in general, and of the Touareg in particular, and to ensure their economic and social advancement within the framework of a development, which would take their culture and traditions into account ’.The project therefore aimed to remove some administrative departments and communities from four Saharan countries all having nomad populations – Algeria, French Sudan (now Mali ), Niger and Chad – and to reorganise them into a separate nomad state. Bear in mind that in those times French west Africa encompassed most of west Africa and was administered as one entity. France was preparing to balkanise its empire, breaking it up into pieces, which would become Independent states, in effect deconstructing Pan-Africa. The territories concerned were :
Two departments of Algeria: Saoura and Oasis
Three communities of French Sudan: Goundam, Tombouctou and Gao
Two communities of Niger :Tahaua and Agades
Three communities of Chad : Ennedi, Bornou and Tibesti


Although the project itself was withdrawn for obscure reasons, it most certainly triggered in the mind of the Touaregs the idea of an independent state free of the domination of their former black slaves, namely the leaders of the Independent states of Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. In the Borderlands, unlike in Southern Africa, colour is of little or no importance. What counts is culture. A man may be dark black, as most Touaregs are, but will consider himself an Arab, due to his adherence to Islam and practice of Arab culture dating back hundreds of years. The Arab arrival in Africa predates by many hundreds of years the arrival of Europeans in Southern Africa. The Darfuri, although black and Islamised, are considered by Khartoum as insufficiently Arabised and inferiors, and are thus considered to be Africans and worthy subjects of genocide.

The use of Arabic in education, administration and state affairs.

In 1960 the notabilities and the chiefs of the Adrar took advantage of an inspection trip by the civilian Chief Administrator of Gao to explain their perceptions of and wishes for the future administration of Mali. More than anything else they insisted upon giving primacy to the teaching of Arabic over that of French, and securing equitable jobs/positions within the newly created administrative structures for community members who were literate in Arabic (Diallo 1960 ). It is obvious that the implementation of such measures meant the systematic exclusion of non-Arabic speaking ethnic groups. Thus governance and all other forms of participation in power and in the management of power in the northern regions would be the responsibility and the privilege of the Arabs, the Touaregs and the Moors of Moroccan descent.

The attitude of Libya

As soon as he came to power, Colonel Qaddafi, of Arabo-Berber descent, expressed his ambition to create a Saharan state which would include all the Sahelo-Saharan countries, especially those inhabited in their northern territories by the Kel-Tamasheq. In 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of the Libyan Revolution, it was declared that Mali, Niger and Chad were part of the Arab world. Meanwhile young nomads were receiving military training to go to fight in Israel, Lebanon and Chad. Some of them were later directed to Mali and Niger to organise themselves into liberation movements (Toure 1999 ).

In the mid-1990s, when Libya became a target of the French and the Americans, and because of the political and economic difficulties of the country, with the embargo and travel restrictions amongst others, this project was temporarily abandoned. Yet Libya encouraged the former combatants to organise themselves into a movement called the Azawad Liberation Movement.

The attitude of the French authorities in the late 1980s

The French authorities have played an important role in the pursuit of the Touareg rebellions. After the Baule Summit meeting of the Francophone Head of State in Africa in 1989, the proclaimed objective of which was ‘the democratisation’ of African states by all means possible, the French authorities found in the 1990 Touareg rebellion in Mali a unique chance to end the regime of the Second Republic in Mali. The rebels were therefore provided with humanitarian assistance, the most sophisticated communications tools and spies to convey their message throughout West Africa in general and in the Sahel in particular (Diakite 2006).

Secret meetings were held and receptions were frequently organised with the Touaregs ( Gaudio 1992: 6-7 ) and in 1994 France accused the political authorities of Mali and Niger of genocide against their Arab populations, namely the Touaregs. It is difficult to tell exactly when the different components of the larger Azawad Liberatiion Movement were formed. The following have, none the less, played a significant role in the Touareg rebellions:
The Azawad Popular Movement (MPA), based in the Kidal region and composed of all the Touareg ethnic groups, in addition to some Arabs and Moors.

The Azawad Arab Islamic Front, based in Mauritania and essentially composed of the Arabs of Timbuktu, the Kel antasser of Goundam, the Kuntas and the Cherifs, descendants of Prophet Muhammad

The Azawad Liberation Popular Front (FPLA), composed of the Shamanamas and other Touareg groups

The Azawad Revolutionary Army mainly composed of dissidents of the MPA and FPLA

The Azawad National Front

All these movements were later combined to form the Azawad Unified Front. For lack of an independent Touareg state, the leaders of these movements finally suggested that the three northern regions, Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, which make up more than half of the total size of Mali, be granted a particular statute to facilitate their social and economic development.

Following difficult negotiations in Algiers under the mediation of Algeria, a National Pact was signed on the 11th April 1991 between the government of Mali and the representatives of the Azawad Unified Fronts and Movements. This pact was meant to put an end to all attacks and ethnic-related conflicts and facilitate the social and economic integration of the populations of the northern regions. The causes of the rebellions was the lack of consideration for Arab minority groups, social injustice towards the Touaregs, the attitude of the colonial administration before self-government and of the leaders of the first and second Republics of Mali ( 1960-68 and 1968-91 respectively ). These are often put forth by the technical and financial partners as the reasons for the development in the western Sahel and northern regions of the privileging of abusive Arabised minority groups over numerically dominant African ones. In other words, there had developed a form of reverse discrimination which might undermine all efforts made for peaceful cohabitation in the Sahelian communities.

The severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s hardly hit the northern regions of Mali, Mauritania, Niger and even Burkina Faso, but the social and economic fabric of these countries degraded significantly. The armed conflicts which followed, commonly called the ‘Touareg rebellions’, contributed to the aggravation of an already chaotic situation. Urban centres in the north were quiet often attacked by ’armed bandits’ and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people were killed or forced to migrate to neighbouring countries. Inter-community tensions rapidly grew among the different ethnic groups.

In its handling of the consequences of these long years of drought on the one hand, and of the rebellions of the 1980s and the 1990s on the other, the government of Mali, with the assistance of its bilateral and multilateral partners, tended to favour the Arabs and the Touaregs, to the detriment of the sedentary black communities. These communities had initially suffered from drought and the incessant attacks of the combatants of the different Azawad Liberation Movements and of the ‘armed bandits’ later on. This favouring of the Arab communities was the impression that the layman had of the food distribution organised by local government authorities with the assistance of non-governmental organisations. We should recall here that Prof Alpha Konare, former head of state of Mali, became Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity/African Union (OAU/AU). Konare had long exposure to the Afro-Arab conundrum as indicated in this research, in his home country, Mali.

The formation of the Gandakoy Movement on the 9th May 1994 is an illustration of the reaction of an black ethnic group, frustrated and frequently submitted to injustice, racial discrimination and/or exclusion. This movement represented an ethnic reaction to the suffering of the sedentary populations following the violent attacks of the Touareg rebellions. The failure of successive Malian governments to find solutions to these problems lead to the black sedentary populations taking the law into their own hands and resorting to arms. This movement obtained international media coverage. Gandakoy effected cross border communities in Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

In a news item dated 27th January 2009 headlined ‘ Conflict intensifies in northern Mali despite Algiers Accord’, it was reported that the Malian army had stepped-up its fight with the Touareg rebels in the countries northern region of Kidal. Despite Algeria’s mediation, the rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga stated that war in the ‘ only option’. Algeria has mediated for years between the warring factions inthis Borderland conflict. Nothing in this western news item indicates that, lik e the Darfur conflict in Sudan, the Touareg conflict finds its roots in the Afro-Arab interchange, which is found from Mauritania on the Atlantic through Mali, Niger and Tchad to Sudan on the Red Sea. This area of Africa has always been a low or high intensity ( hot or cold ) conflict zone. Whereas Arabia is on the offensive as seen currently in Sudan, and at the Qatar Summit, African reaction remains one of denial.

[Originally published as Special Feature
entitled ‘ New horizons for Pan-Africanism/African Nationalism ‘,
Windhoek, Namibia]


*B.F.Bankie, former Researcher, Kush Institution, Office of the President, Juba, South Sudan

Reference
Diakite.S (2006) Racial prejudices and inter-ethnic conflicts- The case of the Afro-Arab Borderlands in the Western Sahel, appearing in the book Racism in the Global African experience edited by K.K.Prah, published by CASAS, Cape Town, South Africa, text of a paper delivered at WCAR,Durban, 2001

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