Mali’s Conflict and a ‘War Over Skin Colour’
Many Tuaregs have fled Mali after a split along colour lines. But will the factions unite against an Islamic state?
‘Skin colour is rarely discussed as a factor in Mali’s current conflict, but its importance cannot be ignored.’ Photograph: Afua Hirsch
I don’t know one word of Tamasheq, the ancient Berber language spoken by Tuaregs, tens of thousands of whom are currently living as refugees in northern Burkina Faso. But one thing I could understand from the group of Tuareg men I sat with under a tent in Mentao - an inhospitable refugee camp a few hundred kilometres from the border with Mali - was the repeated gesture as they pointed to their skin.
“C’est à cause de la peau claire”, the interpreter said over and over again in French. In English: “It’s because of our light skin.”
Skin colour is rarely discussed as a factor in Mali’s current conflict, but its importance cannot be ignored. Some analysts I met in Burkina went so far as to say that the events in Mali - an uprising by Tuareg separatists the MNLA, a military coup in the south, and the ongoing near collapse of the political economy - amount to a war on skin colour, plain and simple.
Mali’s military coup was triggered by frustration among the Malian army at difficulties they encountered trying to contain an uprising by Tuareg rebels. The rebels - led initially by the secular separatist MNLA but now deeply entangled with Islamists Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb - were in turn driven by their frustration at being marginalised and mistreated by predominantly black, southern-ruled, post-independence Malian governments.
This frustration dates back to the French - who colonised the whole of Sahelian west Africa - and who, motivated by the possibility of exploiting oil in the Sahara, played with the idea of giving the Tuaregs their own independent desert state. As one former ambassador to Mali put it: “The idea never got off the ground, but it left a residue of tragically heightened Tuareg expectations.”