Thursday, 14 February 2013


Sahel—an Arabic word, literally meaning a shore or coast—is a 1000 kilometre wide and more than 5000 kilometre long semi-arid belt that stretches across the North of the African continent.

From West to East Sahel covers several modern day African nation states; one of them is Mali.

Between 9th and 18th century many kingdoms rose and fell in this region. Their wealth was acquired mainly by controlling the trans-Saharan trade, in particular the slave trade with the Islamic world.

Slavery was widespread in the Arab world, especially in the North and East part of Africa. It is estimated that millions of Africans were enslaved by the Arab traders over a period of thousand years. (It should be remembered though that in the ancient world the term ‘Arab’ was used more culturally than racially and many ‘Arab’ slave traders were indistinguishable from the Africans. It is also worth noting that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had clearly and categorically rejected the idea of certain ethnic groups being superior to others. Said Muhammad: ‘There is no superiority of Arab over a non-Arab . .  .’)

The Sahelian Kingdoms were essentially decentralized conglomeration of cities which had a lot of autonomy. During the golden period of Sahelian kingdoms many cities rose to prominence in the region and became seats of knowledge, culture and wealth. 

One of the cities was Timbuktu.

Many nomadic tribes inhabit the Saharan North Africa and large parts of the Sahel region. One of them is Tuareg.

The Tuareg are fiercely independent people who once, several centuries ago, controlled briefly Timbuktu before they were overwhelmed by the Songhai Empire. Indeed, according to some historians it was the Tuareg tribe which gave the city its name. (Unlike Gao, Timbuktu is not mentioned in the early Arab chronicles.)

In the late nineteenth century the European powers’ scramble for Africa began in earnest. The French invaded and colonized Western part of Sahel. Modern day Mali became part of the French Empire, first as Upper Senegal (1880 to 1890) and then (1899) as French Sudan (Republique Soudanaise).  At the turn of the twentieth century Mali, which, at its peak in the distant past controlled area twice the size of modern day France, was broken into regions some of which went on to become independent countries.

Timbuktu, in the Northern part of present day Mali (Republic of Mali) became part of the French Sudan and its different subdivisions such as Upper Senegal and Niger under the French colonial rule, before, in 1920, the French decided to rename the whole region French Sudan.

When Sahel and Mali fell to the French colonialists, the Tuaregs were subjugated by the French, but not before they had put up fierce resistance. The swords of the Tuaregs, however, were never going to be a match for the superior weapons of the Europeans.

In 1958 French Sudan became a member of the French Community along with several other member states such as Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Niger, Mauritiana, French Guana, Chad, Congo and Central African Republic (CAR).

In 1960 French Sudan and Senegal came together as Mali Republic and gained independence from France. The union lasted for only a few months before the federation disintegrated, and Senegal withdrew. French Sudan then declared itself as the Independent Republic of Mali.

Timbuktu, its glory days long since over, remained in the northern part of the newly independent country.

The Turaegs (probably with good reason) considered themselves ethnically different from the Southern Mali population. 

Although more than 90% of Mali is Muslim for centuries (after Islam arrived in West Africa in the eleventh century), there are racial divisions. 

Consisting of several sub-Saharan ethnic groups, the largest single ethnic group in Mali is Bambara, which, along with other, closely related ethnic groups such as Soninke, belong to the larger group of Mandinka people, one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa, and are spread across several West African countries. 

The Turaeg and Moors form roughly 10% of Mali’s population. 

The Turaegs, Muslim since the 13th century (although they have not jettisoned their earlier animistic beliefs altogether) like the rest of the Malian population, are lighter skinned than the black population in the South of the country. The slavery and slave trade with Arabia over centuries played a role in the ethnic divisions in Mali. Like many West African nations slavery was widespread in Mali, and persisted in the region much longer than other regions in West Africa. The French officially abolished slavery in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The French efforts to liberate slaves had most impact on the Southern and Western part of the present day Mali, but not so much on the Northern part. The Turaegs, concentrated in the Northern part of the country, continued to have black slaves (which came to form a distinct class in the Turaeg society) well into twentieth century. At the time of the Second World War, almost forty years after the French passed a decree abolishing slavery, the Turaegs were said to be still holding more than 50,000 black slaves.

When the French colonial rule neared its end, it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of imagination to consider that the Turaegs did not want to be associated with other, darker skinned, ethnic groups. Their hope was to form an independent Turaeg and Berber nation that leaned towards Arabia. That was not to be.

Right from its inception the nation state of Mali would be engulfed in a civil war type situation between its Southern and Northern part, and would see waves after waves of Turaeg rebellions which would culminate in the deadly conflict in 2012 and 2013. 

To be continued.