Issouf ag-Maha on Music, Culture and the Guerilla Struggle in Niger

by Bill Weinberg

Issouf ag-Maha is a political leader of the Tuareg people of Niger, and a social activist involved in numerous humanitarian efforts in Niger and elsewhere in West Africa. Born into the traditional nomadic way of life, he was a goat and camel herder and stockbreeder before going on to become a trained agronomist specializing in development and environmental issues. He participated in the armed Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, and after the 1995 peace accords he was elected mayor of the town of Tchirozerine.

Ag-Maha now serves as a spokesman for the Nigerien Justice Movement (Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice-MNJ), a new rebel organization that took up arms earlier this year, charging the Niger government with failing to live up to the accords, especially provisions on regional autonomy and control of natural resources. In recent weeks, army attacks have forced the entire population of villages in northern Niger to flee across the desert to Algerian territory, where ag-Maha is now helping to organize an emergency relief effort. MNJ representatives also report Niger government forces are systematically attacking the camel herds which sustain the nomadic Tuareg tribes—with army troops killing up to 100 camels in one day in November.

On Nov. 13, Issouf ag-Maha, spoke with Bill Weinberg over the airwaves of WBAI Radio in New York City. He discussed the threats to Tuareg way of life from climate change, uranium mining and militarism; the role of music and culture in the Tuareg struggle, and the roots of the new guerilla movement. Geoffroy de Laforcade of Wesleyan University, who helped organize ag-Maha’s trip to the United States, translated from the French.

Bill Weinberg: Issouf, how long are you in the United States for? What brings you to New York City?

Issouf ag-Maha: I am in the United States on a three-week tour, visiting universities to discuss the current situation of the Tuareg people and the political crisis in Niger.

BW: Which has been heating up quite dramatically in recent weeks…

IM: It’s true, it is getting worse by the day. It something we find very worrisome, especially since we’ve always hoped that peace could prevail, that a reasonable solution could be found. And we’re still working as well as we can towards that goal.

BW: Tell us something about your life, and how you came to be a representative of your people’s struggle.

IM: Well, I was born in the nomadic camps. I attended school by chance, and was able to work my way all the way up through higher education. I’ve had personal, professional and social activities that have given me some authority in Niger and have led me to the situation where I’m qualified to be a spokesperson for my people.

I’ve had a very unique life. I’m very familiar with the nomadic lifestyle and the traditions of the Tuareg, but also of the unemployed young people who have to migrate to the shanty-towns. I talk about it in a memoir that I wrote that was published recently in France, called Touareg du XXIème siècle [Tuareg of the 21st Century], which we’re working on getting translated in English, so we can bring that testimony to the people here in the United States. The book tells my life story as a means to understand some of the fundamental issues that have faced the Tuareg, such as devastating droughts, ongoing political difficulties, and of course the Tuareg rebellion that broke out in Niger and the surrounding regions between 1991 and 1995 and culminated in peace accords. I’ve used all of that experience, personal and political, to try to allow young generations and the future leaders of the Tuareg people to understand their history as well.

BW: During that period, the world was very closely watching what was happening in Bosnia and Rwanda and other terrible conflicts around the world, but what was happening to the Tuareg was largely invisible. I only became aware of it after the fact, when since the peace accords there has been a tremendous renaissance of Tuareg language, music and culture, and some of the wonderful music began to reach me here at WBAI.

IM: You’re right, music plays an important role in the political and social struggle of the Tuareg. Culture has a lot importance in Tuareg society traditionally. We have a traditional musical instrument called the imzad, which actually embodies our culture and our code of ethics, since historically the Tuareg don’t have a written law. But we have a code we call the hasheq, a customary law that is actually enshrined in the instrument, and we look to ceremonies in which the instrument is played for guidance.

BW: A stringed instrument?

IM: It is a one-stringed violin. It is a very simple instrument, but one that has a lot of symbolism and depth in our culture. And the modern music which is very new and interesting and important is still rooted in the traditional role of culture and music in our society, where everything started.

People should know that we’re a nomadic people with a long history. We occupy the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. We’re a pastoralist people, we practice extensive herding and stock-breeding. And the most important aspect of our society is that the land is absolutely communally owned. It belongs to no-one, and we don’t recognize the modern concept of property.

The most important part of the desert, the sacred place, for these pastoralist peoples is the well. Our saying is “Water is life.”

The need to belong to a community and have strong traditions is really necessary. This feeling of solidarity is not just an ideal, its a matter of survival in a very hostile and difficult environment. And that’s why the imzad is so important. Because when we play it, it invokes solidarity and brings people together and gives them a feeling of belonging to something durable that can survive.

Because of the phenomenon of global warming, the Tuareg and West Africa in general have suffered tremendous droughts, catastrophic droughts that have been disastrous for our very existence. As a result of that, a lot of Tuareg youth—massive numbers—have been forced to migrate into urban shanty-towns as unemployed. A whole generation of people who were deprived of their traditional means of subsistence found themselves uprooted and cut off from their traditional lifestyle. Other Tuareg who stayed behind had to make a conversion to some level of semi-nomadism or sedentary farming.

BW: This process began when…?

IM: It began around three decades ago.

BW: What exactly was that traditional way of life, and to what extent does it continue to exist today in spite of everything?

IM: Well, the first thing is nomadism. The Tuareg people are never idle. They never stop moving around in search of rain, in search of water, or in search of pasture. And there’s no sense of property; all the land is shared, it’s wide open and everyone can wander. In order to live that lifestyle, people need to have herds. We have herds of camels, goats, sheep, cows. So when the herds die massively because of climatic conditions and disasters, the means of subsistence fades. People are forced into displacement, and it creates a culture shock.

Entire generations have found themselves completely lost and without direction. Because the Tuareg have never received a modern education. They weren’t prepared for the demands of an urban economy. So not only did the traditional culture suffer, but there was a need to find a means of survival in the new circumstances.

A lot of young people raised in these circumstances felt quite rebellious and dissatisfied with their situation, and they left. Waves of them went to other countries in the region, to seek work abroad. Through exile and migration, they were exposed to other lifestyles and other idioms. This generation actually gave themselves a colloquial name, which is ishoumar, from the French term for the unemployed, chĂ´meur.

So they created a new trend in music that was called ishoumar music, which is much more militant, much more of a social commentary, than the traditional music that we were used to hearing in the camps. This music is a call for resistance. It is a call for raising consciousness among the Tuareg people. It seeks to explain the tradition of the Tuareg people today, their dispersal, their vicitmization by phenomenon such as the arbitrary drawing of boundaries by colonial powers.

BW: Is this when the electric guitar entered Tuareg music? When did this genre begin to emerge?

IM: These young people were the children of the displaced migrants from the 1970s who suffered from the droughts. In the 1980s, they grew up in a situation of distress and despair, with an acute sense of awareness that something was seriously wrong with the society at large. And in exile, they met with young people from other cultures and movements, and developed a sort of criticism from the outside. And this developed into a brand new style of music, a brand new idiom, and a brand new outlook on the very critical situation that the Tuareg in both Mali and Niger are undergoing.

BW: Where did this exile experience take place, for the most part?

IM: The two main countries where young Tuareg went were Algeria and Libya. And the young people who came from Mali and Niger met up with other young people from elsewhere in Africa, and it was a kind of coming-together of a whole generation that was becoming aware that it had become fractured by forces of history, such as the drawing of boundaries and colonization.

One of the strengths of the Tuareg movement is the very strong sense of belonging to a culture that transcends state borders, that has a coherence that’s much more ancient and meaningful than the abstract and artificial administrative boundaries and the empty shells of nation states that have been created over the years.

BW: Tuareg country is largely divided between Niger and Mali, and in the early ’90s Tuareg guerilla resistance emerged in both those countries. Tell us how that went down.

IM: To understand the situation, you have to go all the way back to the 1885 Conference of Berlin and the colonial partition, where European states that were unlikely to take the socio-economic realities on the ground into consideration—because they were completely ignorant of them—divided up this region into various zones of influence. We’re talking about France, England, Germany, Spain, Italy—they all argued, and they partitioned Africa. As a result, the Tuareg people, who had been around for thousands of years, were arbitrarily divided between five main states. You have Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya. From being a people with a territory, we became ethnic minorities—roughly one-fifth of the Tuareg people live in each of those countries, and as ethnic minorities, of course, we became discriminated against and oppressed.

It is well-known that at the time of independence after World War II, new countries emerged with names like Niger, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast—all of these countries had flags, national anthems, constitutions, bureaucracies that were all forged by the colonial powers and that remained. And in the new context of independence, the Tuareg people were told “Now, whatever confederation you belong to, whatever your culture is, whatever language you speak, you’re now Nigerien, or Malian—and that’s it. You’re just going to have to live with it, and you don’t have a choice.”

In Africa historically there has been some degree of co-existence between a wide variety of people. When the modern notions developed in Europe of republican democracy appeared, people began competing for pieces of power and resources. So there was more and more ethnic conflict. And we rapidly realized that this talk of democracy can also be a form of dictatorship, if large groups end up dominating and excluding smaller groups from power.

The Tuareg haven’t had an intense consciousness of this because they weren’t directly colonized, or they were weakly colonized. They were completely cut off from the world economy and world politics, because they had a subsistence lifestyle based on ancestral nomadic traditions. So they didn’t have the education, awareness or even the language to understand what was going on at a national level, or even to demand their inclusion in politics.

So with the droughts and displacement and the pain caused by that, people came into contact with the world around them. And this gave them an acute awareness of not only of the causes of the crisis that was affecting them, but a consciousness of their existence as a people and of the need to engage in some kind of cultural resistance. That’s why this youth movement that we call ishoumar has been so critical in structuring our identity in the contemporary world.

Unfortunately, the national states reacted brutally. So many of these young people found that the only way to make themselves heard was to take up arms. And this was the beginning of the conflict, in the early 1990s. In the first half of the 1990s, in those five years, the entire traditional territory of the Tuareg was kind of a no-man’s-land, where there was brutal repression, torture and suffering. We have a very forceful memory of what we had to go just to be able to continue to exist.

But the result of this rebellion was, at the time, quite satisfactory for all parties involved. We obtained a new policy of administrative decentralization, and the promise of at least local elections ion which the Tuareg people could have representatives that they could choose themselves.

So we obtained in principle equal rights, we managed to get the state to recognize its obligation to fairly distribute wealth and resources, and to provide us with education, access to jobs, and some influence in the policies of the entire country.

BW: This was the 1995 peace accord. And what was the name of the organization that had taken up arms?

IM: First there was an organization called the FLAA—the Liberation Front of the Air and Azawad, which over the course of the conflict splintered into several groups and which reunited in a broad organization called the ORA, the Organization of Armed Resistance. And that was the organization that signed the peace accords on the 24th of April, 1995.

BW: What are the Air and Azawad?

IM: These are the names of large territories that span over several national boundaries. The Air is a massif that separates the deserts of the Azawad and the Tenere—vast, barren stretches of desert.

BW: As I understand it, the Tuaregs have traditionally maintained semi-permanent settlements in the massif, and then would bring their herds and caravans into the desert in a seasonal migration.

IM: Exactly. And you must remember that the main economic activity in this region was the trans-Saharan caravan trade which united the peoples of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. So the Tuareg have a very long experience and an expertise in cross-cultural communication between the peoples of Africa.

BW: Now, at the same time there was a Tuareg guerilla struggle underway in Mali. So what was the relationship between the guerilla organizations in Niger and Mali?

IM: Well, throughout these years the Tuareg people had become very scattered. An entire generation had lost the custom of crossing paths. So each region where Tuareg confederations live has its own specific characteristics. The Tuareg were united in the struggle, they shared a common ground and a common cultural discourse. But in practice, each movement regionally had a different enemy, a different state, a different government, with its own characteristics, its own blindness or administrative flexibility or lack thereof. So we led a struggle that had several centers.

The movement in Mali was very fractured. The organization that was best known was the MPA, the Popular Movement for Azawad. But the Malian government was more inclined to obtain a durable peace with the various Tuareg organizations. Whereas in Niger, we may have been more unified, but we had a more reluctant state.

BW: Yet there was terrible repression in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the massif in Mali which was the Tuareg stronghold.

IM: There was rebellion in the region you are talking about in 1963, early in the independence era, where the government of Modibo Keita, who had the support of the Soviet Union, led a fierce struggle against the Tuareg, a repression that we sometimes call “the genocide.” So there is a long history there, and a lot of bitterness.

In the 1990s, there was a real civil war in Mali, a struggle for land, with other ethnic groups seizing Tuareg lands as property and the government playing divide-and-conquer. This was possible because the Tuareg were traditionally very isolated in Mali.

In Niger, there was more interaction between the Tuareg. Military governments have tried, but it is impossible to completely isolate the Tuareg from the rest of the population in Niger. So our struggle had more national resonance, and it was less of a civil war environment.

BW: The peace deal in Mali was in 1996, one year after the peace deal in Niger. In both cases, the dialogue was brokered by Algeria. But by then, many thousands had been forced to flee. Have most been repatriated at this point?

IM: There were several waves of emigration. First, due to the poverty and droughts and loss of means of subsistence. Then there were huge waves of political flight as a result of the repression and persecution. Thousands of people went into exile. And then when peace returned in 1995, the UN High Commission on Refugees organized the repatriation.

So people came back to Mali and Niger. But they came back to the realization that there was no infrastructure there to greet them, that things hadn’t really changed. There was absolutely no work, no means of subsistence, no way to survive.

BW: I understand there are still Tuareg refugees in Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

IM: Yes, there are still people there who haven’t returned. Because they understand that in order to return, you need capital. You need to come back with the means to re-establish the traditional lifestyle. Concretely, that capital means herds. We are stock-breeders. We need camels. And if they know they don’t have the capital needed to resume the lifestyle, the alternative is to end up impoverished or in urban shanty-towns. We need water, we need medicine, we need access to the land. Those things weren’t guaranteed, and the word gets around.

BW: Which brings us to the current situation. Just in the past year, there’s a been a sense of history repeating itself, and Tuareg leaders both in Niger and in Mali have returned to armed resistance.

IM: About eight months ago, a group of Tuareg in Niger decided to alert the population and the government to the deterioration of the situation and the non-respect of the agreements that had been signed in 1995. The country is currently run by an elected president named Tandja Mamadou who was a colonel in the army and one of the men primarily responsible for the historic Tchintabaraden massacre in May of 1990 that actually started the first war. It was a classic case of a brutal military official becoming all of a sudden a friendly politician in a formal democracy, and achieving international recognition as such.

So Tandja responded to this new uprising eight months age with absolutely brutal and decisive violence. His government has made a decision that once and for all this situation must end, and the Tuareg and opposition must be completely annihilated. He seeks to eliminate Tuareg expression in politics and society entirely. So the situation has been made much worse in a very short time.

He brought back old habits. Anybody identified as a Tuareg is automatically suspected of supporting or being a part of the rebellion. Tuareg community leaders and intellectuals are being singled out and forced into exile as a result of the repression.

BW: So there’s been a new wave of displacement just in the last few months…

IM: Exactly. And these months have also seen a spectacular rise in the popularity of the MNJ, the movement that was created to express the discontent of the Tuareg people at the beginning of this year.

BW: That’s the Justice Movement of the People of Niger.

IM: Yes, and it called that because it is not just a Tuareg movement. It is a movement that has rallied people from across the country. It is a resistance movement of all the peoples of Niger. There are representatives from the majority as well as minority peoples. It has turned into a popular rejection of corruption and arbitrariness

BW: And it has been engaging in low-level harassment of army patrols and so on in the north of the country. What are the MNJ’s demands?

IM: The main demand is a very basic one—fairness and rights. Also, the sharing of wealth, a better understanding of regional needs in Niger. But the most important new phenomenon in this particular conflict is the widespread and arbitrary sale by the national government of huge tracts of land in the desert to foreign uranium companies that are acquiring legal rights to our ancestral lands, without any of the peoples of northern Niger being consulted or even informed.

We fully understand that one of the poorest countries in the world can’t afford to not take advantage of the existence of a significant resource that’s in demand. We’re not saying that uranium shouldn’t be touched. But the very survivial of a whole people is at stake here. What we say, is that the conditions for the exploitation of this resource, the system which is put in place to extract it, how the whole economy of this resource is regulated, the accountability of the firms—all of these things have to be discussed by the population.

And what about the consequences on the environment, which is already in a bad state. We’re dealing with a radioactive resource here. It’s not too much to ask that there be some consultation, that we be involved. We’re being dispossessed arbitrarily of lands and resources for the survival of our way of life, without any kind of democratic deliberation.

BW: I thought one of the things to come out of the 1995 peace accords was precisely provisions for consultation of the Tuareg people on local development and a return of the profits from resources exploited on their lands. Are you saying that the government has failed to live up to this?

IM: Yes, that was the main factor that led the people to rebel—the understanding that none of the accords were being implemented, at a time when many foreign countries were becoming eager to enter Niger. The largest one is China—which has a gigantic appetite for energy and resources, but very little consideration for basic things such as the environment, social conditions, culture. It is this basic disconnect of the foreign companies from local realities that caused the Tuareg to take up arms again.

BW: And I understand the government of Niger is calling the MNJ “bandits” and is refusing to negotiate at all.

IM: Yes, we are called bandits, drug-traffickers, terrorists. They have completely excluded negotiations. They say we are just a selfish movement that wants to take all of the uranium wealth for the Tuareg. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is this a rapidly expanding movement all over Niger, but its sole demand, the main purpose of this show of force, is to achieve the right to simply exist, to be equal partners in discussions on the future of the country.

BW: What rationale is the government using to justify failing to comply with the 1995 accords?

IM: They say the peace accords were brokered by France and Algeria, yet neither France nor Algeria gave the government the resources to carry them out. So its the fault of the foreign powers. And they accuse the Tuareg of bad faith and of refusing to apply their own accords.

BW: I understand there were just meetings, once again in Algiers, to try to mediate the conflict which has broken out again both in Niger and Mali. But it was just a meeting attended by Tuareg leaders to try to establish some kind of groundwork for dialogue, and representatives of the governments of Mali and Niger did not attend.

IM: Yes, it was an initiative by Algeria based on previous experience. But the problem is that the Tuareg need to get the attention of the government of Niger. And with the Algerians unable to meet that goal, the steps towards negotiations were really a futile exercise.

The government was perfectly aware of the invitation from Algeria, but they basically stated that their position is never, ever will they negotiate with, or even recognize the existence of this rebellion.

BW: And the position of the government of Mali is the same?

IM: They did not attend the Algiers meeting, but they have established contacts with the rebels in Mali for negotiations.

BW: The new rebel movement in Mali is calling itself the Democratic Alliance for Change. So, once again, what is the relation between the MNJ in Niger and the Democratic Alliance for Change in Mali? Are you formally allied, or just informally support each other?

IM: There’s no formal alliance. There’s mutual recognition and dialogue, but they’re dealing with the Malian government and we’re dealing with the Nigerien government

BW: The United States has been directly drawn into the fighting in Mali recently. A US military supply plane was bringing in supplies for Malian military forces in the north of country in September, and Tuareg guerillas apparently opened fire on it. The US has Green Berets stationed in both Niger and Mali now under the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorist Initiative, allegedly in response to the presence of al-Qaeda in the region. How do you view this situation?

IM: It is a service that the United States has rendered to both governments, in Mali and Niger, to go around claiming and trying to persuade people that al-Qaeda is involved in any way, shape or form in the region. They are certainly not with the Tuareg. But the government has been able to say that they have no choice but to collaborate with American anti-terrorism. When you talk about al-Qaeda, George Bush gets all excited and gets involved personally. So this has been propaganda that has justified government policies, and the Tuareg see it as a gigantic mystification.

BW: What is your message to people in New York City and the United States?

IM: The US government has a lot of leverage it could use—rather than engaging in military and anti-terrorist operations—to pressure the governments to negotiate and dialogue and acknowledge the existence of democratic movements and bring peace in the region.

Another thing I’d like to mention is that some of the young Tuareg have left the country have come to the United States. All of them are trying to make a future for themselves and their people. A lot of them are becoming students and going to school. And the government of Niger is never going to provide aid or scholarships to these people. So maybe something could be done to make people aware of the need to support youth in the diaspora as well.



Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice-MNJ

Rebellion in the Sahara
Radio Netherlands, Nov. 19, 2007

From our weblog:

Ethnic cleansing in Niger
WW4 REPORT, Nov. 30, 2007


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution