Small Wars Journal

Competing Notions of Nationalism Amongst Mali’s Kel Tamasheq

Share this Post

Competing Notions of Nationalism Amongst Mali’s Kel Tamasheq

Ian Edgerly

In a contemporary world where globalization can be witnessed every day, often hidden between the folds of contemporary conflict reasonings are legacy concepts that may help to discern the true drivers of conflict. Whether viewing conflict from a post-structuralist, post-modernist or liberalist point of view, the tendency is to look at modern drivers of intra-group conflict as socio-economic in nature, status related, or tied to a Huntington global mindset to include ethnicity (Hanlon, 2009, p16). This author differs from this line of reasoning and will utilize the idea of nationalism as developed by Ernst Hass (1986) as a method of intra-group analysis.

The conflict this paper will apply the idea of nationalism as an engine of intra-group instability towards is the long-standing issue between the sub groups of the Kel Tamasheq (commonly referred to as Toureg) in Northern Mali. To develop the analysis, there will be a differentiation between two different types of nationalistic movements, syncretist and revolutionary movements (Haas, 1986, p. 727). Following the brief theoretical discussion, the supra Kel Tamasheq identity will be discussed as a contradiction in terms, and as the potential reason why the nationalist tendencies of the sub groups may have been missed in the past. Finally, this paper will conclude with a juxtaposition of the Platform Coalition (pro-Malian state Kel Tamasheq) versus the Azawad Coordination Movement or CMA (anti-Malian State Kel Tamasheq) with nationalism as the potential driver of the conflict between the two.

Ultimately, this paper will seek to provide clarity on what has been defined as an ethnic conflict by many. Instead of purely ethnic in nature, there is a potential for the theory of nationalism to provide higher fidelity on what the latent drivers of the Kel Tamasheq intra-group conflict are, versus the proximate (daily) drivers, as will be discussed throughout this paper.

Before diving into the conflict, itself, it would be prudent to set out the definition of nationalism that will be utilized throughout this paper. Specifically, this paper utilizes Haas’ theory of nationalism defined as “a socially mobilized body of individuals, believing themselves to be united by some set of characteristics that differentiate them (in their own minds) from outsiders, striving to create or maintain their own state” (Haas, 1986, p. 726). This definition begins to shed light upon the idea that nationalism is not necessarily tied to a recognized state, making it applicable to sub or supra state conflicts. Within the definition, sub state population can fulfill the idea of a mobilized population united by a set of driving characteristics that separate them from others within the same region.

Viewing sub state conflict through the lens of ethnic conflict as a sole definition, per the hypothesis of this paper, is potentially limiting the analytical tools available to students and practitioners of conflict transformation. Ethnicity may be a subset within the complex, extensive form Bayesian games of inter and intra-group conflict, however, it is the view of this author that to place ethnicity as a sole driver of conflict is a baseline attribution error. This will be seen later within this paper as there are numerous ethnicities that are joining the sub Kel Tamasheq groups in their struggles against one another, ranging from Amazigh Berber, to Arab, to Fulani herdsman. Ethnicity is not a strong binding factor within these groups in this conflict, but their want for either a sovereign territory or a coherent Malian state serves to bind them into separate groups within the conflict, lending to the notion of nationalism as the latent driver of the conflict.

Implicitly stated within the definition of nationalism according to Haas (1986) utilized above is the idea of identity being a key component to a group definition of nationalism. Specifically, this notion of identity is espoused from the necessity of a defining set of characteristics within the group that they utilize to define the other when it comes to creating boundaries to their “state” or sovereign territory. Within an identity, as defined by Vamik Volkan (2006, p. 15), ethnicity is only a portion of the construct, not the whole.

Within this idea of nationalism, there is a typology of two specific sub sets (Meta categories) that will be utilized to define the conflicting identity groups later within this paper: Syncretist and Revolutionary. The syncretist group of nationalistic identities, as defined by Haas (1986), are primarily concerned with maintaining the myth and meaning that comes with honoring and preserving their past (p. 729). The other dyad within the typology is that of revolutionary nationalism. In an almost 180-degree shift from syncretists, revolutionary’s look to make sweeping changes to the governance and social constructs that define the current society (Haas, 1986, p. 729). In this case, these groups are looking to break ties with a past that can be seen as depriving them of a social or political good that they perceive that they are missing out on, or that a governing body or government is not fulfilling the responsibilities that they deem they should be furnishing.

Finally, within the two Meta categories of nationalism, there is a sense of rationality that must be kept in mind (Haas, 1986, p. 729). They are rational in that they are measured behavioristic responses to a set of stimuli in the environment. There is a definable cause and effect to both meta categories which will be noticed within the conflicting groups strategic ends and means. Consistency is also critical in claiming an act as rational, and the Kel Tamasheq’s response to structural violence inherent to the post-colonial Malian state society has been nothing, if not consistent, as will be seen below.      

The first step to conducting and analysis of the Kel Tamasheq conflict in the North of Mali is a sound understanding of what the supra-Kel Tamasheq identity is comprised of. The meta conflict between the Kel Tamasheq and the Malian state in Bamako is, in and of itself, flawed as a layer of analysis. This is tied to one simple fact, there is not a cohesive identity amongst the Kel Tamasheq that bind them together in a coherent front against the uncommon enemy in Bamako (specifically referring to the notion of a Bambara identity as the state identity). There are, however, some points that serve to still bind portions of the Kel Tamasheq identity together that are limited in scope and ability to outweigh internal divisions. There are specifically five points where the multitude of Tamasheq groups come together in a limited coherent narrative against the state: The want for the Tamasheq kingdom of old, the trauma of the repression within the 1963 rebellion by Malian troops around Kidal, the famine of 1973, the history and trauma of being coopted into Gadhafi’s legions, and the neglect and cultural disenfranchisement rooted in their relationship with the state (Sardan, 2012, p. 32). Even within these extremely powerful collective traumas and histories, there is not enough of a binding factor to be able to group the entirety of the Tamasheq societal group within the borders of Mali into a semblance of a nation, thought portions are invoked for common grievances. This comes into focus when looking at how the vertically stratified Tamasheq societal groups within the supra group interpret and manipulate the collective narrative (Sardan, 2012, 39). Once interpreted in their own way, they become non-binding factors as the essence of the trauma, in the eyes of Vamik Volkan, changes.

It is within this vertical stratification of the Tamasheq within Mali that we may begin to analytically tease out the different types of nationalism described above; however, the stratified layers bear description prior to the application of the nationalism typology. Because of colonization, as well as post colonization social restructuring, the stratification, or castes, within the Tamasheq changed circa the mid 1800’s (McGovern, 2013, p. 20). Prior to colonization, the Tamasheq were internally separated along horizontal lines that were based on genealogy. Once the French arrived within the Sahel and gained the monopoly on the use force in the Weberian sense, the Tamasheq were re-stratified along vertical lines (helping to build a narrative of victimization), specifically within five segments. The highest of the stratifications was the Imushagh (noble warriors), followed by the Clerics, Imghad (free-born non-nobles), Inadan (casted blacksmiths), and finally the Iklan (slaves) (McGovern, 2013, p. 20). These stratifications still hold true to this day.

Although the supra Tamasheq identity and base grievances can be found within the different castes, it is within the separate layers, and binding identities that come with them, where we may find the defining characteristics of nationalism as a latent driver of conflict with ethnicity in a supporting role of an incipient cause. As will be defined in detail below with a discussion of the different groups fighting for, or against, the state, the castes are working towards a redefinition of society in the North of Mali within their own interests. If ethnicity itself were the pure reason for the conflict, it is safe to assume that one would find the entirety of the Tamasheq community fighting against the State in Bamako. Notably, one will find that the noble castes are fighting against the state to maintain the current order and their hegemony over the North of Mali, and the lower castes for the most part siding with the state in a fight against the nobles and other groups in the region (Steinberg, 2015, p. 10). This politicization of the ethnicity at a sub level in the form of identity is where one may find the characteristics of nationalism coming into light.

As Haas (1986) mentions, the ideology that comes with a nationalism may serve to muddy the waters and increase the difficulty of decanting what nationalism really is versus the other symptoms within the conflict (p. 712). With the idea of ideology tied together with ethnicity (for the purposes of this paper), we find, per Haas’ definition of nationalism, one of the factors that is being used by the different castes within the Kel Tamasheq ethnicity to differentiate themselves from one another: identity. With this differentiation comes the different notions of what the Kel Tamasheq identity should look like within or outside of the Malian state.  In sum, we are witnessing not a mere delineation and preservation of the Kel Tamasheq identity (purely ethnic base to the conflict), but a politicization of the identity within the ethnicity in order to provide a political argument for the case of Kel Tamasheq sovereignty, or inclusion into the state of Mali, fulfilling Haas’ notion of nationalism.  

The Platform Coalition is a new comer to the Kel Tamasheq conflict in the North of Mali and is a by-product of the nationalism as the driver of intra-group conflict argument of this paper. Within the supra-Tamasheq group, they form the revolutionary side to the nationalism dyad as described by Haas (Haas, 1986, p. 729). The group itself is an amalgamation of a total of seven different groups with similar identity constructs that did not approve of the hostility being displayed towards the Malian state after the 2012 uprising. The overarching narrative of the group can be defined as being pro-Malian government and in favor of national unity (McGregor, 2017, p. 2).

There are three factors that help to define them as a revolutionary type of nationalism per the Haas typology. The first being, as mentioned above, that they split away from the meta-argument of the Kel Tamasheq against the Malian state and instead moved to be part of the state. This leads to the second reason that they can be defined via a revolutionary style of nationalism, the fact that they are willing to integrate into the Malian state in order to restructure the Tamasheq caste system that was set in place when the French gained hegemonic control over the Sahel. Within the sub groups of the Platform movement we find several different lower castes within the Tamasheq societal structure; primarily the Imghad (free born non-nobles) and the Daoussak (blacksmiths). These groups have never had social mobility under the current system, and a restructuring towards a centralized state may fulfill that need (Sardan, 2012, p. 34). A more radical, revolutionary style of politicized identity nationalism would be required to split with the traditional norm of the social structure, thus helping to identify nationalism as a driver of the conflict within Northern Mali. The third and final reason for the platform movement to be seen as a revolutionary form of nationalism, versus an ethnic driver of intra-group conflict, is that the sub groups within the movement are made up of more than just Kel Tamasheq. Notably there are Lamhar Arabs located in the Gao region, Songhai, Fulani and Peul ethnicities that are also supporting a integration with the state.

Within these three reasons as to why the Platform movement forms the revolutionary style of nationalism within Haas’ typology are other reasons that should be noted, albeit they are not decisive factors, like the ones above, in determining nationalism as a driver of intra-group conflict. Although there are several different ethnicities bonding together to form the Meta group, their reasons should not be seen as altruistic towards an ontologically whole Mali. They are primarily out to defend their homes and land from further conflict between the supra Kel Tamasheq conflict over the status of Norther Mali, not to mention a growing localized extremist group issue (a topic for another paper) (Diarrah, 2017).  Separating from the multi-ethnic fabric of the group, the Kel Tamasheq within the group are also voicing that they are not completely against the Bambara narrative of the state, thus separating themselves from the group that is to follow. This may not appear to be a sweeping change, as Haas’ definition of revolutionary nationalism would call for, but when viewed from an emic point of view, shifting from a unified Tamasheq narrative to one that could possibly lead to a restructuring of the Tamasheq caste system is rather revolutionary.

Opposed to an integration with the state is the Azawad Coordination Movement. The CMA was the original grouping of Kel Tamasheq identities during and after the 2012 uprising (known then as the Azawad movement) but has become the smaller of the groups since 2014 once the Platform movement split away from the overarching Tamasheq narrative. This group falls into the syncretist nationalism bin of Haas’ typology and there are two major reasons for this. The first is that the sub groups underneath the meta group want to maintain the current social structure to both the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali, as well as change the state structure. They are opposed the state structure due to the victimization of the Tamasheq by the state since the drawing of the borders in 1848. From that time the Tamasheq people, being the minority within the state, were subject to economic, social and ethnic deprivation (Sardan, 2012). Per this narrative, the Kel Tamasheq of the CMA can find no common ground with the state, and continue to fight for a sovereign territory, the Azawad, of their own. They are also opposed to a redefinition of the Tamasheq internal social structure as the majority of the castes that are to be found within the CMA are the noble casts (Ifoghas). Members of the noble castes may be found as high up as Malian state government positions, but they are primarily to be found as local authorities within the North of Mali around the notable cities of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. They also control the majority of the transportation and smuggling routes to and from the Southern end of the Sahel band through the Sahara (Lebovich, 2017, p. 11). A restructuring of their internal caste system may jeopardize their colonizer defined roles as leaders.

The second of the main reasons for the group to be defined as syncretist is the notion that although they want the societal structures and their idea of the Kel Tamasheq nation to remain in its current form, they are willing to make some concession for change in the form of a federation within the borders of Mali (Sardan, 2012). Within the federation they would be able to maintain their part of the state structure, maintain the current Tamasheq social structure, and maintain their seat of power within the North of Mali.

This paper is an endeavor to break the stereotypical notions of intra-group conflict drivers at a sub state level that this author often finds accompanying contemporary analysis of conflict. Ethnicity as a latent driver of conflict needs to be reevaluated as the “go-to” factor when looking at conflict within states of the global South. Ethnicity forms only one of many subsets of reasons as to why groups and individuals enter into conflict, however, one may find that viewing conflict through the lens of nationalism may more accurately define the problem. By utilizing Haas’ bifurcated typology on nationalism, conflicts that are taking place within the Westphalian defined contemporary environment may come into focus for what they are: politicized identity groups (with ethnicity now as a sub set) seeking to either maintain the current form of nationalism that defines their societal structures (syncretist) or dispose of the current structures in lieu of new ones (revolutionary). As the opening statement of this paper proclaimed, this contemporary world that we find ourselves within requires a new view of intra-group conflict, potentially one that turns to less used, or “hazy” concepts to truly delineate drivers of intra-group conflict.

Works Cited

Conversi, D. (2004). Can nationalism studies and ethnic/racial studies be taught together? Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 30(4), 815-829. doi:10.1080/13691830410001699649

Diallo, O. (2017). Ethnic clashes, jihad, and insecurity in central Mali. Peace review, 29(3), 299-306. doi:10.1080/10402659.2017.1344529

Diarrah, S. (2017, November - December). MALI – Crise dans le Sahel : Bamako jette de l’huile sur le feu. The Maghreb and orient courier. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from

Haas, E. (1986). What is nationalism and why should we study it? International Organization, 40(3), 707-744.

Hanlon, Q. (2009). The Three Images of Ethnic War. Westport: Praeger Security International.

Keller, E. J. (2014). Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lebovich, A. (2017). Reconstructing local orders in Mali: Historical perspectives and future challenges. Washington D.C. : Brookings.

McGovern, M. (2013). Understanding conflict drivers and resilience factors in the Sahel: Desk study. Washington D.C.: Navanti.

Sardan, J.-P. (2012). The "toureg question" in Mali today. LASDEL - Labratory for the research and study of social dynamics and local development.

Volkan, V. (2006). Killing in the name of identity. Charlottesville: Pitchstone Publishing.


About the Author(s)

Ian Edgerly is the lead Culture and Regional Expertise instructor for the US Army 1st Special Forces Command at Ft. Bragg, NC, and is a prior Army Special Operations Soldier. He is a passionate educator, remains fascinated by the continent of Africa, and is a PhD student in the field of Conflict Analysis and Resolution with Nova Southeast University.