Azawad is a territory of Mali, which occupies two-thirds of that country, spanning over the southern portion of the Sahara Desert and the Sahel. It is inhabited by different peoples, including Tuaregs, Arabs, Peuls, and Sonrais.
The advance of the Sahara Desert turned the Azawad into arid territory —with the exception of the banks of the Niger River— over the centuries. The region was furthermore hit by a series of continuous droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, which severely impacted on the populations living there, mainly Tuaregs and Arabs. Among various segments of the Tuareg people the belief growth that Mali, dominated by southern Black African peoples, systematically discriminated against the north of the country.
Over the final years of the 1980s and especially in the early 1990s, several politico-military groups mainly made up of Tuaregs and/or Arabs began to use the name “Azawad” —which until then had not born much political significancy— to designate those territories of northern Mali, and Niger too, which they sought to declare independent from those two postcolonial states, which they blamed for having abandoned Tuareg and Arab populations to their fate.
Since the independence of Mali (1960) four major Tuareg revolts have taken place: in 1962-1964, in 1990-1995, in 2007-2009 and lastly in 2012. The last three ended in peace agreements, which however have not resolved the Azawad question. The 2012 rebellion also led to a long armed conflict with the participation of several Islamist militias —some Tuareg and some not— which introduced a new axis in the dispute.
Since the 2012 rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the term “Azawad” has been increasingly used to exclusively designate northern Mali, an area roughly spanning from the administrative region of Mopti to Mali’s northern and eastern borders, and therefore incorporating part of the Niger river basin, which is home to not only Arabs and Tuaregs, but also to Songhais, Peuls, and others. The MNLA and its allies made an effort to restyle Azawad as a stateless, multiethnic nation made up by Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhais, and Peuls —and distinct from the rest of Mali, where the Bambara and Soninke form the majority of the population. This discourse, however, has had little traction outside the Arab and Tuareg communities —and still, within them, it has had more acceptance by certain clans than others—.
Most members of the political-military groups demanding autonomy or independence for Azawad are Tuaregs, although some Arab groups have also joined that demand.
The Tuareg —a part of the Amazigh people— are made up of more than 3 million people, living in the southern Sahara and the Sahel. Their lands spread over Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Almost 1 million of them live in Mali’s Azawad. The Tuareg speak several varieties of Amazigh. The Tuareg are subdivided into several clans, which has an impact on the way political-military groups are constituted, as explained below.
Azawad is also populated by Arabs —many of whom are Arabised Amazighs— who are subdivided into three main groups: the Kuntas (Timbuktu and Taoudeni, also with a strong presence in Mauritania), the Bérabiches (Timbuktu), and the Lamhars-Tilemsis (Gao).
Tuaregs and Arabs are traditionally known in Mali as the northern peoples, or even “the Whites”, as opposed to the other peoples, traditionally known as “the Blacks”. Among the latter, several peoples are to be found in Azawad, particularly in the regions of Timbuktu and Gao on the Niger River, the main ones being the Fulani and the Sonrai.
Politics and government
The peace agreement signed by the government of Mali, the MNLA and other Azawadian political-military groups (2015) provided for a process of decentralisation and devolution from the central state to the regions, as well as for the creation of a Consultative Council of the Regions of Northern Mali, made up of the five regions of Azawad —Timbuktu, Kidal, Menaka, Taoudeni, and Gao. The Consultative Council was created in 2019. Devolution of powers to the regions has been however very limited, as it has been negatively affected by the continued armed conflict in Azawad, now mainly led by the Islamist groups, which have made it spill to the centre of Mali.
Since 2013, three pro-autonomy and pro-independence organisations in Azawad have been part of a loose coalition, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), namely the Movement for the National Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, pro-independence, secularist, made up of members of several Tuareg clans, particularly the Idnan and the Ifogha, as well as some Kunta Arabs), the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA, pro-autonomy, secularist, made up mainly of Kunta and Berabiche Arabs from Timbuktu), and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA, Tuareg pro-autonomy, Islamist, with dominant presence of Kidal Tuareg Ifoghas from the Kel Adagh confederation). Since 2016, the MNLA has undergone several splits (e.g. the Menaka-based Azawad Salvation Movement, MSA, made up mainly by Tuareg Chaman-amas and Daoussaks) which have weakened the MNLA’s position within the CMA at the expense of the HCUA.
Another alliance, the Platform, is opposed to the CMA. The Platform brings together Azawadian political-military groups loyal to Mali, among them the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA, mainly made up of Tuareg Imghads) and an MAA splinter group, known as the MAA-Platform, mainly made up of Arab Lamhars from Gao.
In parallel to all these groups —and sometimes in connection to them— several Islamist groups operate in Azawad, the main one being Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM or GSIM), the product of the 2017 merger of several previous armed groups with Fulani, Tuareg and Arab combatants, among other origins, led by Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghaly.
(Last updated November 2020.)