This paper deals with transformations in local political thinking in Northern Mali. It describes how concepts from what can be called ‘formal’ politics, or administration, have gradually seeped into local settings, where they have been taken up by local political actors. The transformation central to this paper is the movement from a political organisation essentially based on lineage, (fictive) kinship ties and a clan system, into a system in which territory, hitherto only important in the economic realm, takes a more central place. The society described is that of the Tuareg in Northern Mali, especially those inhabiting or bordering the so-called Tamesna plain. Influences in territorial thinking date back to the colonial conquest of the area, and were developed further during the late colonial period, when a system of indirect rule gradually became more direct. The developments then set in motion were taken over by the post-colonial nation-state of Mali which, after three decades of central administration (or absence of it), underwent a process of decentralisation in the 1990s. In describing these developments, the paper aims to provide a detailed case study of how both colonial and post-colonial administration have influenced local political views on territory, borders and land tenure, and the ways of dealing with conflicts over these issues. Finally, I intend to discuss the impact of decentralisation in Mali on territorial thinking and conflicts. Two Tuareg concepts regarding territory will be central in this paper: ihenzuzagh — economic geographical space, and akal — political geographical space.
Baz Lecocq studied African History at the Leiden University History Department. He has recently defended his PhD thesis at the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, entitled ‘That Desert is Our Country: Tuareg Rebellions and Competing Nationalisms in Contemporary Mali (1946-1996)’.