In the 1970s, geologists became aware that the Taoudeni basin possesses considerable quantities of gas and liquid petroleum resembling the petroleum-rich provinces in Algeria, Niger, Sudan, and Libya, yet during the following three decades, it remained a ‘last extraction frontier,’ largely unexplored. During one of his numerous visits to the region, the former leader of Libya, Mouammar Kadhafi pronounced this premonition for the Mali’s Sahel-Sahara region, including the Taoudeni Bassin: “The North of Mali is very rich in mineral resources. If you don’t take care, one day the West will come and install themselves permanently in order to exploit your resources.” (Maïga 2015). The Taoudeni Basin is now being divided and explored. This process has entailed a new phase of exploration from multiple international companies, a reframing of national policies, and increasing insecurity resulting in the militarization of the region. Beginning in 2004 the Government of Mali (GOM) under president Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) began hastening down the pathway towards becoming a member of Africa’s petroleum club, by adopting a new law related to petroleum (LAW No 04-037 / of August 2004), which established the organization of, exploration for, exploitation of, and refining of hydrocarbons. Along with this, nearly 700,000 km2 of land divided into 29 blocks across five sedimentary basins have been marked out across the basin, and these were offered as shared concessions between the national government and foreign petroleum companies.
Australian company Baraka Petroleum Limited was the first to sign an agreement with Mali’s national company for petroleum research and exploration (AUREP) and began geologic and seismic testing in 2005, igniting the petroleum rush to Mali and prompting others to explore. In 2011, Total, having engaged in the Mauritanian side of the basin declared, along with their Algerian partners Sonatrach, that the ‘important discoveries were the El Dorado of petroleum reserves’ (Le Post 2011). In 2015, the U.S Geological Survey estimated undiscovered and technically recoverable average resources to be the equivalent of 160 million barrels of conventional oil, 1,880 billion cubic feet of conventional gas, 602 million barrels of shale oil, and 6,395 billion cubic feet of shale gas in the Taoudeni Basin Province in both Mali and Mauritania (Brownfield et al. 2016).
The Kel Tamashaq or Tuareg, a nation of people spread across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Algeria have been one of the key groups from the region standing up to the massive sell-off of the region’s natural resources. Their struggle is framed within demands for an autonomous state stretching between Niger and Mali, which has been pursued through five significant rebellion movements since especially the post-colonial period and has resulted in brutal suppression tactics on the part of Malian and Nigerian military. During the 2007 so-called ‘uranium rebellion,’ Tuareg rebels took up arms closely after the Niger government released of 50 mining allotments to extract uranium and the Mali government began a new phase of oil exploration. Niger’s military used heavy violence upon the Tuareg people, causing some to accuse them of ethnocide (Keenan 2008).
Resulting from Ghaddafi’s downfall in Libya, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) captured munitions and returned to northern Mali to establish the Azawad state in 2012. During the 2012 Malian Civil War between the Mouvement Nationale pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Malian military, the initial temporary complicity of the rebel movement with jihadist-identified group Ansar Addine and Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Aghaly mistakenly conflated the MNLA’s cause with that of jihadist terrorism. As the jihadist-led militias moved further south into Mali, France, in a unilateral sweep, initiated French military intervention SERVAL to suppress the fighters into retreat. Consequentially, the UN installed a peacekeeping force that is still controlling the region today and France has established its indefinite military mission BARKHANE with 6,000 French troops across the region to suppress terrorist activities. BARKHANE will be joined by both an American drone base in northern Niger, a UN-sponsored regional force, and a fully weaponized Malian army. Prior to the signing of the Algers Peace Accords in June 2015, the written demands of the Coordination for the Azawad Movement (CMA, which includes the MNLA and other groups with similar interests) included a motivation that the development of energy and mineral resources be submitted to regional authorization prior to passing to approval in the National Assembly and that 20% of the production would belong to the Azawad (specifically to the source region in the Azawad, see ‘CMA’s conditions’). These demands were not met.
The oil exploration juxtaposed with the semi-permanent militarization of the Sahel-Sahara Region have lead some analysts to suggest that the struggle to exploit Taoudeni depends upon continued Saharan instability (Studer 2017; Keenan 2010; Bainafouna 2012). With the kidnapping of 32 tourists in Algeria in March 2003, the United States began AFRICOM as part of George Bush’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) and what it called the ‘second GWOT front’ in Africa. In January 2004, 500 US troops were installed in Mauritania, which followed with an expansion of a nine-country Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI). Jeremy Keenan, an anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London pointed to the collusion between the United States and Algeria in what he calls “this newly fabricated front in the Global War on Terror, [which] helped create the ideological conditions for Washington’s militarization of Africa” (2008: 17). Yet, as shown by a recent article in Libération, militarization has not lessened the terrorist activities, instead they have grown in frequency and magnitude (Chelbi 2017). As stated by Catherine Besteman, “Through AFRICOM’s military assistance to African governments, the Unites States will have an even stronger voice in shaping domestic laws and policies regarding terrorism and resource extraction in African cities, as well as greater influence over the ability of African governments to formulate independent foreign policy and support the rights of those considered terrorists by the United States” (2008:20). “Everyone is surrounding our territory. There is a war for the mineral resources. France went ahead in order to obligate Mali to sign a defense agreement and thereafter grant mineral concessions and protect those that already exist. That is the essence of this war.” (Hama Ag Mahmoud, Foreign Affairs Minister for the Transition Council of the Azawad State).