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  1. With the US launching its air campaign over Libya during the last few weeks, and Islamic State’s influence growing in Africa, it feels timely to look at how Libya and Mali rub each other up. Colonel Gaddafi was a despot with reality issues, sure, and few in the west pitied his tawdry demise. But let’s not forget that he invested a ton of money in Mali and was one of the few leaders to reach out to nomadic people, especially the Tuareg.

    ‘These people went to Libya and it broadened their horizons,’ the cultural leader Mohammed Ag Ossade told me in Mali, ‘they saw they could have more than what their parents had.’ For many Tuareg, oppressed by the Malian government, treated as pariahs long before they took part in any uprising, Gadaffi offered a safe haven, along with work and wages. When he fell, his weapons cache trickled out and many Tuareg took advantage – dragging their ill-gotten gains back into the Malian desert. Led by men who had mixed with revolutionaries from the IRA and ETA, they were in no mood to sit back quietly and take the droppings occasionally dished out by the Malian government. In the process, they carved out secret routes between Libya and Mali, an underground highway of banditry and weapons-smuggling, along which IS has been stretching its tentacles (it’s already managed to lure fighters up from Nigeria). With Mali’s peace process floundering, President Keita’s credibility looking shaky and divisions between north and south yawning ever wider, it’s an alarming time for IS to be breathing so close.

    It’s a reminder, too, of the recklessness of Britain’s recently fallen prime minister. For if David Cameron and his allies had thought about the aftermath of their strikes in Libya in 2011, maybe the country wouldn’t be in such a mess. But as we’ve all learned, thinking about the aftermath wasn't Cameron’s strong suit. As irresponsible as his handling of the EU referendum, his actions in Libya left a divided, traumatised nation. IS has exploited these divisions, taking advantage of the vacuum in Gaddafi's former strongholds much as they exploited the openings in post-Saddam Iraq. The US airstrikes and gains by the militias of the GNA (Libya's Government of National Accord) have pushed them back, but that could spell more danger for neighbouring countries - Mali more than anywhere. After all, where are fugitive jihadists most likely to find a haven? As so often happens, the jaws will be in place long before we see them bite.

  2. When we think of African military leaders we tend to assume they’re male. But nomadic North Africa supplied some powerful female leaders, such as the fourth century warrior-queen Tin Hinan (‘she of the tents’), popularly seen as a Tuareg ‘ancestress’. Nomadic culture has traditionally defined gender difference in its own way: from matrilinealism to different attitudes towards sexual freedom and female clothing, to the well-known practice of male veiling amongst the Tuareg. One shouldn’t overstate this – there are as many differences between nomadic communities as there are between nomadic communities and settled ones. But nomadism is an intensely practical lifestyle, in which women tend to be less sidelined, or secluded. I think there’s much to chew in these words by the anthropologist Labelle Prussin: ‘If a woman’s reproductive potential, with its guarantee of social continuity, is embedded in the material components of nomadic life, then sedentarisation has far more dire emotional and cognitive consequences than we have yet to realise.’*

    Taking all this on board, it should come as no surprise that so many great female leaders emerged from the deserts and hills of pre-modern North Africa. The most significant of these was surely the Kahina, or Dihya (‘the beautiful gazelle’). A Berber priestess with the gift of second sight, she’s popularly depicted with long flowing hair and eyes like flames. She had sufficient charisma to pool several Berber tribes behind her in the late 7th century – leading them on a march against the Arab conquerors, burning down garrisons, gatehouses and crops, and driving the Arabs to Cyrenaica in Libya. ‘The Arabs search for towns,’ she crowed, ‘for gold and for silver, but we only seek for pasturage.’ However, she proved a less than successful tactician – urban Berbers were put out by her destructive policies, and her troops scattered against a tide of low motivation. After all, what spoils could they look forward to if they destroyed everything? But she showed, for a brief burning moment, the power of nomadic solidarity – which would flare again many times over the centuries.

    *African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender