The civil war in Mali has erupted onto the world stage this past winter with significant gains by the Tuareg people in the north and the collapse of the corrupt regime in a coup. The international press has blamed the Tuareg victories on the civil war in Libya, arguing that the Tuareg enlisted by Gadahfi from the south of Libya have moved their heavy weapons into Mali. This is interesting given the history of Gadahfi and various regimes in Mali and other African countries. Gadahfi's policies generally aimed at weakening tribal groups and increasing the power of central governments.
The Tuareg have a long history of rebellion against governments (http://en.wikipedia.org/..._(2007–2009)). As a Berber people they have sought independence from every organized state from the Egyptians and Romans to the French and British colonists. The best ethnography on the Tuareg is by Johannes Nicolaisen and gives a comprehensive history and cultural context. Rodd (1925) and Barth a 19th century explorer identify them with the Libyans of Herodotus.
The West has been schizophrenic about self-rule and independence by cultural identity. Western nationalism was built on the suppression of minorities and the construction of idealized national identities, usually representing one dominant ethnic group. Colonial self-rule movements and independence movements were fought, as in the American Revolution. Irish independence was resisted as has been Basque. However, nationalist movements by ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union were celebrated as were those in the former Yugoslavia, though ones identified as Muslim were politely ignored as Soviet and then Russian repression turned ugly.
The question that should be asked is do the borders make sense, and since most borders in the world today are the artifacts of European colonialism, the answer is, "no."
Almost all colonial borders were drawn to separate cultural groups, especially those like the Maasi who had strong tribal structure and could mobilize themselves as nations. But the Tuareg have been able to sustain a considerable degree of stability given the extreme repression they have suffered. Sara Randall (2005) produces data showing consistent fertility gains and marriage rate continuity in the face of war, exile and relocation. They are spread widely over the Sahara and Sahel and are made up of many different clans. No one should be mistaken that they are limited to Mali, as they range over many current artificial national boundaries. There is considerable dislike or negativity in most European descriptions of the Tuareg, partly as a result of their long resistance to European domination and to the existence of slavery among some tribes. In neither case are the Tuareg exceptional (certainly not given the European history of slavery).
A cease fire and negotiations brokered by international agencies should be the present goal. Perhaps the best outcome would be a Tuareg state, but this is unlikely in the near future given international horror at border changes. A guarantee of a federal system with near independence for the Tuareg might be acceptable as a temporary solution.