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The Kawousan War reconsidered (excerpts)

Kimba Idrissa

(in Rethinking Resistance: Revolt and Violence in African History,  Jon Abbink, Mirjam de Bruijn and Klaus van Walraven (eds), Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003, 191-217)


The most important anti-colonial period of resistance in Niger in popular memory is the Yakin Kawousan or the Kawousan War, which may well have been the longest, the best organized and equipped of all previous anti-colonial wars of resistance. The military post at Agadez was under siege for about 80 days from 13 December 1916 to 3 March 1917 and the war then continued in the mountainous Ayir region, ending only with the deaths of the main leaders: Kawousan on 5 January 1919 and Tagama during the night of 29-30 April 1920. The fierce fighting and opposition to the colonial system lasted for some 40 months.

The Kawousan War was the subject of numerous reports at the time.[1] Many historians and anthropologists have taken an interest in the events that raised so much controversy.[2] The various interpretations have their weaknesses as they have tended to focus on a description of events, especially on political and military issues. The revolt has also been likened to a simple act of looting or pillage, or at the most to a Sanûssi-influenced[3] anti-French religious movement organized by Italy and Germany against France. These judgements hide the complexity of an event whose deeper roots resurfaced at the start of colonial occupation.


To be interpreted correctly, the Kawousan War has to be placed in the region's socio-political and economic context of the time since the actual causes of the revolt were essentially socio-political and economic and such explanations often have deep structural causes.


The leaders and their doctrine

Mouhamad Kawousan ag Gedda

Mouhamad Kawousan ag Gedda was an Ikaskazen Igerzawen born in the Ayir towards the end of the nineteenth century.[4] He did not inherit a title from his father nor was he born into a chiefdom endowed with incarnate politico-military power. His tribe was not descended from a political power. He was affiliated to a junior line that hierarchically occupied a subordinate position and could not accede to a title of aghola or tribal chief.[5] By way of compensation, his mother was a noble in the Igerzawen chieftaincy.[6]

As a young man, Kawousan had taken part in the exodus of certain Tuareg groups that wanted to withdraw from French domination and he stayed in Kanem where he participated in the anti-colonial struggle against the French. He was in Gouro when he got in contact with – or attached himself to, according to some – the anti-European El Hirwan (The Brothers) movement connected to the Sanûssi.[7] This would have been in August 1909. In November of the same year, he participated on the side of Abdallah Tower, chief of the Sanûssi Zawiya of Ain Galaka, in the attack on the French camp of Washenkale commanded by Lieutenant Moutot.[8] Progressively, and thanks to his courage and intelligence, Kawousan acquired the esteem of the powerful brotherhood's leader. He developed a strong friendship with Sidi Ahmed Sherif, the head of the Sanûssiya, who appointed him Governor of Ennedi. He was involved in the war for a while with the Italians and later was harassed by the French troops of Commmander Hilaire and forced to take refuge in Darfour for nine months from August 1910 to May 1911. He left Darfour in August 1912 at the end of the conflict with the powerful sultan, Ali Dinar. Threatened on all fronts, he gave himself up to the French who put camels at his disposal allowing him to proceed towards Ounyanga Kebir in the Ennedi region. The Turks had just installed themselves in Borkou, and Kawousan offered his services to their leader, Kaïmakan d'Aïn Galaka, and followed him to Ennedi. In May 1913 they found themselves involved in the Battle of Oum-El-Adam on the side of the Sanûssi overthrown by French troops. Kawousan regrouped, left Borkou and withdrew to the oasis at Timmerin. There is no information about his activities there until April 1915 when he helped his friend Sidi Mahdi Souni, the son of Mohammed Souni, against the Italians. In February 1916, he was seen in the Tripolitanian Djebel. He returned to Ghat in August after the Italians had occupied Janet with an army estimated to be made up of 200 regular soldiers and six canons. Four months later, Kawousan besieged the French post at Agadez with the help of Sultan Tagama.

Abderahamane Tagama Ag Bagari

Abderahamane Tagama Ag Bagari was roughly 40 years of age in December 1916, about the same age as Kawousan. From a young age he had studied the Koran in Agadez and had then become involved in petty trade, following the caravans south to the markets along the Kano-Katsina-Sokoto road. He lived in Bornou and then in Kano where he resumed his studies but at a higher level. He was still in Kano when he was asked to take up the head of the sultanate. He ascended the throne in 1908 as successor to Ibrahim Ed-Dasouqi who was judged 'feeble and incapable' by the French.[9] Although put in place by colonization, Tagama, like his father Sultan Mohammed Al Baqary dit Bâ Sôfô,[10] lived modestly and was generous towards his people, especially during the 1912-1915 famine.[11]


The siege of the French post at Agadez

The revolt extended beyond the borders of the Ayir region. Virtually all the groups in the Ayir were involved in the action in one way or another and to varying degrees over time. Groups of people alone or under the leadership of their chiefs joined the resistance fighters. The Kel Ajjer made up Kawousan's original force before his arrival in the Ayir; Moussa ag Amastane was in charge of the Kel Ahaggar; Mohammed Ibrahim – the chief of the Almouskare – led the Arabs from Tahoua, and the Amenokal Al Khorar led the Kel Dinnik. The Kel Nan of Azawak, Taitoq of In Gall, Ifadayen, Toubou of Kawar and Tibesti, all people of the Damergou and certain villages in the sedentary cantons close to the desert regions of Manga and Damagaram also took part in the uprising.


Repercussions of the attack on Agadez on other regions

The long Kawousan War provoked violent and open actions throughout the rest of the region. In the Azawak, Tamesna and Ahaggar, numerous groups of fighters soon joined Kawousan's troops.[12] Further to the south, participation by Damagaram, Damergou and Manga was invaluable, even decisive, in certain places. Control over this area, traditionally seen as the grain reserve of the northern region, was more than once at stake during the struggle, with both sides wanting to command access to it. The resistance forces were able to infiltrate the area and receive protection and assistance from the people near Goure, Zinder and Madaoua.[13]

In the west of Niger and mainly in the subdivision of Filingue, the sedentary bella people in the cantons of Imanan and Tegraza were cautious following the failure and repression of the revolt of Firhoun. They therefore had some reservations after the announcement of the siege of Agadez. The military precautions taken (and enforced by the French administration in Niamey), which included the disarming of the population and the sending of a reconnaissance patrol, hardly favoured a manifestation of open revolt.[14]

In neighbouring Nigeria, Governor Lugard received a telegram on 23 December from Dakar informing him of the invasion of the French Sahara by the Sanûssi. A day later, news of the siege of Agadez arrived as well as a request from the Secretary-General of the AOF[15], Fournier who demanded safe passage between Kano and Zinder for troops sent from Dakar. At the same time, Foumier informed Lugard of the instructions issued by the head of the military forces in Zinder to call on the nearby British garrison in case of emergency. Lugard, deeply concerned by the developing situation in Niger, declared a state of emergency on 3 January 1917.

Captain Faulque de Jonquières demanded reinforcements from Lugard in the middle of January 1917 and British colonial soldiers were given the role of protecting the sedentary zones of Tahoua, Maradi and Madaoua and of quashing any sign of incursion by resistance fighters in the south. Two British columns were sent to the military area in Niger.


As a result of this cooperation with the British administration in Nigeria, the French had at their disposal some 2.000 extra riflemen, 8 machine guns, 6 canons. 394 camels, 109 mounted soldiers and 17 tonnes of equipment. This equipment would allow the French army to consolidate its positions in Niamey, Bilma, N'Guigmi, Filingue and Tahoua and to deploy more forces in the centre of the area of resistance[16] with the men who were already in Ayir to liberate Agadez.



The Kawousan War extended beyond traditional political players, witnessed the use of modern armaments and received support from external sources. The involvement of the many colonial powers of the time – France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany and Turkey – and the alliance with the Sanûssiya gave it an international dimension, which is probably why it attracted so much attention and was so widely debated by writers at the time.


A Sénoussiste revolt? A Muslim plot?

Islam, and the Sanûssiya in particular, have been considered by various writers as the driving force behind the Kawousan War. This interpretation came largely from colonial sources and was subsequently reproduced in numerous publications. Abadie spoke of the mouvement sénoussiste[17] and for Séré de Rivières it was all about un complexe de guerre sainte (a complex religious war).[18] André Salifou's book was entitled Kaoussan ou la révolte sénoussiste, and one of the chapters in Norris's book was 'The Twareg Jihad against the French'.[19] Finally Casajus describes the role of the religious engagement in the resistance.[20] Clarification of the role of the Sanûssiya in this revolt involves returning to the political and ideological roots of the revolt and determining the nature of the alliance between the resistance and the Sanûssiya.

The Sanûssiya and their brothers – a group of individuals joined by the same doctrine and the same religious philosophy – were established in 1837 by Mohamed Ben Ali es Sanûssi el Hassani el Idrisi who was born in 1792 in Torch in Oranie.[21] The Sanûssiya enjoyed considerable success and its leaders had complete authority throughout Libya and northern Chad. They had numerous disciples in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, eastern Sudan and Somalia and its influence spread through Mesopotamia as far as Indonesia. In Nigeria, the Kawar, the Ayir, the Damagaram and the Damergou were the main areas of Sanûssiya influence between 1860 and 1899. Many Zawiya including schools and mosques were founded in Bilma and Zinder and in the Ader and Ayir.


To fully appreciate Kawousan's relations with the Sanûssiya, it is necessary to look at his time in exile and analyse the nature of the alliances he had with the different camps. What is most remarkable is the diversity of the alliances and the different volte-face. Kawousan always seems to have been guided by the need to set up and maintain a strong and modern army. This was the main motivation behind all his actions. He received arms from the Sanûssi who he helped fight against the French between 1909 and 1912, then from the French with whom he fought from 1912 to 1915, then the Turks and finally again the Sanûssi during his stay in Tripolitania in 1916 before going to the Ayir region. Even after the retreat of resistance fighters outside Agadez (13 July 1917) and then from the Ayir (25 March 1918), he adopted the same attitude. Initially allied to the Turks in Fezzan, he then formed an alliance with the Sanûssi who provided him with significant quantities of arms and ammunition. Kawousan played this game of double alliances until the end and eventually it was the cause of his own death. Having received vital armaments from the Sanûssi, he wanted to conclude an alliance with the Turks in Tibesti. They, however, were aware of his tactics, and attacked, captured and hung him.


An anti-French war?

This theory sees the revolt as a simple prolongation of the First World War, a movement armed and financed by the Germans. For the French, the causes of the war were external. In their opinion, it was a vast Muslim plot supported ideologically by the Sanûssiya, and materially by Turkey and Germany.[22] It is only colonial mythology that involves people like Dr Frobenius with the revolt and magnifies facts to make it appear as if the revolt was due to the power of the Sanûssiya or was an alleged holy war backed by a German-Turkish alliance to attack French bases in Africa.[23]

The authorities in Niger do not agree with this interpretation:

...On ne peut guère admettre que ce soit là le vrai mobile qui ait poussé les insurgés. II est vraisemblable et même probable que ces mouvements ont été encouragés par les nationaux allemands et turcs de la Tripolitaine, mais ces encouragements sont restés jusqu'ici purement platoniques ou tout au moins de bien faible importance. Il n'y a pas de lien entre la guerre européenne et les événements de l'Aïr. Les causes sont purement locales.[24]

Two further reasons allow the European war and the Kawousan War to be separated. The Sanûssiya, as already mentioned, were militarily weak and politically in crisis. Additionally, any Sanûssiya alliance with a particular European country should not be overestimated. Sanûssiya alliances during the war experienced various fluctuations: they fought against the English in Egypt and in Sudan, then against the Italians in Libya until 1928. In 1943 they collaborated with the English and the French against the Italians in Libya.

The War of Kawousan and contemporary nationalist movements

For the leaders of the political parties who fought for independence and for the leaders of the recent Tuareg rebellion in Niger, there was more continuity between the different periods of resistance. They all identified with the Kawousan War.


The leaders of the Tuareg rebellion in Niger established a link between the anti-colonial revolts and recent rebellions. They have made a personalized history of Tuareg society based on the Kawousan War and still see this event as a step in the long process of a search for a certain modernity at the heart of Tuareg society in which the rebellion was inscribed and which continues to this day. Kawousan is considered as having brought an egalitarian society and democratic opposition to the conservatism represented by the aristocracy who wanted to maintain a social hierarchy directed by the old code of honour. Kawousan has been given the role of liberator, the federator seen as the unifier of the Tuareg world.[25]


The Kawousan War was undoubtedly the longest period of resistance ever known in Niger's previous military history, extending beyond colonial frontiers and even traditional politics. However, its root causes were purely internal, linked to colonial domination and to local economic and political factors.


Neither a raid conducted by bandits pillards nor a Sénoussiste revolt, the Kawousan War was more than a simple Tuareg revolt. It was an anti-colonial war through which the local populations attempted to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism and in particular French domination that had resulted in the loss of their main source of wealth – control of (trans) Saharan resources and trade – as well as their political independence.

[1] M. Allane, Relations de voyage de Mohamed Allane à Djanet et à Ghât, recueillie M. Abridat, officier interprète de réserve (undated); H. Boubou, 'Documents nigériens, tome I, l'Aïr'; R. Gaffiot, L'Aïr en feu, ronéo (undated); P. Mangeot, 'Le Siège d'Agadez raconté par un prisonnier de Kaosen', Renseignements coloniaux et documents, 8 (1930), 479-482; Colonel Abadie, Afrique centrale: la colonie du Niger (Paris, 1927).

[2] A. Bourgeot, 'Les échanges transsahariens, la Senusiya et les révoltes twareg de 1916-17', Cahiers d'études africaines, 69-70. vol. XVIII. 1-2 (1978), 159-185 [download - 27 Mb]; F. Fuglestad, 'Les révoltes des Touareg du Niger (1916-17)', Cahiers d'études africaines, vol 13. 49 (1973), 82-120 [download - 38 Mb]; K. Muhammad Zubairu, 'The Kaoussen Rebellion of 1916-1917 with Particular Reference to its Impact on Northern Nigeria', PhD thesis, Ahmadu Bello University (Zaria, 1973); H. T. Norris. The Tuareg: Their Islamic Legacy and its Diffusion in the Sahel (Warminster, 1975); Y. Riou, La révolte de Kaocen et le siège d'Agadez, 1916-1917, ronéo (1968); J. L. Triaud. 'Un épisode oublié de la guerre de Kaossen: La lettre des marabouts d'Agadez au Colonel Mourin (4 mars 1917)', Annales de l'Université de Niamey, n° 2 (1978), 263-271; A. Salifou, 'Kawousan ou la révolte sénoussiste', Études nigériennes n° 33 (Niamey, I973).

[3] The Sanûssi is an Islamic brotherhood that organized resistance to the French.

[4] All the authors then adopted, according to colonial archives, the name Wan Teggida which was unknown to the population. According to the same authors, Kawousan would have been born in Damergou around 1880. H. Claudot-Hawad, 'Exil et résistance ou la continuité touarègue', Revue du monde musulman et de la méditerranée, 57 (1990), 29.

[5] A. Bourgeot, 'Révoltes et rébellions en pays tuareg', Afrique contemporaine, 170 (1994), 8.

[6] Claudot-Hawad, 'Exil et résistance', 30.

[7] Information Rhoubeidi, Agadez, August 1985.

[8] Archives nationales du Niger, Agadez, Territoire Tchad au Territoire Niger, 30 janvier 1917.

[9] Information Malam Yaro, Agadez, August 1985.

[10] 'Al Baqary est considéré comme un roi philosophe (Waliyi-n-sarki) qui refuse de puiser sa nourriture dans les finances de la ville et qui vit très modestement. Il est l'un des rares sultans à être enterré dans le cimetière du palais.' A. Adamou, Agadez et sa région, thèse de 3e cycle en géographie (1976), 81.

[11] The famine was first called Yunwa Tagama (the 'Famine of Tagama') due to the important quantities of food the Sultan procured from his own personal resources to distribute to the people.

[12] F. Nicolas, Tamesna: Les Loullemenden de l'Est ou Tuareg Kel Dinnik (Paris, 1950), 89-104; E. Séré de Rivières, Histoire du Niger (Paris, 1965), 225-228. On the attitude of the leaders of the Kel Ahaggar Moussa ag Amastane during the revolt, see Archives nationales de France, Vincennes, A.O.F., Niger, V. Rapport du Capitaine Depommier, commandant le groupe mobile du Hoggar sur la conduite de Moussa ag Amastane pendant la période de décembre 1916 à août 1917; Norris, The Tuareg, 168-71; H. Lhote, Les Touareg du Hoggar (Paris, 1955), 345-377.

[13] Archives nationales du Sénégal, 2G17-12. Rapport politique, 2e trimestre 1917; Archives nationales du Niger, Cercle de Zinder. Rapport politique du cercle de Zinder, 4e trimestre 1917; Archives nationales du Niger, cercle de Gouré, 4e trimestre 1917.

[14] Archives nationale du Sénégal, 2G17-12. Rapport politique, 2e trimestre 1917; Archives nationales du Niger, Cercle de Zinder. Rapport politique du cercle de Zinder, 4e trimestre 1917; Archives nationales du Niger, Cercle de Gouré, 4e trimestre 1917.

[15] AOF: Afrique occidentale française (French West Africa).

[16] Colonial Office Records: 583/58/43044. Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins, 'Report on the Situation on the Northern Frontier', 25 juillet 1917.

[17] Abadie, Afrique centrale, 327.

[18] Séré de Rivières, Histoire du Niger, 225.

[19] Norris, The Tuareg, 162-73.

[20] D. Casajus, 'Islam et noblesse chez les Touaregs', L'Homme, XXX, 3 (1990), 7-30. [download - 26 Mb]

[21] O. Meynier, 'La guerre sainte des Senousya dans l'Afrique française (1915-1918)', Revue africaine, LXXXIII, 2 (1939), 227-75. His date of birth is different in other sources: 1787 in J. S. Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (Oxford, 1974), 159, and 1781 in A. Gouilly, L'Islam dans l'A.O.F. (Paris, 1952), 165.

[22] Abadie, Afrique centrale, 327-328.

[23] Séré de Rivières, Histoire du Niger, 224-25.

[24] Archives nationales du Sénégal, Dakar, 2G16-12. Niger à A.O.F. Rapport d'ensemble annuel, 44.

[25] Claudot-Hawad, 'Exil et résistance'. 32-33.