A reader has commented on the post Elsewhere in the Sahara..., about the Algerian role in the Saharan/Sahel states, and specifically about its role in stopping the Touareg rebellion in Mali. As my answer grew long, I thought I'd just make it a main post, because the issue that she or he brings up is important. Why does the people of Western Sahara have the right to a self-determination referendum, if not all African peoples do?
I was at the point to write about the Touareg when you published this interesting post. I was amazed to know that Algeria don't want to hear any discussion about any form of independence or autonomy for the Touareg people. I was surprised because Algeria is the strongest supporter of Polisario worldwide and the Western Sahara issue is in the top priorities of The Algerian foreign policy. But try to discuss anything close to self-determination with the Algerian government and you will see how it will react. Algeria justfies its hosting and support to the Polisario Front by the fact that it is convinced of the Sahrawi people right for self-determination. So how it comes it opposes the slightest discussion about any kind of self determination for the Touareg people ? Any available explanation ?Yes, there is an explanation.
The obvious reason is that would be bad for Algeria, with its oil down south and all. That might not convince you, or me, but it does count in Algeria. The government does, however, have a more appealing case than that, and a very strong one at that. But before I go into it, I noticed that you mention autonomy. This is another question. If Algeria so pleases, it can grant any form of autonomy to Touareg areas. That's an internal issue between government and people (or perhaps rephrased for an Algerian context, between this general and that).
Today in Algeria, the government doesn't allow for Touareg autonomy. In fact, it grants no autonomous status at all, to any part of its territory or people: like most in Africa, it's a centralized state. But then again, in the case of the Touareg, there is simply no demand for autonomy either, unlike what was the case in Mali. The Touareg have their grievances towards the central state like all Algerians (their tribal hierarchy was rather brutally disbanded by Boumédiène in the 70s, for example), but they haven't found an expression in separatism or nationalism, at least not to the point where this is actively advocated by any strong representatives of the Touareg. But there is a better example we can use. In Kabylie, the most restive Berber region in the country, there are some movements who do advocate autonomy. The most well-known is the MAK party, which, like their "regionalist" aspirations, arose after the "Black Spring" of 2001. If maltreatment and neglect of the Kabylie continues, that is certain to make the concept of self-rule more appealing, but for now, it seems (to me) that it is still pretty marginal. I'm not sure it's a bad idea though, and I think it's more bureaucratic and decideur resistance, as well as a fear on the part of Berbers to be branded separatists, than any expectation of ethnic domino effects that holds back discussion of it. You can compare all this to how Morocco is perfectly free to extend autonomy to any part of its territory, if it so pleases: the problem with the CORCAS plan is that Western Sahara isn't, at least not yet, a Moroccan territory.
Back to the question. Fortunately for the Algerian government, the Touareg and the Sahrawi situations are vastly different, not only in that there is no Touareg advocacy of independence in Algeria, but also in terms of international law and African decolonization practice.
The Western Sahara builds the whole case for its self-determination on inherited colonial borders. Between 1884 and 1975, whatever the prehistory, it was a separate territory with its own colonial master (Spain). And every single such colonial territory in Africa, except Western Sahara, has been granted independence: the last ones were Namibia in 1990 and Eritrea in 1993. (A belated Asian case, very similar to W. Sahara, was East Timor, which became independent only in 2002 after lengthy occupation by neigbouring Indonesia.)
To make matters even clearer, the UN has ruled that all colonial territories have the right to self-determination, in General Assembly resolution 1514, of 1960, which has since then become an established part of international law. Many of today's third-world countries in fact base their legal claim to existence on that resolution. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) looked into the Spanish Sahara case in 1975, on Moroccan demand, and came out unambigously in favor of applying 1514 on Western Sahara:
... the Court's conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory.
That settles it for Western Sahara: its people has a legal right to self-determination. This has been confirmed again and again by the UN Security Council, ever since, and even Morocco formally subscribes to this (even if it also holds that Western Sahara has already exercised its self-determination: back in 1975, by joyfully welcoming their Moroccan liberators).
Note however what the court said: it is not "Sahrawis" in general who have this right, it is "the peoples of the territory", thus restricting the claim to those Sahrawis who were deemed native to the territory. Sahrawi people and tribes whose main residence has traditionally been located safely within in, say, Mauritania, Mali or, most importantly today, Morocco, are thus not entitled to take part in this self-determination process, which is the self-determination of the territory, not of the (widely scattered) ethnic group. This is extremely imporant, because Morocco has settled tens of thousands of supposedly loyal (are they?) Sahrawis in the territory, in order to stack the voter rolls against independence. Most of them are uncontestably from within Moroccan territory in Western Sahara, where their tribes have lived for generations with little or no contact with today's Western Sahara except, occasionally, as traders. The Moroccan argument is that the vote should be widened to all Sahrawis (or Moors, i.e. Hassaniya-speaking nomads), regardless of origins or citizenships in other states, in order to take their nomadic habits in consideration. But the kingdom also signally fails to include the two million or so Mauritanians who would qualify under those rules, and who would by sheer numbers easily determine the vote. Why? Because they wouldn't necessarily vote in favor of Morocco.
Now, to the other people in question. What about the Touareg in Algeria?
Different case altogether. They were always under the same French colonial sovereignty as other Algerians, and the southern Algerian borders have never been in dispute. There has never been a separate Touareg country, colony or mandate that they could claim territorial self-determination for. So they would have to base any claims to self-rule solely on wanting independence and being ethnically distinct from their surroundings.
However, the African Union, previously OAU, has decided (like in §4b) that no-one is allowed to alter the colonial borders in Africa: uti possidetis, who has keeps. This has with time become the union's perhaps most sacred principle, and one of few to actually be respected by most of its members, since everybody agrees that if it could be safely ignored, that would open the gates of hell. It doesn't matter how badly drawn the borders are, because they're equally illogical all over, and almost every country in Africa is packed with secession-prone minorities, to the point that many doesn't have an ethnic majority at all. If one single border is unilaterally changed, or one single province is allowed to force independence, that would set a disastrous precedent for the entire continent. Or so the argument goes: it has been cynically exploited by many African leaders, but it is also, one must admit, true. Indeed, the only interstate wars in Africa about territorial sovereignty (as opposed to exact demarcation of fuzzily drawn borders) have been the Somali-Ethiopian Ogaden war in 1977-78, and the Moroccan attempts to annex parts of just-liberated Algeria, which led to the Sand war in 1963. Morocco is also the only African country not to be member of the union, precisely because the kingdom refuses to accept uti possidetis, and because the principle (and generous amounts of Algerian lobbying) has led to the Sahrawi republic's admission as a member state, in 1984.
What all this means is, more or less, that Touareg nationalists are chanceless. They fulfill none of the criteria that awarded colonial peoples self-determination rights -- to begin with, they aren't a "colonial people" at all, but one of many African peoples and tribes whose traditional lands have been cut up by European colonialists, and who will now have to find some way to deal with living under many different regimes. The Sahrawis, divided between Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Mali and other places, are in the same situation: it is the Western Saharan Sahrawis that has a special right of self-determination, through being the (only) original population of a non-decolonized territory. They are, legally, in the same position as Algerians or Moroccans were before their independence: they have a right to determine their future, and the UN still places Western Sahara on its list of self-governing countries. (Alone among major territories, with a smattering of tiny Pacific islands.)
But the Touareg do not have that right, and their ex-colonial territory is on no UN list -- since they they have no ex-colonial territory, and since they are a consequently a minority within a recognized independent state (or five). Their case is exactly like that of the Rif Berbers in Morocco, the Kabyles in Algeria, or the Wolof people in southern Mauritania. No-one would ever accept their secession, because that could spell the end of border legitimacy in the region. They'll have to set their sights on either some form of autonomous status inside their state, if they believe that will serve them (I'm not too sure), or, to demand what they very much are entitled to: equal consideration as full citizens of their state, democracy and respect for the human rights of all Algerians, Malians, Libyans and others in the countries where the Touareg live today.