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Ok, I’ll admit it. “We” are not invading Mali. I’m not. I should hope anybody who reads this blog isn’t. Our countries, as Canadians, Americans, British and French citizens, are. At least in a support role. So while I have no particular love or allegiance for our government nor it’s imperial misadventures, I can’t exactly pretend I’m not involved. As the people of aggressive “peacekeepers” such as Canada, it’s our job to make these distinctions.
Every time I see, hear or read about this new war in Mali I find myself getting incredibly depressed and discouraged. For all the nightmarish horrors of neocolonialism, I would have liked to believe that another outright military conquest of Africa by Europe was out out of the question. As western forces now do battle with Muslims in the eighth country in four years and our leaders start once-again using bush-style, war-without-end rhetoric, it’s starting to look like “the dark continent” is once again in the crosshairs.
Understanding the conflict in Mali requires a little more context than it’s been given in most of our papers. Mali is a former French colony win West Africa, named after the Empire of Mali which held power in the region staring around a thousand years ago. After gaining independence in 1960, it was run as a one-party state (first socialist, then military) until 1991, when a mass-movement forced the dictator to hand power over to a multi-party democracy. It’s enjoyed decades of good relations with the West, since the days of the military dictatorship (and it’s IMF collusion), and until recently was seen as fairly stable by regional standards.
Serious trouble started about a year ago when a rebellion broke in the north, largely among the Tuareg, the area’s traditionally nomadic indigenous peoples. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), a secular army demanding national autonomy, took over a number of towns and cities including Timbuktu and declared autonomy for the Azawad (“northern Mali”). This rebellion was joined by Islamic insurgents Ansar Dine, but fighting soon broke out between them and the MNLA was routed (they’ve since offered to join the French campaign). Both sides got a tremendous boost as fighters returned from Libya, bringing fresh NATO weapons and battlefield experience with them, as well as a growing sense of solidarity with other rebellions in the region.
While the army battled for control of the north, another threat appeared in the South. Frustrated by the administration’s lack of progress against insurgents, a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré and suspended the constitution last March. This seriously inflamed the situation, leading to an international condemnation from both inside Africa and out, as well as a total loss of control over the north. In response, a “transitional” President, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in and a civillian Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, appointed. This didn’t change much – at one point “pro-Sanogo youth” forced their way into the president’s office and beat him so badly he needed a medical evacuation to France. Months later, in December, Diarra was forced from power by a group of soldiers acting on Sonogo’s orders, replacing him with the country’s latest leader, Django Sissoko.
This is the quagmire that French troops are walking into.
That France is taking the lead with this intervention is telling. The UN Security Council did pass a resolution late in December (you can read it here), but it doesn’t even mention France. Instead it authorizes an African-led force, under the supervision of the security council, to assist local authorities in restoring order, but also calls for the restoration of democracy and negotiations with rebels (days ago Ansar Dine reportedly split, with a faction seeking to negotiate). The French justification centres around requests from the Malian “government” for assistance, but it isn’t hard to see why some might doubt the “legitimacy” of their authority. Given the multiple threats and condemnations in this resolution directed toward Sonogo, I certainly do.
Law of Unintended Consequences
The colonial tone of this intervention is of not going unnoticed. Given the horrific legacy of slavery, imperialism and neo-colonialism, this was bound to inflame tensions across the region, and it has. The first response was an attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria which killed dozens, now reports are coming in of a 23 more killed in attacks around north-eastern Nigeria. As we’ve already seen far too many times with the War on Terrorism, the indignation caused by western intervention is more than capable of replacing every insurgent it kills.
Algeria harbours a frightening history of its own (extremely bloody) fight for independence from France, and more recent Islamic insurgencies. These later conflicts literally exploded in the 1990s after the government cancelled elections Islamists were expected to win and are said to have received substantial help from former Mujahideen fighters who’d fought (with CIA help) in the Afghan/Soviet war. Nigeria, a former British colony which has spent most of the time since its independence under various military juntas, has seen increasing unrest over the past two decades, largely in opposition to oil extraction which has taken a horrendous toll on the area’s environment. Initially taking the form of mass, nonviolent actions, Nigeria caught the world’s attention when Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders hung on false charges with suspicious connections to Shell Oil. In the years that followed, disillusionment lead to armed resistance through the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND), often attacking at foreign oil companies and kidnapping workers. In recent years, they’ve been joined in the conflict by Islamists Boko Haram, who are believed to be behind the recent attacks.
Since every one of these conflicts involves Islamic militants of one form or another, I should be clear about what I mean (and what I don’t). Unlike our leaders or the press, I do not mean to equate any or all Muslims who bear arms or resist governments. Not only would that be appallingly racist, but it would also be totally inaccurate. There are well over a billion Muslims on earth, so it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be involved in a few rebellions. There are certainly groups with abysmal theocratic aims who employ horrific tactics, but so does every other race and religion, and that’s the context they need to be seen in – they’re just like any other fascists. It needs to be noted that 90% of Mali’s population are followers of Islam, and most want nothing to do with Ansar Dine.
Islamophobia isn’t just a crass and obnoxious prejudice, it’s an important part of the ideology of modern warmongering. With Mali, we can see how the (perceived) threat of an Islamic insurrection (or worse, a state!) seemingly justifies any break with international law or UN resolutions. We saw it in Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Palestine and so many others. “Islamic terrorism” is considered so dangerous it must be faced by subverting elections, arming rival insurgents/paramilitaries/tyrants, “pre-emptive” invasions, torture and a global campaign of drone bombings. The mythology behind this, like most racist fantasies, suggests a vast conspiracy interconnecting Muslims around the globe, tying together every nasty thing done by any Muslim anywhere. With this twisted logic, a “foothold” anywhere could lead to a new barrage of attacks everywhere. It’s essentially a 21st century version of the “Domino Theory“, and it’s just as fanciful as the last.
The problem with such racist reasoning isn’t just that it totally ignores the context of any violence that happens, replacing it with cartoonish stereotypes. If this were simply a matter of never, ever believing that any follower of Islam could have a legitimate reason to take up arms, it would at least be consistent. Unfortunately, geopolitics isn’t so simple and there are some situations in which even the Pentagon feels they do. The Afghan-Soviet War is the obvious example, but there are others – the Kosovo Liberation Army, for instance, had Al Qaeda links. So did many of “our rebel allies” in Libya and Syria. Mali’s crisis, as mentioned above, traces right back to Libya, where both Tuareg and Islamist fighters acquired much of their weapons and battlefield experience.
The two-faced strategy practiced by western leaders against “terrorism” has failed twice. First, because of the willingness to embrace “Islamic fundamentalism” when it suits them, which played a large role in creating the modern Jihadi movement. Second, by then over-reacting to the threat and lashing out at entire nations, they galvanized the support base by proving what nasty imperialists they could be. Putting Al Qaeda in the crosshairs for this global war legitimized them in ways they could never have accomplished otherwise, and 12 years later “terrorism” is bigger than ever.
No article about the invasion of Mali would be complete without a picture of its resources, which betrays a slightly different agenda underlying this invasion. Gold-mining has been at the centre of Mali’s economy since the days of the old Empire. Currently it’s the third-largest producer of gold on the continent. The largely undeveloped north is thought to contain large reserves of metals like uranium (this region supplies much of France’s electricity) and possibly oil (Nigeria and Algeria both have considerable oil/gas reserves). Mining interests also explain some of why Canada is so eager to get involved, as there are more than fifteen Canadian mining firms currently active in Mali.
Gold might not have been the most important resource a few years ago, but thanks to a near-chronic fear of another financial collapse, many individuals and investors have started buying gold in the hopes it will hold it’s value. This has led gold prices to skyrocket, attracting speculators and fueling the rise. In recent weeks this trend has started to reverse, leaving many to wonder about it’s sustainability, but still fixate on it’s importance. With Africa (and often the poorest regions) supplying much of the world’s mineral and metal demands, this makes western-friendly governments (democratic or otherwise) a must.
They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Another “intervention” makes me wonder if we’ve learned anything from either the last decade or century. This invasion, like any other, will have long-reaching consequences which will go well beyond Mali’s borders. Even if the French-led forces capture northern Mali, they will never manage to contain all insurgents in the region. The legacies of poverty, repression and ecological destruction caused by debt, land grabs and foreign mining/drilling exploits have consequences of their own, providing a desperate and indignant recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and others. The rise of Islamic militants, like so many other problems the region faces, is deeply rooted in colonialism, and that’s not a problem more colonialism is going to fix.
There are no angels here, no devils, just people, and while I might sympathize with some groups (MEND) more than others (AQIM), I have to admit that it’s not actually any of my bloody British-descended business. Control over African political affairs needs to belong, once-again, to Africans, whatever I might think of their choices. Without understanding that principle, any attempt to “bring” democracy to the region is doomed from the outset. Until richer nations stop seeing invasions, military aid and “friendly” dictators as acceptable ways to influence affairs in poorer regions, this kind of chaos is going to continue. It’s high time to renounce the role of emperors and accept the status of allies, at least if we care at all for any of the people actually living through this nightmare.