I am no expert on the history, social geography, or politics of Mali. However the tragedies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya reveal starkly that those making the decisions about military action in the Western corridors of power are not informed by expert opinion either.
What is obvious even from a cursory glance at the situation is that Mali is pregnant with potential disaster, and many of the ingredients of an intractable Afghan style conflict may be present. Despite the beguiling conceit that problems can be solved by military intervention, a more cautious reading of recent experience would suggest otherwise.
The war in Mali sees a rich interplay of factors of race, religion, nationalism, competing state interests, and the distorting influence of French colonialism.
A long term armed rebellion by Touareg fighters in the north of the Malian state reached a tipping point as the whole region was destabilised by NATO’s ill-considered intervention in Libya. As Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France writes:
Since some months ago, the Malian army was facing, without equal military power, an armed rebellion that has captured a number of towns in the north of Mali under the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), essentially made of Touareg fighters. This movement has acquired weapons freely smuggled from Libya, at the borders of the two countries; this is a tangible consequence of the NATO intervention favoured and claimed by France.This intervention has opened the Pandora’s box of the Libyan arsenals in an extremely poor region, that has a strong potential, but which remains abandoned. No economic development, no service delivery to local populations was assured.
What began ostensibly in January 2012 as just another rebellion by the Sahara desert’s Touareg tribesmen had evolved within 3-4 months into what media commentators were calling “Africa’s Afghanistan”.
The Touareg are Berbers, not Arabs, and are the indigenous population of much of the Central Sahara and Sahel. Their population is estimated at 2-3 millions. Their largest numbers, some 800,000, live in Mali, followed by Niger, with smaller concentrations in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. In addition, a diaspora extends to Europe, North America, other parts of North and West Africa, the Sahel and beyond.
Since Independence in 1960, the Touareg of Mali and Niger have rebelled against their central governments on several occasions. In 1962-4, a rebellion by Mali’s Touareg was crushed ruthlessly. Major rebellions in both countries in the 1990s were forcibly repressed, with government forces specifically targeting civilians. Since then, Niger experienced a small rebellion in 2004 and a much greater one from 2007 to 2009. In Mali, a brief rebellion in May 2006 was followed by a two-year uprising from 2007 until 2009 when it dissipated into an inconclusive and transient peace. While the Niger and Mali governments have both been guilty of provoking Touareg into taking up arms, all Touareg rebellions have been driven by a sense of political marginalisation.
However, the rebellion that began in Mali in January 2012 was different. The Touareg had more and better equipped fighters than in previous rebellions. This was because many had returned from Libya after Gaddafi’s overthrow, bringing with them extensive supplies of modern and even heavy armaments. For the first time in the long history of Touareg rebellions, there was a real likelihood that the Touareg might drive Malian government forces out of northern Mali, or Azawad, as it is known to Touareg.
A while ago I wrote about the process of nation-state building in post-colonial Africa. Where the post-colonial elites inherited polities that were inherited from the administrative borders of the old Empire; and those elites then had conscious agency in nation building.
France maintains more than a casual interest in its former colonies. Its continued power over its former African colonies is exercised not only by the presence of French troops, but by control of their currency
France, … granted independence to its former African colonies on condition that French troops remained stationed on their territories and they maintain the colonial CFA franc as their common currency. The CFA franc is convertible and its convertibility is guaranteed by the French Treasury which holds a right of veto over the management of the two central banks which issue the currency: BCEAO of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and BEAC of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), which would issue the currency.
A capital control limits the free transfer of the currency to France. The credit that these central banks could extend to each member country was capped at 20 per cent of any country’s public revenue in the preceding year. These countries also signed up to an obligation to keep 65 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves in a ‘compte d’operations’ held at the French Treasury, as well as another 20 per cent to cover financial liabilities. According to figures published by Banque de France, foreign exchange reserves were estimated in 2008 at US$15.8 billion for CEMAC and US$9.3 billion for WAEMU.
Except from the French mandarins from Banque de France and the Treasury, nobody, not least African officials, has access to these figures, and no independent audit has ever been carried out.At a fixed-rate of 665.957 to each Euro, the exchange rate of the CFA franc is grossly overvalued. This is tantamount to an economic suicide when one considers that countries around the world battle to keep their exchanges rates low in order to make their exports competitive. But this suits French businesses, which can transfer all their earnings to France at this very advantageous exchange rate.
So France achieved a cosmetic end to direct colonial rule, while maintaining economic suzerainity through controlling the fiscal policies of the former colonies via the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (EMUWA) .
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France explains how this applies to Mali:
The orientation of export-driven agricultural production, the systematic openness of the Malian economy to the world market imposed on a state that is unable to resist, but constrained to accept a liberalism that excludes free movement of the people. … France on her side, regardless of all she can say, continues her colonial paradigm of French-African opaque relations and the guilt-blurred partnership between French and African elites that allow for the looting of Malian resources. The interests of former French colonialists have been preserved and foreign interests are the most dominant ever.
Mali’s strategic national development project has not only been hampered by French interference, but also by its failure to find a political solution to the aspirations of the Touareg in the north.
Abena Ampofoa Asare describes Mali’s current plight as partially a product of failure by United States Africa Command AFRICOM.
Ironically, for over a decade, Mali has been a key AFRICOM partner. To the tune of millions, US forces have provided special operations, drug trafficking and counterterrorism training in the large West African nation. Today’s Mali of the shattered democracy and roving rebel groups is a troubling picture of an AFRICOM partner state.On 22 March, scarcely a month before presidential elections, Amadou Sanogo, a captain in the Malian army, seized control of the government by promising to quell the Touareg autonomy struggle in the country’s northern region. Within ten days of the takeover, the army was entirely routed by Touareg forces.
Since April, the Touareg in turn have been struggling to hold their ground against multiple rebel groups with varying agendas who have entered the northern region’s political vacuum. The most well-known of these is Ansar Eddine, responsible for the desecration of the world heritage site that is Timbuctou. The presence of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM), an Islamist organization tenuously connected to the Al Qaeda franchise, is also central to global anxieties about terrorism in West Africa. The secessionist Touareg state, Azawad, has called for international help by asserting its identity as ‘the new ally in the war on terror.’ Meanwhile, drought conditions coupled with political violence have led to the displacement of an estimated 440,000 people. The storm clouds of a massive humanitarian disaster are gathering.
By its own standard, AFRICOM’s mission in Mali has failed. Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup-maker who bears the greatest immediate responsibility for plunging Mali into political unrest, was extensively trained by AFRICOM, even traveling to the Georgia, Virginia and Texas for Department of Defense additional enrichment.
In addition, there has been a parade of social scientists warning that US policies are undermining Mali’s security. In 2003, one observer warned that by empowering the Bamako government to crack down on northern Islamic groups, US government initiatives were ‘creating enemies where there were none before.’ A 2007 article in the Journal of Contemporary African History claimed that US policies were actually making Mali more unstable. Again, in 2009, historian Vijay Prashad reported on the risk associated with AFRICOM’s dogged empowerment of the Malian army. Instead of encouraging former President Touré’s government to incorporate the disaffected northern region into the country by providing social and economic services to some of the world’s poorest communities, AFRICOM offered powerful economic incentives for Bamako to choose militarization as the answer to the Touareg secessionist impulse.
So instead of seeking a political solution, the USA encouraged a military response. Meanwhile, France was insisting that last year’s presidential election should take place according to an arbitrary constitutional timetable, regardless of the reality on the ground. Elections require the precondition of a shared respect for constitutionality, and commitment to the rule of law.
President Touré’s government had failed to economically and socially incorporate the north, and was losing a civil war; in such circumstances an election was foolhardy. Of course external pressure to hold an election without the required pre-existing political stability had also precipitated Côtie d’Ivoire into civil war into 2011.
Captain Amadou Sanogo’s government was founded on a lower ranks grassroots army rebellion, in which racism and/or Bamanan nationalism seems to have played a part. In April, Jessica Horn, interviewed a Malian women’s rights activist:
JESSICA HORN: Were there any early warnings that this crisis would emerge?
INTERVIEWEE: This is one of the deepest crisisthat this country has faced since colonial times. We have been through the 1968 military coup against President Modibo Keïta, we went through the popular revolutions in the early 1990s, but it has never gotten to this level of instability. The military group that led the coup is from Kati, a military garrison town outside of the capital Bamako which had been used historically as a base for troops from all over West Africa.
At the end of January 2012, a group of women who were wives of soldiers from Kati had held a march and threatened to go to the Palais de Koulouba (presidential palace) in Bamako. These women felt that they needed more information about the government’s response to what had happened to their husbands who had been sent by the government to fight the Touareg rebellion in the north of Mali.
There had been a lot of rumour that the Malian military did not have enough arms to fight the Touareg rebels. The women had also heard that there were many cases of torture and ill treatment of Malian soldiers by the Touareg rebels, and had also heard rumours that the Malian government was engaged in heavy negotiation with the rebels and not, for example, ordering troops to shoot at the rebels. They felt that their husbands had been sent to the north of Mali to die.
We have to remember that the Touareg rebels had been supported by Gaddafi in Libya, who had both integrated some of these rebels in his army and was also known to have been assisting with the rebellion in the north of Mali. After the fall of Gaddafi, these rebels returned to Mali heavily armed, and in fact some say better armed than the Malian army itself.
As part of rising anger against what was happening in the north, there had also been attacks on innocent people from northern Mali living in Bamako. The government stepped in to protect the northerners, which again made it appear to everyday people like the government was on the side of the northern rebels.
In terms of the humanitarian situation, the roots of a crisis are already there. People had started to flee the north from the start of the year, with people internally displaced as well as crossing borders in to countries such as Burkina Faso. At the start of the year we also had a drought and we could see that were going to face a food crisis. An early sign we saw was many parents in rural areas pulling their children out of school and sending them to the cities to try and earn money to buy food.
As a Malian I can also say that there is serious and deep work that we must do as civil society to affirm people in their identity as Malian, which has always been a very vibrant and extremely tolerant culture. The Muslim fundamentalists are already trying to erode this. They work at the level of culture, and have started to try and change our culture as a way of gaining power. This is longer-term work for us as civil society and it has to start now. We have to make it clear that secularism is vital, and that as Malians living in peace with our neighbours regardless of their religion or ethnicity is our way of life. It includes not judging people to do or to be what we think is right. In Bamanan (Bambara) culture and language in Mali there is a strong embrace of the concept of ‘maya’- the fact that what makes us human is our relationship and responsibility to our fellow human beings. We take this for granted as Malians, and then the fundamentalists come and start to unravel those principles very quickly
While many of her concerns about human rights are obviously valid, the rebels are not Bamanan, and do not consider themselves to be Malian, and they do not want their Malian identity affirmed. This ethnic/ religious angle requires a political response, not a military one. Writing in ReliefNet, Malian women’s groups call for military intervention, but tellingly they call the seccession of the Touareg north an “occupation”. The description of deteriorating womens’ rights in the north is certainly alarming, but unless there is some recognition of the way the impoverished north has been disadvantaged within Mali, and that the Touareg do not see themselves as Malian, then there can be no resolution to the conlict.
One telling incongruity is that the Touareg rebels had been supported by Gaddafi, and the collapse of the Libyan army is one of the factors leading to the military boost for the rebels. This sits seemingly uncomfortably with the fact that the leadership is also in the hands of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM); a force that opposed Gaddafi.
Jeremy Keenan seeks to explain incongruity by claiming the involvment of the Algeria’s secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS).
In October 2011, the Malian Tuareg who had returned from Libya joined up with fighters belonging to Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s rebel Mouvement Touareg du Nord Mali (MTNM) to form the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). Even though Bahanga had died under mysterious circumstances in August, his men were still intent on continuing their fight against the central government. They were also joined by several hundred Tuareg who had deserted from the Malian army.
The first shots in the new rebellion were fired on January 17 when the MNLA attacked the town of Ménaka. The following week, the MNLA attacked both Tessalit and Aguelhok. Tessalit was besieged for several weeks before falling to the MNLA in March. At Aguelhok, some 82 Malian troops, who had run out of ammunition, were massacred in cold blood on January 24. This ‘war crime’ has been referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Such a humiliating demise of Mali’s poorly equipped forces led to an army mutiny on March 22 and a junta of low-ranking officers taking power in Bamako. Within a week, the three provincial capitals of Azawad – Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu – all fell to the rebels without resistance, leaving the whole of Azawad in rebel hands. On April 5 the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state.
The declaration of Azawad’s independence received no international support, nor was it ever likely to do so. One reason for this was because of the alliance between the MNLA and the Islamist group called Ansar al-Din, a jihadist movement led by a local Tuareg notable, Iyad ag Ghaly. Ansar al-Din was in alliance with another jihadist group, Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – MUJAO), with both being supported by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
At the start of the rebellion in January, the MNLA claimed to number several thousand, while Ansar al-Din numbered scarcely a hundred. However, by April, and for reasons that have remained a mystery to the media, it was the Islamists rather than the MNLA who were calling the shots in Azawad. Indeed, on June 25, fighting between the Islamists and MNLA led to the latter being displaced from Gao, leaving Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu being ruled respectively by Ansar al-Din, MUJAO and AQIM.
With the MNLA marginalized, the Islamists quickly began imposing shari’a law in Azawad. In Gao, a young man died after having his hand amputated for alleged theft; in Aguelhok, a couple were stoned to death for alleged adultery; in Timbuktu, ancient Sufi tombs, UNESCO world heritage sites, were destroyed. Throughout the region, music, smoking, alcohol, TV, football, traditional forms of dress and lifestyle were all banned as Islamists dished out beatings, amputations and executions with a vengeance. By August, nearly half a million people had fled or been displaced.
In spite of concern being expressed at the apparent emergence of ‘Africa’s Afghanistan’ in the heart of the Sahara, no one has been prepared to address the key issue behind what is really going on in northern Mali. This is that the Islamist ‘terrorist’ groups that have taken over control of the region are not only the creations of Algeria’s secret police, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), but they are being supplied, supported and orchestrated by the DRS.
If Algerian state actors are involved that would certainly explain the way the Islamists so rapidly gained hegemony within the Touareg rebellion. This would make the parallel with Afghanistan even more sinister.
Northern Mali, or Azawad, exists now effectively as a rebel held polity, but is excluded from any route towards statehood. The conceit of the French government that three or four weeks military engagement by their troops can solve the problem is nonsensical. Even the complete military defeat of the Touareg and reconquest of northern Mali will only contain and not solve the underlying political problems.