War in Mali

How France defends its dominant position in West Africa

Statement on the French military intervention by Afrique-Europe-Interact – published at the 7th of February (long version)

In the course of the last year, Afrique-europe-interact has let its voice be heard continually on the multiple crisis in Mali, also – among other topics – about the „White March“ from Mopti to Douentaza, initiated by the Malian section of Afrique-europe-interact.1 In this respect we now want to make a statement on the political, economical and military backgrounds of the French military intervention in Mali, which has begun on Januray 11th, 2013.2 The fact, that we have communicated with the Malian activists of our transnational network on an almost daily basis during the last months, plays a central role in this statment. This communication has given us the opportunity to always see the conflicts through the eyes of the Malian civil population as well and to therefore avoid forced reduced perspectives, falsities, projections, and eurocentristic views, or to at least minimize them.

Point of departure: A first ray of hope in spite of the war
Because of the military intervention the Islamist occupying forces were driven out from large parts of the North within a few weeks, not least from of the three central cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. Basically this fact is a positive message in every respect, which is why we want to share the gladness of many people in the north of Mali, especially because there doesn't seem to be a need to question the authenticity of this message. But still Afrique-europe-interact is far from approving of the French military intervention. Firstly, because the risk of an escalation, coming along with military interventions, the danger of a guerilla-war by the Islamists, which would seriously harm the civil population, has by no means been banned yet. Secondly, because war has often dramatical consequences: traumatic experiences, the destruction of the local economies, or rapes – these are all aspects which have already been mentioned by the declaration “Women in Mali, say NO to the proxy war!”, initiated by the globalisation critic and former cultural minister of Mali Aminata D. Traoré in November 2012. Thirdly, it must be pointed out that France has not acted for humanitarian reasons, but the crucial factor for the intervention were political, economical, and military interests. Thus it was by no means a coincident that France, together with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and parts of the Malian elite, that had been weekened by the short-period coup d'état in March 2012, haven't done a thing in favour of a “Malian solution” since the start of the crisis, no matter if this solution had been carried out with civilian means of dialogue or with a limited deployment of the Malian army, within the framework of self-defence. On the contrary: with the means of several embargo measures (in reaction to the so-called coup d'état in March 2012) and further interventions from the outside, a situation of an apparent lack of alternatives was purposefully created. The end result was an absurd choice between a supposed attack on Bamako by the Islamists and a military intervention under French command. We definitely reject these pseudo-alternatives, especially as the already mentioned political, economical, and military interests of not only France but also other West African governments are all too obvious.

Political, economical, and military interests
As far as the interests of the involved stakeholders (particularly France) are concerned, four aspects are being pointed out within the European debate: Firstly, the fear of a so-called “Sahelistan”, a refuge for Islamist jihadists. A lot of writings about this explicitly mention that Islamist groups have been aimfully built up by intelligence services of the West over and over again in the course of the last 30 years, and that is not to mention that neo-colonial relationships of dominance and exploitation have prepared the ground for the Islamists in the first place – either through successful agitation within the population or through non-existent governmental (safety-)structures, as it is the case in Mali. Secondly, the concrete economical interests are being stressed, e.g. the often mentioned uranium or other mineral resources, but also other fields of business, in which French companies are involved. Both of these aspects are linked to basic considerations, for example by the Research association for flight and migration (Forschungsstelle Flucht und Migration). On January 14th they wrote into their blog, that “the war in the Sahara Desert is supposed to establish spaces of violence and opportunity which are the pre-condition for the capitalist penetration of these areas. Safety for the uranium mining, solar power stations and the oil exploitation in the Sahara Desert are only possible through containment.” Fourthly the military interests, closely interlocked with that issue, are regularly mentioned, matching the fact, that France is apparently trying to establish a permanent military presence in the north of Mali.

All of these considerations are important, but it must also be noticed that the topic is discussed almost exclusively from a geostrategical (metropolis) perspective, while the political conflicts within Mali or West Africa are not mentioned. To be more exact: in March 2012 there was an improvised coup d'état of lower-ranking soldiers in Mali. During its course the longtime president Amadou Toumani Traoré (ATT) was ousted together with larger parts of his profoundly corrupt governmental team. The coup d'état and the democratic movement that it had activated gained huge approval among the population for at least three reasons: Firstly, because the Malian army was in such shambles due to long-lasting corruption, that their common soldiers were sent into their certain death in the fights against the Tuareg rebels, who had come back from Libya. Secondly, because Mali is by no means the model democracy which it is claimed to be especially by the “West” in spite of a guaranteed freedom of assembley and opinion. This can be proved not only by hopelessly out-dated electoral registers and election turn-outs at only 15 percent, but also by the fact, that the language of the parliament is French, which is understood by just under one third of the population. Thirdly, because in this respect blatant forms of corruption, cronyism und misgovernment have been going on for a long time – with catastrophical consequences particularly for the completely impoverished population.3 In short: The coup d'état did by no means lead into a military dictatorship, as it could even occasionally be read in left-wing statements. In fact the dynamics of plentiful grass-roots participation, released by the coup d'état, should rather be seen as part of the context of mass protests and uprisings, which have led to more or less hopeful processes of change not only in southern Europe or the Arab world but also in numerous countries south of the Sahara Desert since the end of 2010. This conclusion is not questioned by the circumstance, that the rebels of the coup d'état decided to remove the former interim president Cheik Modibo Diarra from office, a step that was explicitly appreciated by nearly all political groups in Mali, as soon as it was reveiled that he had lined his own pockets massively and furthermore had tried to get parts of the army under his personal control.

But the concrete shift in the balance of powers in Mali was not only a thorn in the side of the political elite but also for external stakeholders: On the one hand it was not approved by numerous West African governments, who feared imitation effects, on the other hand by France, that quite reasonably worried its politically and economically dominant position could get severely weakened in Mali and throughout the whole region. Accordingly, the elite, the West African governments, and France therefore massively torpedoed the democratic movement in Mali from the beginning. It was usually argued, that the coup d'état had removed a government, that had been elected democratically. The fundamental shortcomings of this facade democracy weren't mentioned at all, nor the fact that usually there doesn't seem to be a problem cooperating with dictators of all sorts. Thus after the coup d'état several measures were applied: Firstly, a two-week total embargo was imposed upon Mali (with the immediate effect of causing shortages of supply for the normal population); secondly, the development cooperation has extensively been stopped by the industrial countries until today; thirdly, Mali was suspended from the African Union for a few months; fourthly, legally bought weapons for the Malian army were held up in West African harbours and were only deblocked again, after the Malian interim government had officially agreed to a foreign military intervention; fifthly, the ex-president of parliament Diacounda Traoré, who also belonged to the old guard, was made interim pesident with the help of ECOWAS (under threat of new embargo measures); sixthly, the Tuareg-rebels of the MNLA, who at that point had already formed an alliance with the Islamists, were supported, at least politically, by France and Burkina Faso; and seventhly, hardly any serious attempts were made to strenghthen the political stakeholders in Mali in finding a genuine Malian solution to the problems.

Meanwhile the consequences of this policy were dramatic: The mentioned measures additionally weakened the Malian army, which probably would have been chanceless anyway, so that it was easy for the Tuareg-rebels and Islamists to finally conquer the north of Mali. This fact should be made clear, because especially the media of the West keeps claiming that the rebels of the coup d'état were substantially responsible for the military defeat. This is done without looking at the mentioned aspects in any way, nor the fact that three or four of the combat units of the Malian army, that were positioned in the northern part of the country, had defected to the Tuareg-rebels immediatly at the beginning of the combats in January 2012. (This is a long-term consequence of the fact that in previous peace negotiations it had been agreed upon, that the Malian army in the North shall mainly consist of Tuareg.) But the numerous destructive activities, especially from the outside, have also massively put political and economical pressure on the democratic movement.

This explains why in the French daily newspaper Le Monde a peculiar headline could be found on January 11th, one day after the beginning of the military intervention, a headline claiming that the intervention would protect the Malian government from the attac of the rebels of the coup d'état („Le pouvoir malien sauvé des putschistes par le militaire français”). Here it shows, that the intervention has the aim to take sides in the conflict within Mali to prevent a grass-roots democratic empowerment in the whole of West Africa, which would again have adverse effects on France. Within the last weeks, this request has become clearest if looking at the example of the “concertations nationales”, which are a kind of plenary meeting of all the groups of the Malian society. From this congress the initiative for fair elections is expected, elections which would bear in mind the interests of the poor majority of the people. The holding of these concertations nationales has been demanded regularly by large parts of the Malian civil society since the coup d'état, but the interim president and his government have sabotaged the calling of this plenary meeting over and over again. Instead, a transition road map – the so-called “Feuille de Route” – was introduced on short notice and hectically passed by the parliament on January 29th. This happened although this transition road map should have been passed by the concertations nationales, which at that time had definitely been pushed into the background (although the road map had been shaped with the help of all parliamentary and civil society forces in consensus-oriented committee work during the previous months.) The considerations concerning this subject are obvious: At the moment there is an atmosphere of war, the question of elections plays only a minor role compared to the incidents in the North. So it fits into the picture perfectly that the political tool of the concertations nationales is rapidly disposed of, as through the eyes of the elite it is potentially dangerous (since grass-roots democratic) – especially because the EU, among others, made clear, that a stepwise release of the frozen payments would only be started under the condition of a quick decision on this subject. In this respect it is hardly a surprise, that a downright agitation against all protagonists of the concertations nationales has already been going on within the Malian mainstream media for weeks (including equation with the Islamists from the North). And large parts of the leadership of the Malian army were sidelined de facto during the intervention, while instead all the processes of coordination of planning were made between the Malian interim president, the French ambassador in Mali and the French General Staff. And because the international financial institutions are never to be missed in situations like these, it must be noticed, that the IMF has also agreed to grant new loans for the stabilization of the Malian economy, using similar blackmail manoeuvres as the EU.

The conflict between the Tuareg and the Malian central government
Although the conflict between the Tuareg in the north and the Malian central government, which has escalated regularly since the independence of Mali in the year 1960, has found intensive attention in Europe between March and May 2012, it was widely replaced by the focus on the Islamistic Sharia-regime. It should get back into the focus though, because, among other incidents, there have been assaults against Tuareg or the population of Arabic origin, that have been discussed a lot. Because without the uprising oft the Tuareg mercenary soldiers, who had come back from Libya, the Islamists, who had been firmly anchored in the North since about 2003, would have never been able to advance southwards. Additionally, one of the three Islamic fundamentalist groups, which are now on the defensive – Ansar Dine – has primarily got members who are Malian Tuareg. Thus it hardly came as a surprise that a lot of (also left-wing) comments in Europe are comparatively badly informed or they take sides for the Tuareg and propagate their legitimate right for autonomy – not seldom with romanticizing undertones, in which the Tuareg are described as “proud” or sometimes “fearless” people, who have persistently defended their nomadic freedom since colonial times.
However: romanticisms like these, originally spread by Western exploreres and ethnologists are not useful, moreover they don't show the highly complex history of conflicts between the Tuareg and the Malian central government, as a matter of fact they don't do so from the perspective of many Tuareg either. At least five aspects have to be considered: Firstly, the Tuareg make up just 32 percent of the population living in the North, a fact that shows that it is a swindle to talk about self-determination or autonomy – especially because in the case of Mali historical borders basically coincide with colonial borders and a multi-ethnic and multilingual community life has been deeply culturally rooted within this region ever since the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Secondly, the MNLA does by no means have the broad approval among the Tuareg population in the North, rather it primarily represents the interests of a few Tuareg-clans around Kidal. Thirdly, it is peculiar to talk about discrimination in a country like Mali, occasionally even using false data on the number of hospitals, schools etc. In fact the broad population in the whole of the country is extremely impoverished, primarily due to neo-colonial conditions, but also due to massive corruption by the political elites. In the North, since the 1990s, this elite consists just of basically the same Tuareg leaders, who were responsible for the newest uprising. Fourthly, the Tuareg have by no means been the only nomadic pastoralists having been effected by restrictions for the benefit of the sedentary small scale farmers after the independence. In this context the Fulbe have been mentioned as well, a group similar in number, also known as Fula or Peul. And fifthly, especially the two major droughts from 1968 to 1973 and from 1983 to 1985 (and not the discrimination) have destroyed 80 percent of the herds and so have caused a forced migration by many Tuareg into Algeria, Libya, and Cote d'Ivoire.

In other words: in Europe one should be aware not to reproduce the fatal imputations (which have especially been produced by the hawks from both sides) but to consider the complete history of the conflict. In the beginning of this conflict, there are two basic facts: On the one hand there was the nation state fragmentation of the Tuaregs' centuries-old areas of settlement and caravan routes (on the territory of the former French colonial empire) – including numerous measures which massively hindered nomadic lifestock farming. On the other hand there is the fact, that it was still absolutely common for the upper Tuareg castes to have black slaves up until the year 1960 (with socio-structure consequences until today). From this profoundly conflict-ridden point of departure emerged a long-running conflict for decades since 1963, not only in Mali, but also in many neighbouring countries, especially for the civil population this has been extremely cruel over and over again. Looking at the immediate present this means, that all facets of the newest conflict dynamics have to be taken into consideration equally – to make it comprehensible the following has been put into a chronological order: Firstly, the MNLA has started a civil war in the name of many Tuareg (who had never been asked their opinion on this subject) in January 2012, and to do so has cooperated with Islamistic groups, which in the consequence has literally brought Mali on the brink of the abyss. Secondly, numerous executions, plunderings and rapes by the MNLA and the Malian army against the non-Turaeg population took place, although the exact question of guilt has not been clarified until today. Thirdly, several Tuareg and people of Arabic origin have been murdered in Sévare, Mopti, Niono and Douentza among other places since the beginning of the French intervention (allegedly because they were supposed to be Islamists, MNLA-rebels or collaborators), although it has not yet been clarified if these deeds have been committed by the Malian army, the paramilitary militias, or local mobs. Fourthly, in many towns – in Gao und Tombuktu among others – there have been plunderings and assaults against Tuareg and Malians of Arabic origin, often by accusing them of collaboration. And fifthly, thousands of people have fled since the end of January, most of them out of fear of assaults, especially from the Malian army.

Basically it should be obvious, that none of these incidents could legitimate any attacks. And this is the case particularly because the experiences of the conflict, that ultimately escalated massively in 1994, are part of the collective memory on all sides and thus there is still a danger of an ethnically charged conflict. Even if a lot of black Malians explicitly counter, like for example the mayor of Tombuktu, who said: “I am Peul, but I can't live without Arabs or Tuareg.” Insofar unilaterally taking sides is more than inappropriate in this conflict. It would be better to support all of those stakeholders (and there are many reasons to believe that they represent the majority of the people in Mali), who are trying for a dialogue and a balance of interests –
so at this point we want to come back to the already mentioned project called “The White March”, which was initiated by the Malian section of Afrique-europe-interact in November 2012. The protagonists of this project consider the beginning of a double dialogue as the key to a sustainable peace: this dialogue should start with those parts of the Tuaeg population in the North, who don't feel represented by the islamistic Ansar Dine nor by the laical MNLA. Only in this way the Islamists could finally be socially and politically marginalized and their disempowerment could be achieved gradually, while at the same time a real process of reconciliation could start between the Tuareg and the Malian society. In this respect it should explicitly be mentioned that important experiences have already been made in the recent past, following the great bonfire of weapons of Timbuktu, the “flamme de la paix” (1996). Thus the White March approaches the whole population, just because of the estimation, that a long-lasting understanding can only be achieved, if all groups literally sit at a table, which is why at the bottom line there is a kind of elective affiniy between the peace-oriented dialogue in the North and the concertationes nationales.

Other topics that should be discussed…
The current situation in Mali is extremely complex, insofar we want to at least give a short overview over all of those aspects, which have not been mentioned in this statement or which are only mentioned in its original version.

  • Firstly, the escalation in Mali must be seen as a direct late effect of the events in Libya (including the Nato-intervention), especially the fatal release of those armouries, which Gaddafi was able to accumulate, among other reasons because of the fatal wheeling and dealing of European companies.
  • Secondly, France was retroactively given the green light from the Security Council, but the intervention was not covered by the original UN decision.
  • Thirdly, the Emirat Katar as well as Saudi-Arabia function as important financial backers for Islamists in the north of Mali, while at the same time they closely cooperate with the West respectively the NATO for important geostrategical matters, plus they are indispensable financial investors – Katar, for example, is an investor in France.
  • Fourthly, the events in Mali have shown, how a number of just 3000 rebels can engulf a country with 15 million people in the abyss, if that country doesn't have a functioning army. Insofar even from an anti-militaristic perspective the question must be asked, how the right to military self-defence, which is demanded for by all the political stakeholders in Mali could be discussed politically.
  • Fifthly, large parts of the Malian population have appreciated the intervention for definitely comprehensible reasons – a fact that cannot be ignored but has to be taken into serious consideration within the political work in Europe, even despite all the criticism of the French military intervention.

Author: Afrique-europe-interact is a small, transnationally organized network, that has been founded in the end of 2009. Grass-roots activists from Mali, Togo, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, among other countries, are involved in the network, among them numerous self-organized refugees, migrants, and deportees. More information can be found at www.afrique-europe-interact.net.