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Why France intervened in Mali and why it can only be bad for the Malian people

From A World To Win News Service

Why France intervened in Mali and why it can only be bad for the Malian people

February 24, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us

 

February 13, 2013. A World to Win News Service. The French military intervention in Mali—taking the North of the country in a firestorm of imperialist arrogance and air power—has the French rulers and press gloating about easy victories and the apparent support of much of the Malian population and a majority of the French too, arguing "There's no other solution." A small demonstration of Malians in the southern capital city of Bamako disputed this charade of "liberation" with hand-printed signs reading, "Down with imperialist interests, down with ECOWAS." (Economic Community of West African States)

This crisis in Mali reveals a maelstrom of contradictions in the entire region of West and North Africa known as the Sahel-Sahara that no imperialist army or state will even begin to solve. In fact their role is certain to accelerate the contradictions that have spun into a war and a multi-national occupation of Mali spearheaded by French imperialism. It is the imperialists who are largely responsible for the impoverished, very short and crushed lives most Malians lead.

The immediate war was triggered by the descent from the North of an alliance of armed Islamic forces who had seized control of the key northern cities last spring. In early January 2013 they advanced right up to the doorstep of the southern region where Mali's central state is headquartered, 90 percent of the population live and most of its resources are to be found. Yet the crisis is long in the making, with French colonial and imperialist footprints, along with those of many others, all over it.

Last March 2012, just before national elections, junior army officers, some trained and equipped by the U.S., staged a coup d'état and ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, allegedly because he hadn't taken a strong enough stand against the most recent rebellion by the Tuareg minority in January 2012. Within a short time, the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), reinforced by a large number of defections from the Malian army itself, including some Tuareg officers, declared the North to be independent, under the name of Azawad. Touré fled to Senegal.

A friend of Muammar Gaddafi who supported the Libyan government and opposed France's intervention there, Touré claims to have warned NATO that overthrowing Gaddafi would have destabilizing effects in the region. The interim government that replaced Touré in Bamako has little legitimacy among the population. The national army, quickly overrun by the offensive in the North, was left weakened, dysfunctional and divided, just like the rest of the Malian state.

The French plan to intervene was already in preparation, but was speeded up when the jihadists descended towards the southern cities of Mali in a stream of 300 pick-up trucks. The French government had got a UN Security Council resolution passed in December 2012 to allow military intervention primarily by West African ECOWAS soldiers that France would command and train. The neighboring countries Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria were dragging their boots until the terms of financing this all-African ground-force-for-hire were spelled out. At the January 29, 2013 meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, a first sum of $470 USD million was raised, mainly by imperialist powers.

The French enlisted the help of these West African troops under the guise of Africans "settling their own affairs" in order to "peacefully [!] restore the territorial integrity of Mali." This meant, at least for public opinion's sake, driving out the Islamist jihadists from northern Mali who reportedly had cast aside the Tuareg-based MNLA and imposed their authority. The French imperialists also clearly aim to prepare the ground for a reinforced central state apparatus in Mali, in line with strengthening French interests in its historical zone of influence. The alternative press in France is calling out Francois Hollande for his hypocrisy, since less than a year ago, during his successful campaign for the French presidency, he was heard insisting on an end to "FrancAfrique" (France's privileged relationship with its former West African colonies and interference in their affairs).

Thus with U.S. and British intelligence and logistical support and the Algerian government's agreement to let France use its airspace, the French moved into northern Mali on January 11. In what they said was an act of retaliation, jihadist forces attacked a British Petroleum gas production site in southern Algeria, taking some 40 foreign hostages. The Algerian government wasted no time negotiating and brutally ended the operation in its southern desert, bombing the jeeps with hostages on board retreating to Libya and killing some 70 people. Many believe Algeria, which has the largest army in North Africa, is pursuing regional interests of its own.

On February 11, 2013, while French and Malian troops with some West African soldiers' assistance had taken control of the northern cities—mostly through air superiority and little on-the-ground fighting—Islamic Mujao forces re-entered the city of Gao via boats on the Niger River and attacked the police station. The fighting lasted a few hours, backed by French airpower and, significantly, involved suicide bombers for the first time. French and Malian troops have moved into the mountainous areas in the eastern province of Kidal, to where it was assumed the Islamic forces would retreat. Much of the debate around the world has focused on the new "Sahel-istan"—in other words, the potential "bogging down" of the French army in Mali, with Hollande revising the schedule of French troop withdrawal on nearly a daily basis. Sound familiar?

Neo-colonial dependence governed by weak state

Mali—a large country sitting geographically at the heart of the French West African colonial empire and one of the world's poorest—became formally independent from France in 1960 but has continued a dependent (if sometimes strained) relationship since that time, its economy straightjacketed by imperialist domination and international financial institutions. After independence the pro-Soviet "socialist-leaning" Modibo Keita took power. He was a close ally of Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea's Sekou Touré, with ties to Cuba and China, and the Algerian and other liberation movements in Africa. Keita was overthrown in 1968 and replaced by a more imperialist-compliant regime in the first of several military coups d'etat over the past 45 years, reflecting the weakness and instability of the Malian state. A multi-party constitution was adopted only in 1992, after student-led rioting against the government, and a Tuareg revolt had been brutally repressed in 1991 by Touré's predecessor.

For the Malian people it's been a story of overwhelming poverty rooted in neo-colonial relations of domination and dependence under the watch of client governments and the IMF. This has kept the development of the country's productive forces at a very low level. Mali's immense territory straddles the Saharan Desert in the North and Sahel grasslands in the South, and is divided by the Niger River Valley. Only 4 percent of the land is arable but 80 percent of the people are involved in agriculture, either growing crops or animal herding and fishing.

One feature of French colonialism was the cash crop policy of monocultures—peanuts in Senegal for example, and in Mali, cotton for France's own textile needs. So instead of varied food crops for mainly local needs, peasant farmers are contracted to grow cotton and even more cotton, in an effort to boost national export earnings, but in the process becoming chained to foreign distributors and volatile imperialist markets like so many countries in Africa and the third world. When world market prices for cotton crashed starting in the late 1990s, caused partly by subsidized dumping of cheaper European and American cotton, Malian farmers were the ones to suffer, and national debts mounted.

In the 1990s under IMF structural readjustment plans, Mali was assigned to the category of Highly Indebted Poor Countries, which after six years of belt tightening supposedly in exchange for debt relief—but in reality to cut the rich countries' losses—ended up with even higher debt service payments than before. The 2006 independent film Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako stages a mock courtyard trial of the IMF, World Bank and Western interests, showing the devastating effects of structural adjustment on Mali. (http://artthreat.net/2007/04/bamako-film-puts-the-world-bank-on-tri...).

A relatively small bourgeoisie in and around the state has grown wealthy from gold mine profits in the eastern part of the country (although 80 percent are siphoned off, mainly by South African and Canadian multinationals, Mali is Africa's third largest gold producer). They also benefit from the extensive donor aid and skim off profits from the vast networks trafficking drugs and other commodities. Yet the state itself has carried out very little infrastructural and other development in either the North or the South and has never had much support from the population. Of the some 15,000 kilometers of roads, less than 2,000 km are paved, for example. Healthcare is abysmal and life expectancy only 49 years (with only 2 percent living past the age of 65).

In the main, the tiny educated elite travel to Dakar, Abidjan or Paris for their studies and few new schools have been built over the decades, resulting in an astonishingly low literacy rate, especially among women. Less than 30 percent of the population votes in national elections. Keeping the masses illiterate and ignorant is partly a political strategy too, scholars argue: the state fears the rise of politically astute students and educated strata that are more likely to expose and challenge it.

So while many Malians at first welcomed the "rescue" by French forces from the reactionary and intolerable exactions, amputations and suppressions of basic freedoms under jihadist rule in the northern cities, it is important to understand the heavy hand of imperialism in Mali's highly distorted economic development that has been long opposed and exposed by revolutionary and nationalist political movements against the regime and in the region.

Ethnic groups, the national question and Islam

The Tuareg minority, related to the Berbers of North Africa's coastal mountains, is itself composed of several different tribal groupings. Together with people of Arab origin, Tuaregs are estimated to make up 10 percent of the 15 million total population and live primarily in the North. Since 1960 Tuaregs have led four separate rebellions against the central Malian government and its neglect of the northern region, centered around the demand for autonomy there. Mostly nomadic herders, they are spread across a more or less contiguous area in several countries—Algeria, Libya and Niger as well as Mali.

With significant investments in Mali and ties to both the Malian state and the movement for autonomy in the North, Gaddafi had also incorporated Tuaregs into the Libyan army. Thus after the imperialists invaded, led by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy's Mirage jets in March 2011, and Gaddafi's government eventually collapsed, Tuaregs seized modern Libyan weapons and headed for northern Mali, according to numerous reports. Although this is likely only one reason for the plentiful supply of guns and equipment in Mali, it begins to explain why the poorly organized Malian army was easily defeated when the Tuareg movement took over northern cities and declared Azawad independent.

Then also heavily-armed and well-equipped jihadist forces, organized into groups such as Ansar-al-Dine, Mujao and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), took over militarily as the MNLA pulled back and reportedly offered to negotiate. The French maintain they are bombing only the jihadist groups (with numerous civilian casualties) and many within French political circles are arguing for talks with the MNLA, while others say they are only a political cover for the jihadists who settled in the main town of Timbuktu as well as Gao and others along the Niger River. Competing heads of clans still figure heavily in the social structures of the northern territory and are said to be another factor in what appears to be constant reshaping of alliances and splits between Islamic armed groups. Local residents apparently told reporters that the armed group who invaded and took over Konna last April 2012 was composed of lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs as well as blacks speaking several different languages from Mali and from the neighboring countries of Niger and Nigeria. According to press accounts, Canadian and French citizens also were involved in the militias.

As soon as the French launched their air strikes in mid-January, driving the Islamic forces further into the desert areas, some emboldened Malian army soldiers carried out retaliatory acts against people they suspected of supporting the Islamists (perhaps this was not unrelated to the army's having been routed by them a year ago). This helped fuel press reports that ethnic conflicts were behind the war. In addition, local residents furiously targeted mainly Arab businesses, many run by merchants from neighboring Mauritania with a long history in Mali. When these stores were ransacked, large caches of ammunition were found in some of them that merchants had either stocked willingly or under pressure for the Islamic forces. This increased suspicion that Arab merchants had supported the Islamists during the 10-month occupation.

In fact imperialist meddling does stir up the possibilities for these divisions to take nasty forms among the people. The African Arab slave trade predating colonization also left its mark on ethnic divisions between North and South. Many Malians are quick to say that they have lived for centuries with numerous different languages and tribal groupings, mostly black-skinned, but also mixed (Peul) and lighter skinned peoples, and that these ethnic differences are not the main factor driving this crisis as the media has sometimes implied.

Ninety percent of the Malian people are Sunni Moslems, the remaining 10 percent mostly animist. Thus much of the local population in the northern cities initially did not see a strong distinction between themselves and the Islamists, and did not put up much resistance to them. However, reports say most people quickly turned against the fundamentalists who made life miserable for them by banning radio and television (including televised football events!), beating women, cutting off hands for "blasphemy" or "loose moral behavior," and carrying out executions under the new and much harsher version of Islamic law they rapidly imposed on the population.

In the process of the foreign grab for Africa's land, resources and zones of influence that has also benefited small parasitic ruling classes and elites, imperialist relations of domination and organized dependence become mixed with remaining pre-capitalist social relations. In Mali, this includes a not-so-distant past of slavery, not legally abolished until 1905. Scholars describe a caste-like system in which some tribal/ethnic groups were vassals (often referred to as slaves) of others, including among the Tuaregs. There are reports that the current war has also created the social terrain for "masters" in the North to recuperate their former vassals, or their children, still recognized as belonging to inferior castes, thus stirring up further resentment.

Under Islam, the traditional social code of polygamy and child marriages as well as female genital mutilation represents a huge oppressive burden on Malian women. On top of this, when Islamic fundamentalists occupied the northern cities they began flogging women in public for not fully covering themselves with the newly-imposed veil, reportedly whether they were young girls, grandmothers or pregnant mothers. Suddenly women were not even allowed to talk to their own brothers in public.

Scholars argue that the Islamization of the Malian state has in fact already been well underway for some time and that Moslem law in the form of shariah is already mixed in practice with "modern jurisprudence." The absence of the state from the daily lives of most of the population, heightened by the 2012 coup d’etat, created a vacuum that "moderate" Islamic forces in the High Islamic Council have stepped into more vigorously, both providing services to the people and taking up a cabinet post in the government. The New York Timesreports that they oppose the jihadists and have already played an important political role for the Malian government by negotiating the multimillion-euro ransoms paid for the release of hostages taken in the North by AQMI over the past decade.

Trafficking hub with state complicity fuels parasitism, warlords, and jihadis

In a word, the North is awash in money and guns, but has no paved roads or electricity. In addition to not developing the region, the deposed central government in Bamako is accused of tolerating organized criminal trafficking networks, from which it profited nicely. Customs officials are apparently generously compensated or rare in the porous border area that Mali shares with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger and some Bamako bureaucrats are said to have become rich on sources other than government salaries.

Centuries-old trading routes have become conduits for cigarettes, drugs and other forms of trafficking in the northern region, at the vortex of the southern Algerian and Libyan Sahara, Niger and west from Mauritania. In addition to cocaine, Moroccan cannabis resin and a significant amount of ransom "business" through hostage-taking in the past several years, trade has expanded into guns, through the changing political situation in North Africa. The control of smuggling also appears to be intertwined in the Tuareg political rebellions. At stake are large profits both from trafficking and from taxes numerous networks controlling the routes impose on each other as goods are moved through the region. To try to maintain its authority and keep control over the north, in 2006 the Malian government utilized these rivalries by pitting one group of Tuareg rebels against others.

Geopolitical stakes being played out in Mali

Mali shares borders with seven West and North African countries, all former French colonies and the dynamics of the conflict are clearly regional in nature. Stretching from Senegal on the western coast across the Sahel to Sudan and Chad, Islam is historically the main religion, and most countries have radicalized Islamic movements.

Whatever France's stated immediate aim and belligerent means of achieving it, clearly France has been accelerating its efforts to shore up its influence in the Sahara-Sahel. Contrary to its image after refusing to join the war against Iraq initiated by former president G.W. Bush, the French state has not been idle militarily. Far from it. Sarkozy dispatched troops to Afghanistan and into the conflict in Ivory Coast, and recently special forces into Somalia. Deploying 2,000 Chadian mercenary soldiers in Mali's North, who are not part of ECOWAS but have plenty of experience in previous conflicts in Central African Republic on France's behalf, also figures into its strategic plans, experts point out. Despite the talk of ending "Francafrique," the business daily Les Echos wrote that in Mali the stakes for France are its future presence in Africa.

A new political order and the role of the imperialist powers within it are being fought out and recast in the region. The crumbling of the old order of post-independence states in the Sahel-Sahara has been accelerated by the mass uprisings against the U.S.'s Mubarak in Egypt and France's Ben Ali in Tunisia. There is also the instability and opening that Gaddafi's fall in Libya created, together with other armed conflicts in the Sahel, notably Sudan. And the antagonism between Western imperialism and the political Islam shaping many developments in the Middle East is influencing the internal dynamics and struggle over this recasting of political configurations in West and North Africa as well.

Algeria, also a French colony until France lost a bitter war of independence, is considered by many a key player in the machinations behind the crisis in Mali. In worrying that France may finds itself bogged down in Mali like the U.S. in Afghanistan, Le Monde writes that it must rely on the Algerian army. At the same time Algeria's links with the U.S. have grown steadily stronger in the "fight against terrorism" since the 1990s when the Algerian army carried out massacres of both civilians and armed jihadists following the Islamist electoral victory. This has included significant provisions of arms.

The U.S. is increasingly a major player in this geopolitical recasting of the region, through active intelligence bases in several countries, training soldiers and solidifying ties with the leadership of a number of West African armed forces. The U.S.-Africa Command, or Africom, was set up under George W. Bush in 2008 expressly for the purpose of monitoring Islamist forces and preventing their implantation in a West African state where they could find a haven. According to Rudolph Atallah, former U.S. director of counterterrorism for Africa, the Sahel is a "destabilized region with ethnic conflict that if not dealt with quickly many disgruntled groups will be recruited by Al Qaida." He said that military intervention is one approach the U.S. is considering in Mali, while assisting France and helping to pay the bill. U.S. drones are already flying in Malian skies. In fact it appears that the imperialists are actively destabilizing the region for an outcome more to their liking, sometimes cooperating and sometimes acting on their own. Already huge camps of Malian refugees fleeing the fighting sprawl along the borders and are causing tensions with neighboring states.

Economic interests and particularly exploring new energy sources also underpin the scramble to reshape states and political configurations in the Sahel. France is heavily dependent upon uranium deposits in Niger for its nuclear power. Several imperialist countries, together with Algeria, Qatar and China (a rising aggressive presence throughout Africa) have their eye on the untapped gas fields, oil and uranium deposits apparently lying under the northern desert sands in Mali. China recently constructed a third bridge in Bamako and in many African countries it has combined commercial penetration with infrastructure development.

For the people of Mali nothing good can come out of French imperialist military intervention, with or without West African or UN troops to project a different image, or out of religious rule. In fact, imperialist domination has provided the conditions for obscurantism to persist and grow in new forms. Both imperialism and Islamic rule maintain the Malian people in a position of continued subordination to dominant interests and the whole ensemble of economic and social relations they need to break out of to build a radically different society.

 

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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