“Without Africa, there will be no history of France in the 21st century.”—Former French President Francois Mitterand
Recent events in the African nation of Mali mark a turning point in a secessionist crisis in the North that threatens to destabilize the entire country. Most notable has been the intervention of the French armed forces, seeking to “stabilize” and re-assert control over this former colony of France.
On Jan. 10, anti-government Islamic rebels who had previously controlled northern Mali surged south in a renewed offensive. Rebel forces took control of the central Malian city of Konna, routing the Malian army and expanding the fighting to several other cities in the center of the country. This caused the “official” government based in the South to fear that they would soon be overrun, resulting in a call for support from the “international community.”
The government of France quickly responded, sending in several hundred troops to keep security in the capital, and sending warplanes to launch airstrikes in northern and central Mali in an attempt to weaken anti-government forces. Despite French intervention, rebel forces have continued to make inroads on the ground, as of Jan. 14.
France claims that it is loath to get involved in a ground war and has urged “Africanization” of the conflict. ECOWAS, the political organization of West African countries, has promised to send troops, although the timeline is unclear, meaning French troops very well could see action.
Conflict in Northern Mali—some context
The current conflict in Mali goes back to late 2011 and requires some understanding of the country’s history. Mali is a multi-national country, and its northern regions are inhabited by several national groupings that have suffered oppression, most prominently the Tuareg people, nomads whose traditional homeland stretches across parts of several nations in the Sahel region of Africa.
Tuareg forces for many years had found refuge and support for their aspirations in Col. Qaddafi’s Libya, and many Tuareg fighters had been integrated into Libya’s military. With the fall of that government following heavy U.S.-NATO bombing and missile attacks on behalf of a rebellion with a strong racist component, the African Tuaregs lost a key ally. Those who had been part of the Libyan military and survived the fighting fled back to their homelands carrying their weapons with them.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a secular organization, desires a Tuareg-based state in the northern part of Mali. Most likely using weapons acquired from Libya, the MNLA launched a struggle against the Malian army, taking control of the North. The Tuareg rebellion was deep-rooted with some of the national and ethnic conflicts going back to the colonial and in some cases pre-colonial eras. Tuareg revolts in 1963 and 1990 were put down by the Malian government, but the demand for Tuareg national liberation has been a recurring theme in Malian politics.
The MNLA was quickly sidelined, however, by a coalition of Islamic militant groups that seek to create an Islamic state over broad areas of Africa, including northern Mali. The Islamists are a mix of fighters from various Malian groups across West Africa and parts of the Muslim world. This coalition began to enforce their strict interpretation of Sharia law in areas under their control, and gained worldwide infamy by destroying priceless artifacts.
Northern Mali contains some of the most historic cities on the African continent, including famed academic center Timbuktu. So while the rebellion in the North began as a struggle for national liberation, it has transformed into one pushing a reactionary sectarian agenda.
Malian government not much better
The Malian army, not surprisingly, was easily routed. Since the start of “multiparty” democracy in 1992, a clique of capitalists and military leaders have ruled primarily through a patronage network and a standing army kept weak to reduce the threat of a coup. In the northern parts of the country, the government often relied on militias based among the Songhai and Fulani peoples to fight Tuareg forces and other opponents.
In 2012, despite the weak army, elements of the military dissatisfied with the central government seized power just before an election that would mostly likely have been something short of “free and fair.” While it has never been clear where the coup leaders stood, some revolutionary groups in Mali supported the coup, claiming that it emerged from the “proletarian wing” of the army.
Under intense pressure from ECOWAS, a civilian government was formed, but it has not been able to truly take power. Many reports from Mali indicate that there are rival power centers, although both the civilian government and former coup leader Amadou Sanogo support French intervention.
France has maintained close relations with a number of its former colonies, through a policy known as Franceafrique, for all the obvious reasons—most importantly, preferential access to vital mineral resources such as uranium. This has resulted in a string of French military bases across the continent and periodic interventions by French troops in African conflicts. Most recently, in 2011, French military might determined the outcome of the Ivorian election.
So it makes sense that France would act to prevent the entire country of Mali from falling to the Islamic rebels. France and the Western imperialists more broadly have a key interest in opposing Islamic militant groups that challenge their hegemony. On the other hand, as we have seen in both Syria and Libya, and previously in Afghanistan, imperialism has no problem in allying with such groups to overthrow regimes considered to be unreliable or that are attempting to follow an independent course.
The United States has also been training Malian troops to fight in the “war on terror” and has done the same in many West African nations. These nations, grouped in ECOWAS, also opposed the Islamic militants in Mali, fearing what destabilization in the region could mean for their own economic and political prospects.
The intervention by French troops and the bombing of Malian cities by French warplanes marks a major escalation in the conflict. The strength of the Islamic rebels, who have attracted some support from disaffected peoples in the North, means heavier fighting can be expected. France and the Western imperialists are obviously concerned that anti-Western, non-cooperative forces could seize Mali and use it as a base to extend their influence across the region. Thus their goal is to defeat the Islamic rebels using whatever forces necessary.
While France and the United States are urging ECOWAS to intervene militarily in Mali, France in deed and the U.S. in word have shown their willingness to act unilaterally. It has even been reported that France is trying to recruit the MNLA to act as an imperialist proxy, which could lead to more divide-and-conquer policies in the North, as opposed to genuine processes of liberation and reconciliation.
From the standpoint of progressives and revolutionaries in the United States, it is paramount that imperialist intervention be opposed resolutely. With regime change in Libya and the destabilization of Mali, the recent announcement of U.S. military missions in up to 35 African nations make it clear that imperialism is using the conflicts in Africa to deepen the bonds of neocolonialism on that continent. This promises not to resolve but simply to transform and exacerbate some of Africa’s thorniest issues, resulting in greater suffering for her people.