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French Intervention In Mali Reveals Consequences Of Re-Colonialism

Katrina Kaiser |
February 11, 2013 | 5:58 p.m. PST


The French intervention in Mali represents recolonization in action. (Orionist, Wikimedia Commons)
The French intervention in Mali represents recolonization in action. (Orionist, Wikimedia Commons)
The under-reported military operations that constitute the French war on "terror" in Mali mirror the neocolonial dimensions of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, having already reproduced instability in the region.

Most recently, the January 16 Algerian hostage crisis was the response of extremist jihad practitioners to French anti-terror operations in Mali, in particular the Algerian government's decision to open its airspace for France's Malian operations earlier that month. According to Al-Arabiya, the militants wanted to send a clear message that they could strike anywhere in the Sahara and would not discriminate against foreigners from different backgrounds in Algeria.

The hostage crisis served to elucidate the origins of the unrest in Mali. The people whom the French government labels “militants” are a mix of Al-Qaeda affiliates and ethnic Tuareg tribespeople. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has only been officially present in the region since 2007, although its roots lie in a group of militant Algerian “Islamists” started in the late 1990s. The Tuareg, on the other hand, are an indigenous group with a long history of separatism, including rebellions in the 1960s, 1990s, early and late 2000s and most recently in early 2012.

Because the government structures and borders of both Mali and Algeria are products of French colonialism, agitation against these governments often becomes associated with the anti-Western sentiment of certain terrorist groups. Thus, any internal separatist conflict is exacerbated by an influx of Al Qaeda members and their accompanying anti-Western ideology from other parts of North Africa. 

For many Malians, this relationship is not inherently a bad thing. From a Western media perspective, it can be difficult to understand the role of “terrorist groups” in developing regions such as the Sahel. Developmental economics, however, teaches us that "terrorist groups" can be accepted as important parts of a region’s social fabric through their provision of public goods. Researcher Eli Berman from University of California San Diego asks investigators to: “Imagine a community for which neither government nor markets function well. Local public goods usually provided by government such as public safety, law and order, and welfare services are poorly provided or absent.” In this case, “religion is a natural organizing node for community provision of local public goods.”

In the case of Mali, the “public goods” provided by AQIM, the Islamic group Ansar Dine or the Tuareg rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) include governance and military protection for informal economies such as the arms trade, which can be vital in states like Mali that do not effectively enforce regular property rights or business law. A good illustration of this dynamic comes from the April 2012 declaration of Tuareg independence of which a spokesman said, “Mali is an anarchic state. Therefore we have gathered a national liberation movement to put in an army capable of securing our land and an executive office capable of forming democratic institutions.” Indeed, Northern Mali, the stronghold of the Tuareg and haven for AQIM members, has never been properly integrated into the rest of the country since Mali's independence from France.

The French government’s motivation for military intervention in Mali seems similar to, though not the same as, the United States' motivation to stabilize and rebuild the Middle East by force in the early 2000s. As discussed above, Tuareg separatism has long been a problem in Mali; however, what has made this conflict more relevant to France is the potential for establishing control over oil, gas, uranium and other natural resources in an increasingly energy-insecure world. Formal exploration of Malian resources began only recently because of security issues and the French intervention may help to accelerate the process.

For these military operations, France has successfully reached out to regional allies such as Chad and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), much like the U.S. reached out to Britain for the war in Afghanistan. Unlike Britain, however, Chad and other ECOWAS member states are former French colonies and the French military already trains Chadian troops as part of its regular involvement in the region, thus setting a precedent for cooperation with the French government.

The United States itself has also gotten involved with French operations by agreeing to assist with airlift capacity and refueling services. As of this week, Obama has approved a new $50 million outlay from the Pentagon budget. Niger, Mali's eastern neighbor, has also approved the basing and operation of American surveillance drones within its borders as of the end of January.

Military operations, both in Mali and Afghanistan, show how Western “terror talk” has replaced a genuine attempt to understand the non-traditional political dynamic in areas abandoned by the rule of law such as the Sahel or Hindu Kush. Given Mali’s colonial history, it is interesting that Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that: “The goal is the total reconquest of Mali.” Such statements belie the official line from French President Francois Hollande that France will draw down its military presence in March — much like the American timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan was continuously delayed. Indeed, Hollande said in early January that French soldiers wouldn't get involved at all. When the French assault began, officials said that French combat troops would expand to 2,500. There are currently over 4,000 French troops in the country with more from Chad and ECOWAS on the way.

A successful de-colonized society uses its indigenous culture and social structures to govern, and doesn't try to fit a Western model. Unfortunately, observers can expect Mali to be functionally under French rule at least until a new government is elected. The UN originally insisted on April elections, but they have been moved to July due to the current security situation. The date could be pushed back even further, especially since a legitimate election would require that northern Malians be allowed to vote. Even if most Malians are secular and “against the Islamists,” the international community should do what it can do accept self-determination in Mali and not rely on military violence to artificially correct conflict without understanding the complex indigenous political structure.


Reach Contributor Katrina Kaiser here, follow her here.



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