Resisting intervention: imperialism and protest in Mali

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Leo Zeilig looks at the latest episode in a long and bloody history of Western imperialism in Africa, fuelled by the scramble for the continent's resources

When French troops entered Mali on 11 January the mainstream media and politicians heralded the intervention as a humanitarian exercise to flush out Islamic militants. The calculation was simple. West Africa was now awash with an array of Islamic terrorists, many aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and they presented the region and the world with the greatest threat to security. Apparently these militants had capitalised on "ungovernable spaces" in West Africa.

These bellicose declarations are mostly false and obscure what is really happening on the continent.

Today there is a constellation of forces that are shaping developments in the Sahel - the semi-desert region that extends across northern West Africa. This conflicting assortment of interests includes the French state, Chinese investment, structural adjustment, big business and local governments. Each of these elements forms part of a poisonous cocktail that needs to be explained.

In the early 1990s Mali's long-standing government was weakened by a significant protest movement. There were major demonstrations against the regime of Moussa Traoré, when thousands were involved in street protests demanding political reform and an end to Traoré's 22-year rule. The government eventually fell in April 1991.

The following year Alpha Konaré was elected president, expressing many of the hopes of the movement. He promised far reaching reforms. By 1995 disillusionment among those who had campaigned for the new government led to protests that were violently broken up. Students who had previously declared their love of Alpha burned campaign posters and banners of his party.

Anger at him stemmed from the new government's commitment to structural adjustment, which by the late 1990s had devastated living standards. Today Mali's GDP is $669 per head of population, despite the country's extraordinary reserves of minerals.

However, behind the headlines of a region overwhelmed with Islamic activism, the real concern is the threat posed by Tuareg separatism. Who are the Tuareg? They are a largely Muslim group of about one and a half million people living across the Sahel, including Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as Mali. They live in impoverished communities, often victimised, sometimes hunted down by governments, but they lay claim to a land that is rich in resources that European, American and Chinese companies and governments would hate to fall under Tuareg or Islamic control.

The division between north and south in Mali stretches back to French colonialism. The French privileged the south, concentrating their efforts in areas that ensured easy resource extraction, creating massive unevenness across the colony.

The French also reduced pastoral lands in the north used by Tuareg and Arab communities, triggering in the 1890s the first in a series of revolts. After independence the new government continued to fuel conflict in the north. Another guerrilla-led revolt started in 1963, though it was defeated the following year. One recent report explains that "atrocities committed in this era remained in the memories of Tuareg and certainly played into the motivation for later revolts." Continued discrimination, poverty and droughts drove northerners to the south in the 1970s and 1980s.

Konaré stepped down in 2002 and Amadou Toumanui Touré (or ATT) took over. His government was overturned in a coup last March by Amadou Sanogo, who stated that Touré has failed to deal with the revolt taking place in the north. He handed government over to a civilian administration but he remains the real power behind the throne.

In Mali there are different groups at work. The growth of AQIM stems from opposition to the Algerian regime during the long war in the 1990s, though there is evidence that it was also partly funded and supported by the Algerian Ministry of Interior. There is also the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which claims to be an outgrowth of Al Qaeda, and a Tuareg-dominated Islamic movement, Ansar al-Din - which once saw itself as part of the secular Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA).

Two elements have affected on the recent revolt in the north.
The fall of Gaddafi's regime in Libya is important. The uprising that started in late 2011 was influenced by the fracturing of the Libyan state where many Tuareg were co-opted into Gaddafi's army. Arms and men moved south into a movement with old and legitimate grievances.

The second element has seen the labelling of the Sahel region of West Africa as an "ungovernable space". This has a long pedigree. In 1993 one right wing commentator described the region's wars as symptomatic of the "coming anarchy" that would engulf the continent.

Shorn of context such phrases seem accurate descriptions of the mayhem that has afflicted the region. However, they cloud the real interests and motivations that are at stake. West Africa is not replete with "ungovernable spaces" that exist on the fringes of the world. Rather it sits at the heart of capitalist globalisation. For too long West Africa has been the play thing of the French.

"Françafrique" is a term that was coined by the French writer François-Xavier Verschave to explain the entrenched post-colonial role the French state has played in Africa. Since 1960 France has pursued an extremely aggressive policy towards its ex-colonies - conducting itself in partnership with a political class of new leaders. Expressing the sentiments of the new elite, Léon M'ba, the first president of Gabon, stated at independence that though the country was independent, "between Gabon and France nothing has changed; everything goes on as before."

Over the past 50 years the French state has brought down governments, defended dictatorships and inserted its business interests. In this period there have been more than 50 military interventions by the French on the continent, all of them described as "humanitarian".

Elf interest
French business interests have been at the core of their "concern" for the continent. Oil has also often been involved. In 1965 Charles de Gaulle founded Elf - the state oil company. Huge "sweeteners", normally many million US dollars, were paid to African leaders to ensure Elf secured oil contracts. But Elf also acted on its own accord, as a "sovereign" force within African states. Up to three-quarters of Gabon's foreign investment, for example, still comes from France, while Gabon was often responsible for more than two-thirds of Elf 's profit.

The pattern of intervention remains in place today. The French military recently intervened in the Ivory Coast and remains the country's principal arbiter of political power - in what the Economist described as "France's little Iraq". Recent French involvement in Mali has to be seen in this context. Today there are new interests that have intruded on France's dominion.

Scramble for resources
In the past 10 years Africa has seen what has been called the "new scramble for Africa" - an unparallel thirst for riches only matched by the carve-up of the continent by European powers at the notorious 1884 Berlin conference. The new desire for Africa's mineral and oil wealth has transformed the continent, pulling in new and old powers. The Sahel region has been one of the principal targets in the current scramble.

Recently China has started to play an active role in the region. Besides various infrastructure projects, China currently controls the most important uranium mines in Niger and has signed $100 million worth in grants and loans in Mali. The involvement of Chinese businesses worries the French in a region long-regarded as their fiefdom.

Other powers have also started to meddle. Under the auspices of its global "war against terror" the United States escalated surveillance across West Africa. The US Defense Department set up the new Africa Command (Africom) in 2007 to direct US strategic interests on the continent. Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises conducted by units of the US Army have provided training to African armies.

From 2006 US troops in Mali worked on counter-terrorism exercises with personnel from Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. These "actions" were part of Operation Enduring Freedom - Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) that links eight African countries to the United States. Given what has happened in the region since the mid-2000s, we could be forgiven for seeing these initiatives as a fantastic failure. Amadou Sanogo, last year's coup leader, was sent under these "programmes" to the United States in 2006-07.

The French intervention had a decisive effect. The Islamists were out-gunned. With little local support in the north of Mali they were routed. The main Tuareg secular organisation, the MNLA, felt compelled to support the French military engagement.

So often Africa is referred to as ungovernable. We are told West Africa, worse even than the rest of the continent, exemplifies the chaos. These are self-serving lies that pave the way to intervention. Yet it is these interventions, direct and indirect - in the forms of structural adjustment, big-business involvement and military engagement - that have created the disorder and misery which blight the region.

Yet there is another story to the familiar clichés about "fragile states" that are rarely heard. West Africa has an incredible tradition of protest that has toppled governments, brought together rival communities and frightened Western governments. Two recent examples stand out. The regime in Burkina Faso was shaken to its core in 2011 by a revolt that involved students, cotton workers, miners, and army mutinies. In Nigeria, at the beginning of 2012, a general strike gave us a tantalising glimpse of an alternative future. Following the solidarity shown during the Egyptian revolution, in the north of Nigeria, where the worse religious violence has played out, Muslims protected local churches, while Christians guarded Muslims as they prayed. It is to these movements that we must turn.

Timeline: Mali

►1880 - France begins to carve out colonies in West Africa including modern day Mali
►1894 - Tuareg communities' revolt against the French after Timbuktu is occupied.
►1947-48 - The 1947-48 railway strike on the Dakar-Bamako line is a defining moment in the anti-colonial struggle against French rule.
►1960 - The Federation of Mali is granted full independence. Modibo Keïta is elected president.
►1963-64 - Tuareg communities in the north of Mali launch what is known as the First Tuareg Rebellion. The Malian government crushes the resistance.
►1990-95 - A further Tuareg rebellion starts in 1990.
►1992 - Alpha Konaré is elected president.
►2002 - Amadou Toumani Touré elected president.
►2007 - Touré is re-elected as president. A Tuareg rebellion is launched in Niger and in Mali's northeastern Kidal Region.
►2011 - large numbers of Tuareg fighters, who had fought in Libya, return to home, helping to reignite the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali.
►March 2012 - The National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR) takes power.