World Affairs

Colonial comeback

Print edition : February 22, 2013

French armoured vehicles patrolling the outskirts of Sevare, Mali, some 620 km north of the capital, Bamako, on January 23. Photo: Thibault Camus/AP

The French intervention in Mali, a country basically in the throes of a civil war, is sought to be painted as part of the West’s ongoing global “war on terror”.

FRANCE’S MILITARY INVASION OF MALI, ITS former West African colony, which began on January 11, already seems to be shaping into a long-drawn-out occupation. The French forces flown in from Chad were greeted enthusiastically when they landed in the Malian capital, Bamako. The implementation of strict Sharia law in the areas controlled by Islamists in the north, along with the fear of dominance by the Tuaregs and Arabs, had made the black majority in the south fearful. The French forces are, at least for now, welcomed by the majority. France, which likes to pose as the gendarme of the continent, already has military bases in five African countries with 5,000 permanently stationed troops. Since decolonisation, it has intervened on numerous occasions to either protect puppet regimes or forestall revolutionary takeovers.

The United Nations Security Council had mandated the West African regional grouping the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send a peacekeeping force to Mali following the de facto partitioning of the country and the ousting of the civilian government by the military. But France, without consulting the African Union (A.U.), decided to pre-emptively take military action. The cash-strapped nations of ECOWAS duly fell in line and sent a token force to Mali. President Francois Hollande of France cited an imminent threat to French national security while ordering the deployment of the country’s air force and ground troops to do battle against the ragged Islamist militias that had succeeded in driving out the Malian army from the north of the country. “The President is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pronounced soon after his forces went into action. The United States, the United Kingdom and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies agreed to provide the French military with logistical and surveillance help. “We have made a commitment that Al Qaeda is not going to find anyplace to hide,” U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said. U.S. officials in earlier testimonies to the Congress had said that those involved in the fighting in Mali did not have the capability to strike outside West and North Africa.

Other countries have been more careful in their appraisal of the French military intervention. There are not many takers for the argument that combating “terrorism” is the key issue. Mali was basically in the throes of a civil war that pitted competing ethnic groups against each other. Western military intervention will only exacerbate the ethnic polarisation in the country. Mali is a predominantly Muslim country but is divided on the basis of ethnicity, with the black majority pitted against the Tuareg and Arab minority. In recent years, some black Malians have thrown in their lot with the Islamists. Long-standing grievances, including that of the historical discrimination against the Tuaregs, motivated the rebels to launch their attack on the central government. But the West seeks to paint the Mali operation as part of its ongoing global “war on terror”. The latest upheaval in Mali was sparked off by the NATO-led war in Libya. The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, with his illusions of being a pan-African leader, had a soft corner for the Tuaregs, who are found in many parts of North and West Africa. Many Tuaregs and other ethnic groups from sub-Saharan Africa fought and died for Qaddafi in the war NATO had imposed on Libya.

After the war was over, most of the battle-hardened Tuareg fighters returned to Mali armed with sophisticated weapons. Taking advantage of the chaos that had spilled over from Libya, the Tuaregs, in alliance with Islamist forces, reiterated their long-standing demand for the creation of a separate state for Tuaregs, to be named Azawad. Borders arbitrarily drawn by colonial rulers have given the Tuaregs a raw deal. They find themselves dispersed in many countries, including Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. The capture of northern Mali, which comprises two-thirds of the country’s territory, was initially spearheaded by the secular Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad with by Col. Mohamed Ag Najim as its leader. It is another matter that its cause was soon after hijacked by radical Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jehad in West Africa. The force that is doing most of the fighting these days is said to be Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which mainly consists of Algerians who fled from their country in the 1990s.

These groups have been active in the region for quite some time. Their main activities were confined to cigarette and drug smuggling along with kidnapping of Westerners for ransom. Two leading French politicians, Marie Le Pen from the Right and Michelle Demessine of the Communist Party, accused the oil-rich Gulf state Qatar of supporting Islamist groups in northern Mali. Qatar had issued a statement calling for dialogue with the northern rebels after the French launched their attack. According to French media reports, Qatar has been funding the construction of “madrassas” in the north besides opening its purse strings to all the rebel groups there. France, however, has no qualms about Qatari and Saudi money and aid going to Islamists in Syria. In fact, France is helping the Salafist and Al Qaeda-linked groups there fight the secular government in Syria.

The Islamists in Mali, according to most observers of the region, did not, however, pose an immediate danger to the Malian government ensconced in the south of the country. The French Defence Minister said that France had to intervene immediately to prevent the country from falling into the hands of Islamists allied to Al Qaeda. The Islamists and their Tuareg allies have very little popular support in the south of the country, where 90 per cent of the population resides.

The Malian crisis got compounded after a U.S.-trained Malian military officer, Capt. Amadou Sanago, staged a coup in March last year, bringing the country’s long tryst with democracy to an end. The military had blamed the civilian leadership for the string of defeats it had suffered at the hands of the rebels in the north. But the rebels inflicted more debilitating defeats on the Malian military after it had carried out its coup d’état. There are credible reports about atrocities that were committed by the Malian army against the Tuaregs and other northern groups. These acts contributed significantly to the ongoing conflict. Amnesty International has reported that the Tuaregs were targeted for torture and killing by the Malian army “apparently only on ethnic grounds”. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Ansar Dine leader and a Tuareg, was a former officer in the Malian army. In September 2012, 16 Muslim preachers belonging to the Dawa group, which is active in the north, were arrested and summarily executed at an army checkpoint. In the last week of January, following the French military intervention, 20 northerners were executed by the Malian military.

According to reports in the Western media, there were fewer than 2,000 fighters aligned to Al Qaeda and Tuareg separatists. It was therefore no surprise that the French forces managed to advance rapidly and recapture the towns of Diabaly and Doutenza that were captured by the rebels late last year. In the important northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, the rebels have either left or embedded themselves with the local populace. It was obvious that the Malian militias would not seek an open confrontation with the technologically and numerically superior French invading force. The bulk of their forces have already retreated to their mountainous redoubts along the country’s border with Algeria. Large stretches of the 640,000-square-kilometre northern sector of Mali comprise unpopulated deserts where the nomadic Tuareg population has been ruling the roost for centuries.

Many Africa-watchers are of the view that the main motivation for France’s latest neocolonial intervention is the bountiful natural resources that remain to be exploited in northern Mali. The area is said to be rich in gold and uranium deposits besides being the repository of unexploited hydrocarbon resources. China, which has outpaced the West in Africa as far as investments and aid are concerned, has reason to be worried. The recent military intervention by former colonial masters, according to many observers, signals a new “scramble for Africa”. In Libya, Western companies have been cornering most of the lucrative contracts in the oil sector.

The George W. Bush administration had set up the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to get a military stranglehold over the continent. The U.S. military is already training soldiers from ECOWAS and other A.U. member states for deployment in strife-torn areas such as Somalia and Mali. AFRICOM’s director of public affairs said that the U.S. Army today conducted “some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent”. The Barack Obama administration is planning to permanently station 3,000 U.S. troops in Africa.

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