In the span of nine months, Mali has had two military coups. Colonel Assima Goïta, who helped to lead both coups, has declared himself as interim president, deposing President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane.
These coups may be recent, but the unstable situation isn’t, and although Mali receives relatively little coverage in the Anglosphere, what’s happening there—a country where over 90% of inhabitants are Muslim, matters. Ethnic clashes, fighting for resources, military coups, and French meddling has left a country with a rich Islamic history and large amounts of valuable resources impoverished, underdeveloped, and a shell of what it once was.
A Forever War?
Some compare the nature of France’s involvement in Mali with the US’s war in Afghanistan. Both began with basically a singular goal and then turned into a protracted war with murky grounds for continuation.
A former French colony (then called “French Sudan/Soudan Français” 1892-1960), Mali has struggled ever since to create an economically and politically stable country. This is not due to a lack in resources—the country has gold deposits (made famous by Mansa Mousa’s hajj journey, in which his legendary stop in Egypt devalued the price of gold in Egypt for 12 years) as well as several other natural resources, including uranium. In fact, as is the case with much of Africa, it is precisely because of those resources that the predatory practices of France and other nations continue in Africa. The Sahel region is a paradigm of this.
In neighboring Niger (Over 99 percent Muslim), for example, the French company Areva (now Orano) has been busy mining uranium to fuel their needs for nuclear power for some time now (France runs around three-quarters of its country on nuclear power), all to the detriment of the local population in Niger, it appears.
Along with uranium in Niger and the Central African Republic is iron in Guinea and Mauritania and cotton in Burkina Faso and Chad. As Vice News put it:
“…you can do the maths. If the contagion of militancy from an Islamist Malian territory spread cross-borders, it could legitimately threaten those vital interests.”
France has continued to maintain a fairly strong presence in Mali, in part at the behest of Malian leaders, whose leadership is often at odds with the will of much of the citizenry and of course with the desires of the Islamic rebel groups.
While the country is over 90% Muslim, Mali is not ethnically heterogenous. The Tuareg in the north, who want to have a separate state and made a strong attempt to create one in 2012, are different from the Dogon (mainly sedentary hunters and farmers) and the Fulani (semi-nomadic herders), who have been fighting each other for resources for some time and recently signed a peace agreement.
Tuareg desires for national self-determination are particularly important to pay attention to because they are a people spread over multiple countries within the Sahel. Much of this land contains the resources that France holds as so precious. Perhaps this is why France has generally supported the MNLA and their efforts at statehood. “Divide and rule” might just be alive and well. The largely secular nature of their movement likely also helped it garner such support.
Stains from Colonialism
The clashes between these various groups are in part a product of colonial France’s scramble for Africa and its division of territory with disregard of the diverse groups living on the land.
The French had colonial administrators who wrote reports related to French colonial affairs, including challenges that could harm French interests:
“These studies were also much preoccupied with the threat of ‘pan-Islamism,’ a traditional subject of French administrative paranoia. Enormous dossiers exist on this subject in the national archives, containing remarkably little hard information. Pan-Islamism meant many things: the broadest definition of it included any attempt at inter-territorial communication for religious purposes.”
All of this was discouraged by the French. Instead, “the guiding aim was the ‘localization’ of Islam, based on the principal of ‘divide and rule.’”
Historian Mark LeVine confirms that as well:
“It is impossible to know how the map of Africa would have evolved without European colonialism to shape it. What is sure, however, is that the European ‘scramble for Africa’ that dominated the 19th century – and in which local rulers played a willing part whenever it served their interests – ensured that European powers would create the territorial foundation for modern nation-states whose borders bore little correspondence to the ethnic and religious geography of the continent.”
This is a far cry from the type of organization that was present under the Malian Empire, in which Islam was a central component of rule, with Mali then being a center of Islamic learning.
“Post”-Colonialism: French Military Operations in Mali
It isn’t hard to find Malians voicing concern for the continued presence of France in their country. Government forces, however, have called upon French military presence to combat rebel groups operating in the north of the country. The most recent instance of this was Operation Servel in 2013.
During Operation Servel, the French helped the Malian government regain territory in the northern part of the country, territory that had been lost to rebel groups (e.g. Ansar Dine, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) and to the Tuareg nationalist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), during the 2012 rebellion.
The longer France has stayed in Mali, the more confused the situation has become.
The year after Operation Servel, the French-led Operation Barkhane began, in cooperation with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (known as G5 Sahel). Its purpose was to maintain control of areas regained in Operation Servel as well as to continue to fight rebel forces. In short, this operation is supposed to provide stability to the Sahel region. But given the state of affairs there, it’s simply hard to make the claim that it has. In fact, the very groups the French had hoped to contain have spread to Niger as well.
In 2020, the Takuba force Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Nigerian President Mahamadou Issoufou requested the creation of what is the Takuba task force. It was meant, as the press release states, “to complement the current efforts made by operation Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.” The G5 Sahel Joint Force consists of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Chad and was established with the cooperation and support of the African Union, France, and the UN Security Council.
Not only does all this demonstrate the level of meddling that Europe in particular is involved with in the Sahel (a heavily Muslim area), it also shows how entrenched Europe remains in so-called “post-colonial” Africa. The leaders who asked for help surely understood this.
Culture of Corruption
The danger of Mali relying on France manifests in various ways. Not only does it threaten the lives of Malian civilians but it allows France to hold Mali by the neck in ways large and small.
According to an expose in Jeune Afrique, one of the most widely distributed publications in Francophone Africa, in 2013 Jean-Yves Le Drian (then the minister of defense, now the minister of foreign affairs) was able to make sure that Malian biometric passport production took place in France, in his home region of Brittany.
As one Malian government official recounted, Le Drian was insistent in getting the deal, even tacitly stating to Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK; president: September 2013—August 2020) that French soldiers would die alongside Malian ones. The article implies that IBK was put in a difficult position, and he eventually caved and did not renew the contract with the Canadian company that was working with Mali, creating some awkwardness with the Canadian ambassador.
I suppose one could call Le Drian’s tactics “business,” but this type of behavior is often simply called “extortion.” He is a representative of the French government dealing with a foreign government. Le Drian’s power in Francophone Africa, where he is described as being received as a head of state, is according to Jeune Afrique, basically infamous.
Just as with the US’s involvement with Afghanistan over the past 20 years, France’s goals in Mali have become greyer while both instability and hostilities between groups fighting on the ground grew. All of that created a perfect storm for the Malian government’s growing reliance on France.
But due to the most recent coup and the instability from that, France announced the end of Operation Barkhane. But they’re not just up and leaving. Last week, they restarted joint armed operations with Mali.
It should come as no surprise that civilian life has not been spared in this protracted war. Though as we saw in January, France is willing to deny the civilian casualties that have resulted from this war (the UN later confirmed France’s actions). Der Spiegel has pointed out:
“The government in Paris doesn’t like to talk about the civilian casualties of its war on terrorism. According to the French Defense Ministry, only seven civilians have been killed in direct attacks by French soldiers since 2013. However, reports from Mali indicate that the true death toll is many times higher. Investigations into these cases are difficult even for other nations stationed in Mali, such as Germany.”
Once again, we see the problems getting worse:
“There is evidence, though, that the French military is deliberately keeping its civilian casualties a secret. One internal Barkhane document viewed by Der Spiegel reveals that French soldiers shot and killed a man on a motorcycle in a village in central Mali who they mistakenly believed to be a suicide bomber. Rather than holding the soldiers accountable, France paid money to the bereaved. Malian anthropologist and government adviser Bréma Ely Dicko warns that a failure to come to terms with possible war crimes is driving recruits into the arms of the jihadists.”
While France and the Malian government hold their line about the dangers of militant groups, Der Spiegel asserts that in 2020, more civilians likely died at the hands of civilians than at the hands of armed militants in the Sahel.
Add to this that around half of Malians are poverty-stricken, and that the changing climate is severely affecting their livelihoods, particularly for herders and farmers in the north of the country, and you have a dire situation. One researcher on this issue noted:
“There seems to be a relationship between child recruitment and scarce rainfall in central Mali…Families send their children to armed groups as a form of income. When there is more rainfall, there is noticeably less recruitment into armed groups.“
Algiers Peace Accords
As a result of the Tuareg rebellion in the north, a peace agreement between the Malian government, pro-government armed groups, and a group of Tuareg and rebel groups (the Coordination of Azawad Movements) was brokered in 2015.
Former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s take on the Algiers Peace Accords (president during the time of the accords) gives a sense of why these problems persist. He said of them:
“From the start, everything was negotiable except sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the republican and secular form of Mali.”
In the same interview, he also stated in the same article that he would ban the niqab if he could. This is a country that is over 90% percent Muslim.
The maintenance of a secular Malian state was written into the first article of the peace accords.
Challenging What We Know
A lot or even most of what’s happening in Mali is probably no surprise. Along with it getting little attention in the English-speaking world, is what it demonstrates about secular governments like France’s. If we’re honest, colonial days are not over, and along with making sure French interests are number one, are concerns about what is being built.
Among one of the groups that fought for control during the 2012 rebellion was Ansar al-Dine, which took control of Timbuktu, once a bustling center of Islamic knowledge. They were designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the US in 2013. The following year, Al Jazeera released a three-part documentary that focused on the Tuareg and the 2012 rebellion. They had gone to Timbuktu in 2012 and reported about what they saw in part two of the documentary (26:00-44:00).
Here is what that FTO was doing in Timbuktu: Evidence of the group feeding and clothing the poor (timestamp 34:45-35:40; 40:55-41:30); getting rid of cigarettes and alcohol from the town (29:30-29:55); educating the population on principles of Islam (36:00-38:00).
In the same documentary, the Malian government’s involvement in drug smuggling is also described (20:35-21:15), alleged to be a means by which the Malian government could fund fighting the Tuareg rebellion. The Tuareg nationalist group the MNLA, though, were not interested in establishing an Islamic state as much as they wanted to create a state based on a national identity.
Mahmoud Dicko, an influential local imam, has provided some helpful points in regards to this. In an interview with Jeune Afrique, he said:
“For eight years French forces have been in Mali. And yet the noose continues to tighten around us, because Mali has not succeeded in adopting a consistent policy. We have let this conflict become the West against the armed groups while Malians bear the consequences. The people of the Sahel did not succeed in understanding that it was their crisis, their struggle, and that it is their task to search for grassroots solutions. It’s not France’s place to impose solutions.
“The United States spent twenty years in Afghanistan and are now obligated to sit and discuss with the Taliban. Why should Mali refuse to speak to its compatriots to find a solution? Must they place themselves in an endless war that sets the entire Sahel on fire? It’s important to keep in mind that the communities are already in the process of discussing with the jihadists, without the Malian state. The state must take part in this dialogue.”
When Macron announced that France would be ending Operation Barkhane, it is reported he explained that he could not “continue to send soldiers to their deaths if Sahel governments negotiated with the very people who killed them.”
Perhaps Mali and other Sahel countries should say that as well to France—perhaps they should say that they cannot continue to work with the very power that kills its own people and pillages their land of its resources. Saying this would require a backbone and a plan for how to lift their countries out of poverty. The status quo has only led to despair.
- Areva refuted the claims: https://www.aljazeera.com/videos/2014/1/23/uranium-mining-in-niger-areva-responds. ↑
- O’Brien, Donal Cruise. “Towards an ‘Islamic Policy’ in French West Africa, 1854-1914.” The Journal of African History 8, no. 2 (1967): 303-16. Accessed July 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/179485, p.309. ↑
- Ibid. ↑