In a stark assertion of France’s domination over its former colonies in West Africa, Socialist Party president François Hollande has launched a bombing campaign and intervention by some 2,000 ground troops in Mali. Billed as part of the global “war on terror,” the military assault was intended to force a retreat by Islamic fundamentalist forces that, having seized the northern half of the country, were threatening to march on the capital, Bamako. Hollande bluntly ordered: “Destroy them. Take them captive, if possible” (London Guardian, 15 January). His defense minister candidly declared that the aim of the Mali mission is “total reconquest.”
However, as battles continue to rage in and around key towns that had been seized by the fundamentalists, Hollande’s critics within the French ruling class are beginning to fret about sinking in a quagmire if left to go it alone. Meanwhile, the seizure of scores of hostages at a natural gas field in Algeria by Islamists declaring their solidarity with the Malian rebels—and the considerable loss of life when Algerian security retook the installation—may offer a sampling of future fallout from the occupation of Mali. After initially expressing concern over the intervention in Mali, the Algerian regime saluted the effort, crucially allowing the French military overflight rights.
While rulers of the major world powers rushed to express their solidarity with the French operation in Mali, they are also reticent about contributing forces and money. The UN Security Council voted unanimously last month to approve an African “peacekeeping” mission of some 3,300 troops, and some countries of the Economic Community of West African States already have hundreds of troops on site. But they have little expectation that these forces will be an effective gendarmerie. Meanwhile, Washington, after initially distancing itself from the French operation, has dispatched about 100 “trainers” to African countries that are providing troops. Last week, European Union foreign ministers agreed to send 450 “non-combat” troops to Mali, supposedly to train its armed forces.
The Obama administration, still smarting from having its Libyan ambassador killed by Islamist forces that had been armed and financed by the U.S. and its allies in the drive to topple Muammar el-Qaddafi, has ruled out sending its warplanes to Mali. The White House has also turned a deaf ear to requests that it provide air tankers to help refuel French jets, which France views as vital to its marauding given the vast distances it has to cover in crossing over North Africa. However, Washington has offered to provide limited logistical support to the French operation, as have Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Canada and Russia.
Among France’s multiple security interests in the region are the uranium mines in northern Niger, which have been operated for decades by the French Areva nuclear power conglomerate and its predecessors.
The U.S. has its own interests in Africa. A Congressional report last summer titled Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa emphasized “the increasing importance of Africa’s natural resources, particularly energy resources” and expressed “mounting concern over violent extremist activities.” The report cited, in particular, oil production in Nigeria—Africa’s largest oil exporter and the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S.—and the potential for deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Guinea.
Washington has paid out tens of millions of dollars to beef up the military in Mali and neighboring countries in order to prevent jihadists from getting a foothold in the region. Under Barack Obama, the Horn of Africa port of Djibouti, where more than 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed at Camp Lemonnier, has become the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone. Since 2007, the U.S. military has also set up a dozen small air bases in Africa, from which Special Ops forces launch surveillance flights. The U.S. military presence in Africa has grown steadily under Obama, with an average of 5,000 troops spread across the continent at any one time and 30 ships patrolling the Indian Ocean.
The armed rebellion in northern Mali was initially led by the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which has variously called for independence or autonomy for the Tuareg region of Mali. Distressed that the rebellion was gaining momentum, a group of officers seized power in a coup in Bamako last March, suspended the constitution and launched a campaign of terror against their political opponents. Within days, taking advantage of the chaos, the MNLA seized the whole of northern Mali in alliance with Islamic fundamentalist forces. The Islamists promptly turned on their MNLA allies and drove them from the population centers. Today, the marginalized MNLA warns of genocide if French air strikes allow the Malian army to “cross the demarcation line” separating northern Mali from the south. Nevertheless, the MNLA declares that it is “ready to help” the French intervention.
A particular target of the blood-soaked regime in Bamako has been the civilian Tuareg population. The Tuaregs, the dominant ethnic group in northern Mali, are a semi-nomadic people stretching across the Sahara who are ethnically distinct both from Arabs, who constitute the majority in the countries to the north of Mali, and the black Africans who inhabit southern Mali and control the national government and military. When the northern rebellion heated up a year ago, the military went on a killing spree, bombing the civilian population and arresting, torturing and killing Tuaregs for the “crime” of their ethnic origin. Not surprisingly, such atrocities spurred Tuaregs serving in the Malian army, including a number trained by U.S. Special Forces, to go over to the rebels.
Last February, mobs in Bamako attacked homes and businesses owned by Tuaregs and other ethnic groups there—including Arabs, many of whom also inhabit the north of the country—while security forces looked on. Last week, as the French military pushed north to confront Islamist forces in the town of Diabaly, Human Rights Watch reported that Malian soldiers in Niono, a town on the road to Diabaly, were again massacring Tuareg and Arab civilians.
The rebel offensive that broke out in northern Mali was an indirect consequence of the U.S. drive in 2011 to oust Qaddafi. Many Malian Tuaregs worked in Libya’s oil fields, as well as in Qaddafi’s armed forces, as a way to escape from conditions in northern Mali, which successive regimes have left bereft of schools, hospitals and paved roads—to say nothing of job opportunities. In the Sahel region south of the Sahara, almost a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition-related causes each year, according to Oxfam.
With the fall of Qaddafi—and the racist pogroms carried out by U.S.-supported rebels in Libya—those Malian Tuaregs returned home, bringing with them their military know-how and, in some cases, heavy weapons. Many of the arms for the northern Malian rebels have been funneled in by reactionary Islamists who were part of the U.S.-supported anti-Qaddafi forces.
The French onslaught will no doubt deepen the already intense interethnic tensions in the region. These were highlighted in an article in the London Guardian (6 July 2012) by its West Africa correspondent, Afua Hirsch. Reporting from a Tuareg refugee camp in Burkina Faso, she wrote that the black NGO staff were refusing to work with the lighter-skinned Tuaregs because they “felt aggrieved by the reputation of the Tuaregs for enslaving black Africans.” She noted that this history “still plays itself out in the Tuareg caste system—where ‘Bella,’ dark-skinned members of the tribe who were once slaves, still occupy the lowest positions.” In return, many Malian Tuaregs claim that they have fled their country not only because of atrocities carried out by the army but because Bella militias “are also targeting anyone with light skin.”
That interethnic tensions and racial discrimination in the region remain so poisonous today is a legacy of French colonialism, which reinforced these and other reactionary aspects of the societies they conquered. After subduing the Tuareg region of what was then called French Sudan in the late 19th century, the colonialists set up a racially discriminatory system that pitted Tuaregs and black Africans against each other. Implementing a policy of divide and rule, the French government encouraged the Tuaregs’ traditional supremacy over black Africans. Though the French colonialists largely ended the slave trade in the first decades of colonial occupation, they helped to ensure that black slaves remained subject to their Tuareg masters long afterward. Their system of forced labor and compulsory military service was based on racial criteria, with an exemption for the Tuareg elite.
The French also played the Tuaregs off against black Africans—and Algerian nationalists—through their drawing of territorial boundaries. In the 1950s, after it was discovered that the Saharan region was rich in mineral resources, they floated the idea of creating a new French-controlled colony, dominated by Tuaregs and Arabs, and limiting the soon-to-be independent Mali to the overwhelmingly black south. France dropped that proposal, and independent Mali was formed as a powder keg of ethnic tensions between Tuaregs and black Africans, who led the first post-colonial government. Those tensions led directly to the first Tuareg rebellion in 1963 and its brutal repression by the Malian army.
The current disaster in Mali is the product of a long history of French colonial and neocolonial oppression. French imperialists plundered the country during decades of colonial occupation, marked by the systematic practice of forced labor (only officially abolished in 1946). They then arbitrarily drew the borders of an “independent” Malian state, which only had the bare trappings of sovereignty. The currency, the CFA franc, is directly managed by the Banque de France, which controls its exchange rate as well as deposits. The French military intervention takes place in what France considers its exclusive preserve. Its purpose is to maintain French domination in the entire region—and especially to protect the profits of the Areva company, which exploits enormous uranium deposits in neighboring Niger.
The situation in northern Mali today is a direct result of both the oppression of the Tuareg population by the central Malian state and the imperialist intervention in Libya in 2011, which François Hollande and [social democrat] Jean-Luc Mélenchon supported. Not only did this military intervention bring various rival Islamist militias to power in Libya, institutionalizing sharia against women, but it also enabled reactionary Islamist groups throughout the region to get arms. When it suits French interests, as in Libya and Syria, Paris promotes the Islamists. But elsewhere, as in Afghanistan and now Mali, they are massacred. This in itself shows the boundless cynicism of the Hollande government and its interior minister Valls when they brandish “Islamic terrorism”—a code word for launching racist police operations in France against a population considered suspect because they are Muslims, in particular workers of North African or West African origin and their families.
Algeria now rightly sees the French intervention directly on its borders as a threat, a first since it gained independence in 1962 after seven years of war. This casts a harsh light on Hollande’s “confession” speech [admitting that the French had committed atrocities during the Algerian War] when he traveled to Algeria just a few weeks ago. Meanwhile the war minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian of the Socialist Party, had just honored the memory of General Bigeard, the French general who came to symbolize torture during the Algerian War.
For the last 30 years, Mali has been used mainly as a pool providing ruthlessly exploited labor in France. Thousands of Malian workers in France today are undocumented, even after years of living and working here. Many youth of Malian origin participated in the 2005 revolt of the ghetto neighborhoods and in protests against murderous racist police terror in the town of Villiers-le-Bel.