France’s War in Mali

Neo-imperialist Grab Dressed up in “War on Terror” Rhetoric

France’s intervention in Mali is simply this: a neo-imperialist power grab dressed up in “war on terror” rhetoric.

Since the old colonial power began bombing the West African country on 11 January, the Paris government has wrapped its actions up with chivalrous language of saving the region, Europe and indeed the world from “Islamic extremism”. France, we are led to believe, was “forced to act” on behalf of the beleaguered Francophile regime in Mali’s southern capital, Bamako, to save it from falling into the hands of “Islamists” allegedly “linked to Al Qaeda”.

But closer examination of background events shows that France sabotaged low-key attempts that were under way to find a political solution in Mali between the French-backed regime in Bamako and the northern separatist rebels. These talks and a ceasefire had opened only weeks before the French military intervention. The collapse of those negotiations paved the way for France to militarize the country – a step that now runs the risk of plunging the impoverished West African territory into years of internecine war. The cynical agenda is to create another failed state that will be more tightly under the political control of France, giving the French government a pretext to return to its former colony and the wider Francophone region.

Earlier this week, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian let the cat out of the bag when he said that the aim was the “total re-conquest” of Mali.

Also, President Francois Hollande, in reply to questions about France’s role in Mali, played the “terror card.” He said, “I am often asked, ‘how long will this take?’ I answer, because it is the sole truth I know, ‘as long as necessary; the necessary time to defeat terrorism in that part of Africa.’”
Yet only days before this, the French were saying that their military operations would be over “in a matter of weeks.” Now, it seems, France is carving out a long-term role for itself in Mali. “We will leave no pockets of resistance,” says Le Drian. That sounds like a self-styled mandate for permanent presence.

This is a re-run of the American-led intervention in Afghanistan, where the “threat of Islamic extremism” has provided the moral, political and legal cover for NATO military occupation. That occupation is nothing but a criminal enterprise to give Western powers a foothold in the geo-strategic region of Central Asia. Likewise, the same agenda applies in West Africa. The Western puppet regime of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul is playing the same role as President Dioncounda Traore in Bamako. It is giving the Western powers, in this case France, a seeming mandate to wage war in a sovereign country, a war that would otherwise and rightly be seen as an imperialist act of aggression and illegal occupation. Note, that the other West African states are also backing France’s military involvement in Mali. But given their status as French client states, whose elite rulers are dependent on French patronage, their endorsement is more a sign of self-preservation than genuine concern for the people of Mali.

In Mali, the French have the advantage to take the lead over Western “partners,” more accurately, “rivals.” Decades of political, linguistic and covert military assets give the French the edge over Washington and London. While the latter two have expressed verbal support for France in its Mali operations, there is also a discernable sense that both the US and Britain are struggling to play catch-up. The Americans in particular are feeling that a decade of investment in covert operations in Mali has left them standing still, as the French steal a march in asserting control over the resource-rich and strategically placed Sahel country. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, with a touch of chagrin, earlier this week said that Britain must shift its global focus to the West African region, while the Americans are holding back on financial and military assistance to the French. It’s not that these powers have a fundamental qualm with the French intervention – more a misgiving that the French may beat them to the spoils.

Mali is reckoned to have vast untapped reserves of oil and gas and proven abundance of metals, minerals and ores – gold and uranium in particular. Four French hostages, believed held in remote northern Mali by unknown militants, are employees of the French nuclear company, Areva. That gives an idea of the natural riches of the country that are coveted by France and other Western states.

What France has done with its dramatic offensive in Mali is to militarize the complex internal political problems of that country. Instead of allowing an internal political solution to evolve, the French bombardment and now ground-troop operations in northern and central Mali are aimed at thwarting any dialogue among Malian factions by plunging the country into violence. France has forbidden independent media coverage of the situation in central and northern Mali and has denied access to human rights monitors. But there are, nonetheless, reports of civilian deaths from the French air strikes and of their Malian army client engaging in extrajudicial killings. This will inevitably lead to reprisals and a spiral of violence, and, in that cynical way, give France retrospective cover of “fighting terrorism”.

Let’s take a step back. A glance at the map shows that the weirdly angular borders of Mali, post independence from France in 1960, is a crude colonial construct imposed on a region that had cultural and political traditions going back centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. The Tuareg nomadic tribes of what became northern Mali have long-held and justifiable grievances with the French-imposed borders that cut off ancestral heritage in neighboring former French colonies Mauritania, Niger and Algeria and beyond. The decades-long Tuareg separatist struggle to create Azawad has therefore just precedent.

The French-bequeathed administration in Bamako has long been seen as an alien entity, ruling by “remote control,” and illegitimate in the eyes of the northern tribes. Much of the Western media depiction of northern Mali maligns these people as “Islamist extremists.” Many of the Tuaregs are secular and many subscribe to the Islam faith. One of the Tuareg rebel groups, Ansar Dine, is more outwardly Islamic in its tenets and aims. But that doesn’t make them “Islamic extremists.”

That depiction is more a self-serving Western political and media agenda to discredit and demonize what is a genuine political movement among the northern Malian people for regional autonomy from the despised Francophile regime in Bamako. Another militant group based in the northern territory is the relatively new Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The MUJWA is claimed by Western governments and think-tanks to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the group that claimed responsibility for the deadly hostage siege in Algeria last week. That may be so.

However, it is way too simplistic to conflate these groups under the umbrella of “Islamic terrorists” – as the Western governments have done ever since the northern militants rebelled against the Bamako regime last April and declared the autonomous northern state of Azawad. Since its military intervention, the French government has amplified that distorting Western depiction of Mali.

Speaking last weekend at a security summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “By intervening in Mali, France has assumed its international responsibility and fulfilled its international obligations. Key interests were at stake for us [sic], for Africa, for Europe and for the entire international community, so we had to act quickly because of the emergency situation.”

Scarcely reported in the Western media was that the day before the French began bombing central and northern Mali on 11 January, peace negotiations between the Bamako government and rebels were scheduled to resume in neighboring Burkina Faso. Those talks were initially convened during the first week of December, facilitated by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore. It was a significant initiative; the first time that the parties had held joint talks since the northern rebels declared autonomy during the previous eight months.

Present at the early December negotiations in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, were representatives of the government in Bamako and members of the Tuareg Movement of National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist grouping Ansar Dine. The more radical MUJWA was not invited. According to Reuters, the initial meeting resulted in a ceasefire and a pledge to work out a political solution to the manifold grievances of the rebels. The MNLA had conceded on revoking its claims for a separate independent state, agreeing to some sort of federated autonomy within Mali’s existing territorial boundaries. For its part, the Ansar Dine said it would only seek to establish Sharia in those northern areas were its people held sway.

But two developments in the following weeks of December put paid to those talks. First, the French government began pushing even harder at the United Nations for the deployment of a military mission in Mali under the remit of the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS. The ECOWAS states, as noted, are largely French dominated. On the 20 December 2012, the UN Security Council voted for a French-backed resolution that gave the green light of the ECOWAS force to go into Mali “to restore order.”

Secondly, in Mali itself there is evidence that the French-backed Malian army covertly broke the ceasefire, agreed earlier in Burkina Faso, and was continuing to carry out attacks on Tuaregs in the volatile central frontier area.

British newspaper, The Observer, reported on 20 January, “Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that in September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the Malian military in Diabaly. Some commentators in Mali speculate that the occupation of Diabaly by Islamist fighters – whom French and Malian soldiers said they had defeated on Friday [18 January] – was sparked by vengeance for the actions of the Malian army there.”

It seems that this climate of covert violence by the Malian army led to the deterioration in parallel political talks during December between the Bamako government and the rebels. On 4 January, a week before the French intervention, one of the rebel groups was quoted by Reuters, “Ansar Dine has no choice but to suspend its offer to cease hostilities, which was hard-won by the mediators but mocked by the Malians [Bamako]. Ansar Dine has not seen any sincere desire on the part of the Malian government for peace.” The group statement went on, “On the contrary, while our delegations were in [Burkina Faso’s capital] Ouagadougou to open talks, the Malian government was living by war and invective.”

With the ongoing provocations from the Malian army – which has strong association with French as well as American Special Forces – it is conceivable that the rebels took defensive measures by moving on the central town of Konna on the 9-10 January.

Perhaps tellingly, the Malian army quickly then withdrew from Konna without a fight, leaving behind heavy armory and weapons. On 10 January, the Bamako regime then put out its distress call to France for assistance. According to broadcaster France 24, French UN Ambassador Gerard Araud confirmed receipt of a request from the Malian government for military assistance and said the “nature of the response to the letter will be announced in Paris tomorrow [Friday, 11 January].”

The “nature of the response” from the French government did not come in a letter, but in the form of Mirage and Rafale fighter bombers that were able to mount air strikes on at least six locations across northern and central Mali – less than 24 hours after Bamako put out its “distress call.”

Moreover, according to Reuters, there were reports that two cargo planes, carrying four helicopters and French troops, had landed in the central town of Sevare on Thursday, 10 January, the same day that nearby Konna supposedly “fell to the Islamists.”

By now, though, the hopes for a political solution in Mali had been scuppered. Reuters reported, “Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister and regional mediator in the crisis, on Thursday called on the parties to respect a ceasefire deal agreed on December 4 and said the fighting posed a threat to talks.” The Burkina Faso minister was quoted as saying, “The climate of confidence has been greatly degraded, and I am very worried that these talks will not bear fruit.”

The conclusion is clear, France needed a pretext to go into Mali for several self-serving geopolitical reasons, including asserting political control over its client regime in Bamako with all the strategic resource advantages that that control entails. To achieve this, the French needed to militarise the political situation in Mali by sabotaging ongoing negotiations between the conflicting internal parties and to brand the country as an international security threat from “Islamic extremists.”

The truth, however, is that France is embarking on just another colonial war in Africa, the kind that it has specialized in for more than a century, much to the ruination of African societies, living conditions, economies and cultures. Only this time around, the French have acquired a new pretext for the 21st century. Instead of the “white man’s burden” as invoked during the former colonial Scramble for Africa, those chivalrous French are now “keeping the Africans and the world safe from terrorism.” And ironically, instead of being condemned worldwide for their criminal predation, the French are now asking the rest of the world to pay for their African imperialism.

Finian Cunningham has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Read other articles by Finian.