People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

March 03, 2013






Mali: Return of the Colonial Power


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE French military invasion of their former West African colony, Mali, which began on January 11, seems to be already taking the shape of a long drawn out occupation. The French forces, flown in from the neighbouring Chad, were greeted enthusiastically when they first 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 Tuareg and Arabs, had made the black majority in the South fearful.


But the French invasion force started facing resistance in the North in February. The rag tag Islamist forces have launched counterattacks in northern cities like Gao, claiming the life of a French soldier and many Chadian soldiers. A French family was kidnapped in the neighbouring Cameroon by Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group. The repercussions of the French invasion of Mali are already being felt all over the region. 




France, which likes to pose as the “gendarme” of the continent, already has military bases in five African countries, with 5,000 troops permanently stationed on the continent. Since the decolonisation process started in the continent, France has intervened on numerous occasions to either protect puppet regimes or forestall revolutionary takeovers. In Mali, the West African regional grouping ECOWAS was mandated by the UN Security Council 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 without consulting the African Union (AU), France decided to pre-emptively take military action. The cash strapped nations of the ECOWAS duly fell in line and have sent a token force to Mali. The UN Security Council has mandated the deployment of a 3,300 strong ECOWAS peacekeeping force in the country.  


French president, Francois Hollande, cited an imminent threat to French national security while ordering the deployment of the country’s air force and the 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,” the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pronounced soon after his forces went into action. The US, UK and other NATO allies have agreed to provide logistical and surveillance help to the French military. “We have made commitment that Al Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide,” the US defence secretary Leon Panetta said.


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” was the key issue. Mali was basically in the throes of a civil war, with competing ethnic groups pitted against one another. US officials, in earlier testimonies to the Congress, had said that those involved in the fighting in Mali did not have the capability of striking outside West and North Africa.


Long standing grievances, including that of the historic discrimination against the Tuaregs, had motivated the rebels to launch their attacks on the central government. But the West seeks to paint the Mali operation as part of its ongoing global “war on terror.” According to reports in the western media, the number of fighters aligned to Al Qaeda and Tuareg separatists were less than 2000. It was therefore no surprise that the French forces managed to advance rapidly and recapture the towns of Diabaly and Doutenza near the Malian capital, Bamako; these towns were captured by the rebels late last year. In case of the important northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, the rebels have either left them 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 redoubt along the country’s border with Algeria. Large stretches of the 250,000 square mile northern sector of Mali comprises an unpopulated desert where the nomadic Tuareg population has been ruling the roost for centuries.  




The latest upheaval in Mali was sparked off by the NATO led war in Libya. As the then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, had had illusions of being a pan-African leader, he had a particular 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 Gaddafi in the war the NATO had imposed on Libya.


After the war was over, most of the battle hardened Tuareg fighters, unwanted in Libya, returned back to Mali --- armed with sophisticated weapons. Taking advantage of the chaos that had spilled over from the neighbouring 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 Azzawad. 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, comprising two-thirds of the country’s territory, was initially spearheaded by the secular Tuareg led National Movement for the Liberation of Azzawad (MNLA), headed by Col Mohammed al Najim. It is another matter that, soon after, their cause was hijacked by radical Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). The force which is doing most of the fighting these days is said to be the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) comprising mainly Algerians who fled from their country in the nineties. 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, have accused the oil rich Gulf state, Qatar, of supporting the 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 “madrasas” in the North besides opening its purse strings to all the rebel groups there. France, however, has no qualms about the Qatari and Saudi money and the aid going to the Islamists in Syria. In fact, France is helping the Salafist and Al Qaeda linked groups there to fight the secular government in Damascus.


However, according to most observers of the region, the Islamists in Mali did not 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 in order to prevent the country from falling into the hands of Islamists allied to the 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 had got compounded after an American trained Malian military officer; Captain 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 in the North inflicted more debilitating defeats on the Malian military after they carried out their coup d’état. There are credible reports about atrocities that were committed by the Malian army against Tuaregs and other groups from the North. These acts significantly contributed to the ongoing conflict. Amnesty International has reported that the Malian army targeted the Tuaregs for torture and killing by “apparently only on ethnic grounds.” Iyad al 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 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.


At the time of the French invasion, the Malian military was still calling the shots. Western military intervention can 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 many black Malians too have cast their lot with the Islamists. France’s leading anti-terrorism judge, Marc Trevedic, went to the extent of saying that there was a “black jihad” for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa. In Northern Nigeria, the Boko Haram has been gaining in strength, staging suicide attacks and targeting state institutions.


Many Africa watchers are of the view that the main motivation for France’s latest neo-colonial intervention is the bountiful natural resources that remain to be exploited in northern Mali. The area is said to be very rich in gold and uranium deposits, besides being the repository of unexploited hydrocarbon resources. China, which has outpaced the West in the African continent insofar as investments and aid is concerned, has reasons to be worried. The recent military intervention by former colonial masters signals, according to many observers, a new “scramble for Africa.” In Libya, western companies have been cornering most of the lucrative contracts in the oil sector. The Bush administration had set up AFRICOM to get a military stranglehold over the continent. The American military is already training soldiers from ECOWAS and other AU member states for deployment in strife torn areas like Somalia and Mali. AFRICOM’s director of public affairs said that the US army today conducts “some type of military training or military to military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent.” The Obama administration is planning to permanently station 3000 American troops on the continent.