The Guardian’s Comment Is Free page asks today whether its contributors agree with the French army coming in to help the Malian Army (more precisely: what’s left of it) to prevent the Islamist extremist invaders from moving into Central Mali.

Do you support France’s military intervention in Mali, was the question. Depressingly, the debate descended into familiar territory: Islam bashers who make no distinction between Muslims in general (most of whom have no truck with the rabid variety of their faith that has taken hold of Northern Mali) and the West bashers who see that declining part of the world as the Root Of All Evil. 

Since things appear to be moving a lot faster than previously thought, let me make just a few points…

First off: I admit to an element of sentimentality here. I have been to Mali a number of times, have held numerous interviews with some of its most prominent musicians and not even that long ago declared Bamako the musical capital of the world. That said, there are other considerations.

The current catastrophe taking place in Northern Mali is both old and new. First element: the Tamasheq (or Tuaregs). They have staged uprisings for almost one hundred years, first against French colonisers, then against successive Malian governments. The Tamasheq resent their marginalisation, the cutting up by artificial borders of the lands where they used to roam freely and they surely don’t want anyone interfering with their various businesses, which also include all manner of smuggling rackets.

Add to this the very recent fallout from the death of Libyan leader colonel Ghadaffi, in which France and the USA played a major role. Interestingly, that fallout did NOT manifest itself in Libya’s immediate neighbour Niger; somehow the many Tamasheq officers and soldiers in Ghadaffi’s army made it across either Niger or Algeria into Northern Mali were they staged their rebellion, in January 2012. Prime mover, at first: MNLA the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or North Mali).

There is a lot of speculation about the riches underneath Malian soil that apparently informs France’s belated involvement. I would say that France’s involvement in Mali is late precisely because there is, as yet, not a great deal to be hauled from under the sand and the rocks. Contrast this with Niger, which exports huge quantities of uranium to France from its, mainly French-owned, mines. Lights out in homes across France is a far more compelling reason to get involved than a few disgruntled folks in another country.

But that equation has changed dramatically, thanks to the arrival of Islamist extremists. There are three groups. Ançar Dine is one of them and the only Tamasheq group among these extremists. It is run by a veteran opportunist, Iyad ag Ghali, who led another Tamasheq rebellion, in the 1990s. Ançar Dine is related, by family ties, to the secular rebellion of the MNLA. When their chef feels there’s more to be had from an alliance with either the Malian state or anyone else, he’ll change tack. But for now, he sticks with the extremists, as witnessed by Ançar Dine’s criminal complicity in the destruction of Timbuktu.



The other groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) are foreign-backed, foreign-financed foreign invaders. Some are remnants from the Armed Islamic Group that took part in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s; others come from even further afield. They are financed by Middle East oil money and claim to support Salafism, an incurably backward interpretation of the Koran, utterly alien to the much more cosmopolitan West African version of the faith. They are ultraviolent, intolerant and dangerous – and they need to be stopped. That is the other clash at the heart of the problem.

Third element, the vacuum at the heart of political power in Mali’s capital. Ever since an overambitious army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, staged his coup in March 2012 Mali’s political legitimacy has ceased to exist. The army has collapsed and the mostly foreign takeover of the North (an event Sanogo claimed his actions were supposed to prevent) has become fait accompli. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

A lot of criticism can be levelled at deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), while he was being lionized as a paragon for democracy and, er, development. The praise-singing sent me to sleep too…

There was widespread corruption, ATT was being soft on the invaders, allowing drug rackets to flourish – and indeed: he was accused of wanting to engineer an illegal third term. But the place where you settle these things is at the ballot box. An intelligent intervention in the North (and this emphatically means keeping the US military out of this) also depends on the green light coming from a legitimate government in Bamako, which currently does not exist.

So here’s the conundrum. The world will, for now, have to make do with whatever Sanogo decides. In spite of claims to the contrary he still is very much in charge of political events in Bamako; he clearly has political ambitions of his own and his continued presence does not help matters one bit. But the North cannot wait until Bamako has sorted out its political mess; the risk of having a foreign-run statelet run by fanatical terrorists as a fixed presence in the heart of the Sahara is much too great a threat – to West Africa, or indeed further afield.

Mali’s army cannot do the job. It needs help, preferably from its neighbours. There is a little bit of that but clearly not enough. So, what’s left? French intervention, I’m afraid, with all the historical connotations that entails but the North, its many people (Arab, Songhai, Peul, Tamasheq et cetera), its cultures, its long-standing traditions of tolerance, its music – in short: its way of life need to be rescued from the hands, the pickaxes, the guns and the closed minds of these barbarians.

So, do I support the French action in Mali? Reluctantly: yes.

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One Response to “Mali”

  1. Roel Burgler Says:

    clear, informed and balanced.

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